SMART4FUTURE: bridging academia and entrepreneurship




In this interview, we explore the project activities spearheaded by Maja Brkljačić, Head of the research institute Algebra LAB at Algebra University in Zagreb, within the SMART4FUTURE project. From its initiation to its current impact, Maja provides valuable insights into how SMART4FUTURE effectively bridges the gap between academia and entrepreneurship.

Could you please introduce yourself and describe your role in SMART4FUTURE?

I am the Head of the research institute Algebra LAB at Algebra University in Zagreb. My academic journey took me from undergraduate studies in Zagreb to doctoral studies in Budapest, Berlin and New York. I’ve held positions as a researcher at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, a project coordinator at Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität in Münster, and a university lecturer at Northwestern University in Chicago. Throughout my career, I’ve been passionate about bridging the gap between academia and the practical world. This is why working on SMART4FUTURE is very meaningful to me. In this project, I work as the main project coordinator, focusing on strategic planning, resource management, and fostering collaboration to ensure the success of all project activities.

For those unfamiliar with SMART4FUTURE, what is the project about?

SMART4FUTURE is an exciting initiative aimed at transforming higher education institutions into innovation and entrepreneurship sandboxes. At its core, SMART4FUTURE inspires students, academic and non-academic staff to leverage smart technologies and entrepreneurial thinking. We believe that advanced technologies, often referred to as deep tech, have the potential to create vibrant innovation ecosystems and empower individuals to turn ideas into impactful ventures. To achieve this, we’ve developed educational materials and trained hundreds of participants on how to nurture entrepreneurial talent and use technologies such as artificial intelligence, data science, and the Internet of Things. Our target groups include students, academic and non-academic staff, as well as external entities like start-ups, scale-ups and governmental organizations. Through SMART4FUTURE, we’re not only shaping the future of education but also building a community of innovators poised to change the world.

How did the idea for this project originate?

The idea for SMART4FUTURE stemmed from the realization that higher education is evolving, with technology and entrepreneurship playing increasingly significant roles. It emerged from a collaboration between academic institutions, business accelerators, and industry experts who recognized the importance of equipping individuals with the skills and mindset needed to thrive in today’s digital landscape. Our vision is to empower people to transcend traditional sectoral boundaries, leverage technological advancements, and become catalysts for positive change in their communities and beyond.

What was the support and added value of the EIT HEI Initiative for this project?

The SMART4FUTURE project greatly benefited from the support and added value provided by the EIT HEI Initiative. This collaboration facilitated invaluable networking opportunities, allowing us to connect with a wide range of higher education institutions, industry partners, and innovation centres across Europe. Additionally, the financial support and resources offered by the EIT HEI Initiative were crucial for implementing our project activities, contributing to their sustainability, scalability and increased visibility within the European innovation ecosystem.

What are some of SMART4FUTURE’s major achievements to date?

SMART4FUTURE has achieved several significant milestones. We’ve collaborated with HEIs and business accelerators to develop three e-learning programs covering essential topics for thriving in today’s digital landscape. These programs equip participants with practical skills and a forward-thinking mindset critical for entrepreneurship and innovation. We’ve also delivered engaging training programmes tailored to entrepreneurship, innovation and resilience building. Initiatives like bootcamps and hackathons have provided platforms for participants to pitch ideas, network with experts, and explore collaboration opportunities.

Could you describe the start-up support schemes and local entrepreneurship initiatives you’ve developed?

As part of SMART4FUTURE, we’ve implemented a comprehensive set of initiatives to support start-ups in partner institutions and their local ecosystems. These initiatives include online learning platforms, workshops, idea labs, bootcamps, seed accelerators, networking events and hackathons. Each initiative aims to provide accessible resources, hands-on training, mentorship and networking opportunities to accelerate the development and success of entrepreneurial ventures.

View more photos from the SMART4FUTURE project.

What were the biggest challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

During the project, one significant challenge was coordinating the design and development of self-study materials for our training programs. This involved careful planning, clear task assignments and close collaboration between all partners. Despite its complexity, we managed to synchronize our activities and ensure progress according to our project timeline.

Additionally, unexpected challenges arose, such as the withdrawal of one consortium partner, the Medical University of Lublin, during Phase 2 of the project. They faced difficulties keeping up with the project’s pace and lacked internal resources. In response, the consortium swiftly redistributed tasks and committed to implementing the key performance indicators set by the withdrawing partner.

Integrating a new partner, the National University of ‘Kyiv-Mohyla Academy’ from Ukraine, also presented challenges. These included establishing effective communication channels and coordination mechanisms, navigating intellectual property and data sharing agreements, and adapting to established processes and systems. However, through joint efforts and commitment, we successfully integrated the new partner seamlessly and without interruption.

As higher education institutions, our main focus is on nurturing talent and entrepreneurial mindsets, which presents ongoing challenges. Each institution must not only provide quality education but also support the creation and growth of startups to facilitate market entry and success. To address this challenge, our consortium has adopted a collaborative approach, including self-study programs, mentoring, networking opportunities, and access to funding and resources. By empowering young entrepreneurs through these initiatives, we aim to increase their chances of success and contribute to the economic growth and innovation landscape of our regions.

Have you organized any events thus far?

As part of SMART4FUTURE, our partner HEIs have organized several bootcamps to promote innovation and entrepreneurship. These intensive educational events feature structured programs consisting of training, workshops and networking opportunities. Each bootcamp focuses on fostering innovation and entrepreneurial thinking, offering participants a platform to collaborate, share insights and develop innovative solutions across various fields.

What are the next steps for SMART4FUTURE?

Looking ahead, SMART4FUTURE has exciting plans to advance its mission and impact on the innovation and entrepreneurial landscape. Our next steps include several key initiatives. Firstly, we will focus on refining and promoting our e-learning programs, including the Lean Start-up, Lead for Smart Change, and How to Fail Successfully programs. These initiatives will evolve based on participant feedback and emerging trends in the entrepreneurial space. Collaboration is central to our approach, and we will deepen partnerships with industry stakeholders, academic institutions, and other key players to foster a vibrant innovation ecosystem.

By organizing joint events, workshops, and networking sessions, we aim to foster meaningful connections and drive impactful collaborations.

To ensure the effectiveness of our efforts, we will implement robust monitoring and evaluation measures, tracking key performance indicators, evaluating participant outcomes, and continuously improving our strategies based on lessons learned.

Sharing our success stories and lessons learned is critical, and we will continue to use various dissemination channels, from conferences to online platforms, to amplify our impact and inspire a wider audience for innovation and entrepreneurship. By remaining agile, collaborative, and results-oriented, we hope to make significant progress towards our shared vision of a smart future.

Visit the SMART4FUTURE website to learn more about the project’s activities.

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

Published on: 29 April 2024