Speech by Executive Vice-President Vestager at the European Innovation Council Summit

Met dank overgenomen van Europese Commissie (EC) i, gepubliceerd op donderdag 25 november 2021.

Ladies and gentlemen

It's an enormous pleasure to welcome you all to Brussels today, to this first European Innovation Council summit, launched in March 2021. It brings us altogether - innovators, SMEs, policy-makers - around a key question: how do we boost innovation in Europe? And how can the European Innovation Council best fulful its role?

Because EIC is not just an additional tool or program. It changes the way we support Europe's deep tech innovation. I'm talking about innovations that manage to overcome serious technological challenges so as to find entirely new ways to meet people's needs.

And what better place to discuss this than Brussels' Autoworld? All cars and vehicles around us, despite their different styles, have relied on the same basic technology - the internal combustion engine - for a century and more. But today, the age of petrol and diesel is ending - in large part thanksto breakthrough innovations like new batteries which have changed the rules of the game. They made it possible to build electric cars that are no less practical than the old fossil-fuelled kind.

That's what deep tech can do for us. It can give us new power to improve people's lives - to tackle climate change, to fight disease, to improve security and opportunities. It can help us reach the Sustainable Development Goals, and create a brighter future for humanity.

That's good for us all. But the companies that reap the greatest rewards will be the ones that actually come up with these breakthrough innovations - and bring them to market, ahead of anyone else. And we need to make sure, that many of those companies are European. So that, as first movers, they can build global businesses that bring jobs and growth. And so we can make sure that Europe plays its role in strengthening our future, both at home and worldwide.

It's well within Europe's capabilities to lead the way in deep tech. Our universities are among the very best in the world, producing research that's pushing back the boundaries of science and technology - in artificial intelligence, in quantum computing, in biotechnology and new materials. And we understand how to turn research into commercial opportunities - in fact, we have just as many startups per person here in Europe as in the US.

But that's not enough. What really matters is not just to start up, but to scale up. Small can be beautiful - but if you want to take the lead in new technology, you need a certain size. And in that sense, we still have a long way to go. From the same number of startups per head of population, the United States grows four times as many scaled-up companies as we do. And of the current crop of seven hundred unicorns around the world, Europe accounts for less than fifty.

So we have work to do. We are changing this. We know that finding the funding to scale up is not an easy matter - especially when it comes to deep tech.

The mRNA technology which helped to deliver hundreds of millions of shots of the coronavirus vaccineis a great example of European deep tech. And it did so within a year of the start of the pandemic. To the outside world, it might look as if that technology simply burst on the scene at the right time, out of nowhere. But the truth is that, like most overnight successes, this one was a long time coming. It took decades of hard, precise work to go from a concept to drugs that were ready for patients - work that was funded, in part, by EU money. And along the way, there were many experts who insisted that the technology could never work.

That's the way of deep tech. The products it develops can transform our economy and our society. But that can take a long time - and there's often no guarantee that it will ever work.

That's a risk that entrepreneurs and innovators are willing to take. But it's not always a risk that private investors are willing to take - at least, not on their own. Yes, the upside is huge. But so is the uncertainty. And if deep tech is about pushing back the boundaries of what's possible, then what we're asking from investors is to bank on technology that, to start off, is impossible.

So to make successful breakthrough innovation possible, what we need is a breakthrough innovation in policy. And that, of course, is where the Innovation Council comes in.

For the first time, we're using money from the EU budget - more than ten billion euros in all - to invest in deep tech. Not just by giving grants, but with venture capital-style investments straight into the equity of startups. And what the Innovation Council is offering is not just money, but support. With the help of programme managers who are technology experts, the European Innovation Council is getting deeply involved in helping startups to succeed - mentoring founders, helping them to make connections - and, not least, assisting them with finding private investment.

Because the idea is not to replace private funding. Quite the opposite, in fact - the idea is to put the first coins on the table so that private investors feel both confident and interested to join in. We are the first mover that reduces the risk, and gives other investors the trust they need to put skin in the game.

And the results in the pilot phase these last few years show that this process is working. In that time, the European Innovation Council has invested some 3.8 billion euros in more than 5000 startups and SMEs - and private follow-on investments have almost quadrupled that amount. And it's supported some 91 so- called “centaur” companies, each worth more than a hundred million euros - as well as two billion-euro unicorns in the Swedish biotech industry.

But it's not just about the numbers. It's also about directing that funding where it can do the most good. 90% of the startups which, our scaling up pillar of the European Innovation Council, the EIC Accelerator is supporting are doing work that will help to reach the Sustainable Development Goals. And out of the 200 or so startups that got funding last year, more than 70 are working on innovative solutions to fight COVID-19 - and more than 60 on technologies that will support the Green Deal.

These technologies are still new - but it won't be long before they become the basic building blocks of our future. There will come a time, for instance, when today's biotech innovations, or the new ways that are being developed to use AI in healthcare, are as fundamental to a modern health system as antibiotics or MRI scanners are now. And when that happens, it's vital that Europe is in the lead - not relying on others for essential technology.

We've seen in the past - with the consumer Internet, for example - how falling just a little bit behind in innovation can lead to losing markets. But it doesn't have to be that way. With the right investments in innovation - and especially in deep tech - we can make sure that Europe's economy remains strong and innovative through the decades to come.

For that to happen, we all need to pull together - public authorities and private businesses, big companies and startups, investors and researchers from every country in Europe - both women and men.

So it's great to see so many of you here today, from all those different backgrounds and perspectives. Not just to celebrate what the European Innovation Council has achieved so far - impressive though it is. But also to prepare the ground for the future - so that together, we can make the impossible happen.

Thank you.