VIADUCT: fostering spin-offs through inter-regional collaboration and innovation

Interview with Cristina Ruiz García, VIADUCT project

In this interview, we delve into the experiences of Cristina Ruiz García from the University of Zaragoza, exploring the journey from the EIT HEI Initiative to a subsequent funding opportunity. The article sheds light on the collaborative efforts between the West University of Timisoara and the University of Zaragoza, who, after their engagement with the INNOUNITA consortium, have joined forces in the Interreg Europe project VIADUCT. This is a great example of synergies between the EIT HEI Initiative and other EU funding programmes.

Cristina Ruiz García

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

I have been working in the Technology Transfer Office of the University of Zaragoza for two years now. As a member of the Entrepreneurship Unit, my role involves managing European projects aimed at enhancing support for entrepreneurial students and researchers. Therefore, the EIT HEI Initiative is perfectly aligned with our objectives and is the driving force behind our participation in INNOUNITA. Our engagement in the EIT HEI Initiative, particularly through INNOUNITA, has empowered us to strengthen our support services for entrepreneurs. We have introduced new activities, such as an Ideathon for students, and enhanced the quality of our services.

Can you give us a rundown of VIADUCT and its core goals?

VIADUCT, short for ‘Valorising public research to drive technology transfer and commercialisation through the creation of spin-offs’, is geared towards fostering the growth of technology-based spin-offs. It tackles major obstacles tied to spin-off creation and consolidation, such as the absence of an entrepreneurial culture, challenges in searching and valorising research outcomes, and navigating legal and funding procedures.

The project sets the stage with an inter-regional collaboration involving eight partners from eight regions across eight countries in Europe, ensuring a mix of advanced and less advanced regions. Its primary objective is to fine-tune policy instruments by tapping into shared experiences during inter-regional activities like thematic workshops, study visits, regional reports, inter-regional analysis and stakeholder meetings. These initiatives are essential for transferring successful practices and experiences from one region to another, fostering a seamless knowledge transfer process that aids in the creation and sustainability of spin-offs.

Could you elaborate on the specific goals and outcomes of this collaboration?

VIADUCT is geared towards facilitating the transfer of knowledge and commercialisation of public applied research, particularly in regional priorities for S4 (smart specialisation strategies for sustainable and inclusive growth). The project takes a strategic approach, aiming to overcome key barriers associated with the creation and consolidation of spin-offs through the enhancement of policy instruments linked to structural funds in Europe.

Some of the specific objectives that VIADUCT is actively addressing include:

  • enhancing regional strategies to effectively transfer knowledge and cultivate new businesses from public research results;
  • amplifying the capacities of institutions to promote entrepreneurship more efficiently;
  • exploring the potential of novel ideas, fostering value creation and identifying business opportunities within the research conducted at public universities and research centres;
  • elevating the entrepreneurial skills of researchers involved in the process;
  • formulating institutional and regulatory frameworks that streamline the transfer of knowledge;
  • mobilising investment in spin-off projects and establishing regional financial support schemes;
  • introducing innovative tools to bolster the growth and consolidation of spin-offs.

These objectives collectively underscore VIADUCT’s comprehensive approach to fostering a conducive environment for knowledge transfer, entrepreneurship and the successful development of spin-off ventures.

Can you highlight any initial outcomes or successes arising from VIADUCT’s efforts?

We are now in the second semester of the project, thus in the middle of the learning process. Up to now, we have successfully organised the kick-off meeting in Zaragoza (Spain), and two inter-regional workshops and study visits in Timisoara (Romania) and Pieve di Soligo (Italy).

In these inter-regional events, we have exchanged good practices on the promotion of entrepreneurial culture and on the search and valorisation of public research results. All partners have expressed their interest in several initiatives shared by others, and are under discussions at regional level and with policy authorities on how those initiatives could be transferred to their regions. This is the ultimate success of the programme. However, it is still too early to make these results tangible since these policy changes usually take time.

It is worth highlighting the collaboration offered by all partners, who are always open to meet with partners and to share more details on their experiences. It is also important to mention the high impact that the project is making at regional level – joining a large group of stakeholders that have expressed their interest to collaborate and even have accompanied us in our inter-regional meetings.

How does VIADUCT approach the challenge of ensuring the creation and survival of these spin-off companies?

VIADUCT takes a pragmatic approach to the challenge of fostering the creation and sustainability of spin-off companies. Our project does not aim to reinvent the wheel or devise new methodologies. Instead, our key strategy, consistent with projects funded by the Interreg Europe programme, revolves around sharing existing knowledge among partners. We focus on transferring experiences that have proven successful in one region to others facing similar challenges.

All project partners share a common goal – they represent regions committed to bridging the gap between public research and society. There is a shared belief among these regions that the creation of spin-offs serves as a potent source of innovation for their respective areas.

The initiatives and best practices exchanged within the VIADUCT framework are tailored to address previously identified barriers hindering spin-off creation and consolidation. By importing this knowledge, we aim to streamline the spin-off creation processes and enhance the effectiveness of the support measures currently in place across various regions. The collaborative effort is anchored in the practical application of proven strategies, ensuring a collective push toward fostering a vibrant ecosystem for spin-off companies.

Could you provide more details about the inter-regional cooperation scheme you have established?

Our inter-regional cooperation scheme operates on a semester-based structure, with each semester dedicated to addressing specific barriers in spin-off creation and consolidation. During this period, each partner identifies successful initiatives at the regional level – termed ‘good practices’ within the Interreg Europe framework. These initiatives exhibit the potential to be transferred to other regions, having already demonstrated positive results in overcoming the identified barriers.

The exchange of these good practices occurs during inter-regional meetings, where partners and stakeholders engage in discussions and debates around them. Subsequently, partners take this shared knowledge back to their regions. They collaborate with a diverse group of public and private actors in the research, development and innovation ecosystems, collectively known as stakeholders. Together, they assess the feasibility of transferring these initiatives to their respective regions.

This process repeats over six semesters, systematically addressing all previously identified barriers. The involvement of public authorities as project partners or associated partners remains integral. Their continuous participation ensures the project’s ability to influence policy instruments effectively.

Maintaining a balanced consortium of both advanced and less advanced regions is crucial throughout this learning process. This balance facilitates the identification of synergies and fosters collaboration, particularly when confronting similar challenges.

The Association of European Science and Technology Transfer Professionals (ASTP) plays a special role as an advisory partner in our project. Leveraging their extensive network of knowledge transfer professionals, ASTP supports project partners by providing access to their network, reaching out to experts for event participation, and ensuring the impactful communication of VIADUCT’s progress. Their involvement significantly contributes to the overall success of our inter-regional cooperation scheme.

Two members of the VIADUCT consortium (West University of Timisoara and UNIZAR) were part of the EIT HEI Initiative project INNOUNITA, led by the University of Turin. Could you share how your involvement in the EIT HEI Initiative has contributed to your ability to participate in this new project?

Our journey through the INNOUNITA project within the EIT HEI Initiative proved instrumental in broadening our connections with fellow entrepreneurial universities. These institutions were actively implementing supportive measures for students and researchers aspiring to venture into entrepreneurship. Bolstered by these newfound contacts, we contemplated presenting our VIADUCT project concept to various partners within INNOUNITA.

Regrettably, applying to the Interreg Europe call for proposals with the same consortia proved unfeasible. The programme mandates the inclusion of public policy authorities as partners, a requirement we could not meet at the time. However, West University of Timisoara helped us connect with the West Regional Development Agency of Timisoara, eventually becoming a crucial part of our project proposal.

The nature of the Interreg Europe programme significantly diverges from the initiatives developed under INNOUNITA. INNOUNITA primarily focused on implementing new and collaborative entrepreneurial programmes, whereas VIADUCT takes a different approach. It revolves around learning from successful initiatives in various regions and working towards transferring these proven practices to our own context. A tangible link between the two projects is evident, with certain experiences developed under the INNOUNITA project being shared with the VIADUCT consortium such as the Ideathon implemented in UNIZAR, which was the result of inspiration gained from the Piton project. This interplay of experiences and knowledge enhances the collaborative synergy between the two projects.

Are there any specific examples of where the cross-pollination of ideas and practices between the VIADUCT project and the EIT HEI Initiative has led to noteworthy outcomes or improvements in your work?

One of the standout examples is the Ideathon ‘48h in an entrepreneur’s shoes’, an initiative that originated under the INNOUNITA project and was subsequently shared with the VIADUCT consortium.

The Ideathon sprang from the adaptation of the Piton project, initially introduced by the University of Savoie Mont Blanc. Confronted with limited resources at our university, we transformed this initiative, which was originally designed for multidisciplinary students to engage in real projects for several months. Our iteration took the form of a 48-hour Ideathon, where groups of three students were challenged to formulate a new business line for one of Unizar’s start-ups.

This experience proved immensely successful, prompting us to share it with the VIADUCT consortium as a valuable initiative for fostering an entrepreneurial culture among university students. The cross-pollination of such innovative ideas has undeniably enriched both projects, leading to noteworthy outcomes and enhancements in our collaborative work.

Have you encountered any challenges in harmonising the objectives and activities of the VIADUCT project and the EIT HEI Initiative?

Both initiatives complement each other, enhancing the university’s potential to support entrepreneurial students and researchers. VIADUCT provides a unique opportunity to glean insights from partners beyond universities, broadening our perspective. Simultaneously, the EIT HEI Initiative introduces us to partners grappling with similar challenges as a public university, fostering the potential for synergies and increased collaboration. The challenges, when they arise, are navigated through a collaborative and adaptive approach, ensuring that the distinct strengths of each initiative contribute synergistically to our overarching goals.

Looking into the future, how do you envision the continued relationship between the VIADUCT project and the EIT HEI Initiative?

As we embark on the learning journey within VIADUCT, we are eager to share our experiences gained under the EIT HEI Initiative. Conversely, we are enthusiastic about contributing our new learnings and initiatives to the EIT HEI Initiative. These contributions aim to enhance our entrepreneurial support services, a direct outcome of the knowledge-sharing within the VIADUCT project.

Our active participation in both projects serves as a continual knowledge-building process, exposing us to successful entrepreneurial initiatives across diverse regions. This wealth of knowledge will play a pivotal role in our regional analysis, guiding us as we assess how to refine our existing offerings. Additionally, we will evaluate the feasibility and durability of these initiatives within the context of our resources and regional ecosystem. The reciprocal exchange of experiences promises a dynamic and mutually beneficial relationship between VIADUCT and the EIT HEI Initiative, fostering continuous improvement and innovation.

Could you share any insights or advice for other institutions or initiatives seeking to integrate similar collaborative models, like the one between the VIADUCT project and the HEI Initiative, into their own efforts for regional development and knowledge transfer?

My advice to them would be to remain open to learning from others and being receptive to new initiatives. Inspiration for enhancing current methodologies can emerge unexpectedly from various sources. Particularly when tackling regional development challenges, there will always be entities facing similar issues. In such cases, collaboration becomes paramount for success. Embracing a mindset of openness and receptivity fosters a culture of continuous improvement and innovation, ensuring that collaborative models contribute effectively to regional development and knowledge transfer initiatives.

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Published on: 22 February 2024