Pioneering innovation in raw materials in the Balkans

Interview with Dr Suzana Gotovac Atlagić, DeepGreenInno project

In the ever-evolving landscape of education and research, Dr Suzana Gotovac Atlagić has emerged as a catalyst for profound change. As the coordinator of the newly funded DeepGreenInno project, Dr Atlagić is on a mission to promote innovation, sustainability and knowledge exchange in her home country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as across the Balkans. In this illuminating interview, she shares valuable insights into her motivations, the project’s objectives and the crucial role of deep tech in shaping her country’s future.

Could you introduce yourself and tell us about your involvement with the EIT HEI Initiative?

I am an associate professor at the University of Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I am also the coordinator of DeepGreenInno, a project in Cohort 3 of the EIT HEI initiative. My specialisation is in nanotechnologies, and I have accumulated approximately 24 years of professional experience. During this time, I spent nearly six years in Japan, where I pursued a master’s degree at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo and earned a PhD from Chiba University. Additionally, for three years I worked as a teaching assistant of the esteemed Prof Fritz Stockli at the Institute of Chemistry, University of Neuchatel, Switzerland.

All these extensive experiences proved invaluable when I returned to my homeland. Initially, I served as the lead chemical analyst at the Water and Wastewater Laboratory of the National Public Health Institute of Banja Luka, dedicating eight years to transforming it into a fully sustainable, accredited laboratory. I introduced various modern instrumental analyses to our daily operations and engaged with Bosnian industry stakeholders to address their environmental challenges. I often directed their attention towards green technologies, including nanomaterials like filters and catalysts for water treatments. Since 2015, I have been working as a teacher at the University of Banja Luka. My ultimate satisfaction comes from sharing the advanced knowledge I acquired abroad with my country, where it is more needed, while also fostering cultural and educational connections with my former colleagues worldwide.

What motivated you to apply for the EIT HEI Initiative call for proposals?

My motivation to apply for the EIT HEI Initiative stemmed from its clear focus on boosting the capacity of universities in innovation and clean technologies. The 2022 call for proposals, which placed a special emphasis on deep tech, particularly intrigued me. Deep tech is an exciting field that deserves inclusion in student curricula alongside small-scale entrepreneurship. There is potential for deep tech investment in my country, since Bosnia and Herzegovina is rich in mineral deposits – vital raw materials for nanotechnologies. However, the transition from merely mining these minerals to producing high-value products demands substantial investments.

Could you explain briefly what DeepGreenInno’s aims are?

The goals of DeepGreenInno align with the call for proposals. Our primary objective is to promote innovation and entrepreneurship among exceptional students, with a particular focus on deep tech. More specifically, we concentrate on technologies that can be implemented in the Balkans to enhance the value of products coming from this region while prioritising environmental sustainability. For instance, my team collaborates with various Bosnian mines, including iron, zinc, bauxite and pyrophyllite mines. We utilise not only their primary resources but also the waste sludge (tailings) as raw materials for innovative experiments in synthesising nanomaterials. While scaling up these ideas necessitates significant investments, mining companies closely monitor our progress, providing encouragement and engaging with us in EIT-related projects. Notably, the majority of our partners are environmentally conscious and are committed to reducing waste through these potential innovations while simultaneously creating more job opportunities for the younger generation.

Our aim is to share this knowledge in industry communication and collaboration with our four higher education institution (HEI) project partners: Polis University, University of Ruse; University ‘Union – Nikola Tesla’, Serbia; and International University of Sarajevo. Two educator partners were carefully selected, Innovation Greece and Innovation Centre Banja Luka. These highly successful non-governmental organisations have created hundreds of jobs through entrepreneurial education. We have also assembled a strong team from CNR Italy, bringing their experience in scaling up green chemistry concepts from laboratory settings to industry.

Why is deep tech important for your university and your country?

Achieving precise control over the production of nanomaterials necessitates a high degree of process control. Frequently, we encounter aggressive chemical conditions, and fine-tuning concentrations and conditions is critical to avoid unintended reactions. Consequently, substantial investments in fine sensors and process control equipment are imperative for full process control. These include pH sensors, ion-selective electrodes, gas sensors, fine-tuned microwave generators and similar equipment. It is essential for our students to grasp these complexities and believe that, with thorough research and results, their ideas can attract significant investments in these complex technologies for the benefit of their countries. This holds especially true for the Balkans, a region rich in natural resources. Moreover, we aim to show them our examples of work with large industries, which has led to patents or patent applications– a great way for scientists to gain recognition and maintain their relevance in the industry in the long run.

What are your expectations from the project implementation and from your collaboration with your partners?

Our expectations are to educate as many young people as possible in material sciences related to deep tech. Furthermore, we aspire to provide support to university staff who will assist students in transforming their scientific ideas into reality within an industrial context. Equally important is our desire to strengthen relations with our project partners, fostering active, long-term collaboration and knowledge exchange.

What would you say to other European institutions interested in applying for funding from the EIT HEI Initiative?

I wholeheartedly recommend applying for funding from the EIT HEI Initiative. During the proposal preparation phase, we received robust support from EIT HEI Initiative staff. Now, as we navigate the implementation phase, project officers continue to provide extensive technical and moral support. Additionally, the financial aspect is highly optimised, allowing for young researchers in the team to take part in networking activities. For the higher education institutions involved, part of the budget is allocated to enhance their laboratory capabilities to carry on innovative research, which is always much appreciated.

Learn more about the DeepGreenInno project.

Share your experience with the EIT HEI Initiative and inspire higher education institutions across Europe to boost their innovation and entrepreneurship capacity.

Publication: 25 September 2023