Interview with the FNR’s Head of Innovation Unit, Andreea Monnat, about the definition of innovation in the Luxembourg context, the importance of encouraging and supporting it – and what the FNR is doing to tick these boxes.
How would you define innovation? How would you describe it in a Luxembourg context?
“There are clearly many definitions of what innovation is or means. My favorite one is that innovation is something that ‘triggers significant positive change.’ There are many ways to achieve this, but what matters most is that innovation is adopted by others to elicit and perpetuate that change. Personally, I think the word ‘innovation’ is often used as an empty filler term, without meaningful intent.
Looking at the Luxembourgish context, we also need to be careful not to fall into the “Innovate or Perish” trap. Luxembourg needs to make a long-term investment in the innovation culture. While the strategy is important, it is the national and institutional culture that drives real innovation. Big ideas and change take time. Productive failure, excellent communication, and true collaboration – these are aspects that are enabled by a culture that protects and nurtures big ideas, and, most of all, spawns innovative and fearless people. People that constantly challenge the status quo. I am not sure that Luxembourg is there yet.
On a positive note, we are at the beginning, and we have a legitimate opportunity to create an innovative ecosystem from ‘scratch’.”
Is innovation essential to the economic development of a country? What is the role of politics in innovation?
“Nowadays, the importance of innovation, together with science and technology, is broadly acknowledged as one of the drivers of continuous economic growth. Unfortunately, simply proclaiming yourself to be an ‘innovative nation’ or politically requesting innovation at all levels is not enough.
The question has to be ‘how to innovate?’ or, more explicitly, ‘how can we manage innovation in a way that encourages people to become creative, to speak up, to voice their ideas and become actual entrepreneurs?’ Funny thing, the original meaning of ‘entrepreneur’, as it was coined by the 18th-century economist, Richard Cantillon, was a ’bearer of risk’ or ‘risk-taker’. You can answer that question yourself: how do Luxembourg and Europe altogether respond to “risk-takers”?
Particularly Luxembourg that as a high-income country tends to rely on the security of what it is familiar with to the natural exclusion of taking risks. You do not become an entrepreneur overnight or after taking a few classes. To bear the risk, fail, get up again and try until you succeed needs to be a process that is accepted by society and apparent even to those already in kindergarten.
Political will can be immensely useful. Beyond putting in place legal frameworks to nurture early-stage businesses or providing financial incentives to minimise risk exposure, governments can support programs that seek to remove the stigma of failure that keeps many from even considering entrepreneurship in the first place.”
What is the role of R&D in relation to innovation and how can FNR, as the main funder of public research, help to develop innovation in Luxembourg?
“R&D is vital to the process of innovation. You could rightly say that D could not be possible without the R. A major hurdle that governments must overcome is finding ways to intelligently combine public and private R&D and establishing common objectives. Private R&D is doing very well, but only if you are talking of hugely prosperous companies like the tech world’s GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon), etc. Few businesses have the resources to invest or pursue early-stage innovation. That is where governments come in and become the risk-bearers of future visions.
In 2013, the FNR put in place funding instruments that can be used to encourage the translation of high-impact research into commercially-viable innovations and promote strong collaboration between the public and private sectors. The success of the programs speaks for itself: 3 start-ups have been created, and the related sectors are not the ‘usual suspects’ from finance and steel. Start-ups focusing on robotics, big data, health and biomedicine are making a ‘big splash’ in the local media, winning several entrepreneurship competitions and putting Luxembourg on the international start-up map.
However, like with every seedling, start-ups still need constant and regular watering, as rainfall on its own will rarely be enough to sustain them until they grow strong and independent. Watering, aka ‘governmental /institutional public help’, needs to be assessed and distributed in an intelligent manner to sustain and support the early growth of young sprouts. We think that FNR has contributed to shifting the “innovation gap”, but more is needed to truly close it. Doing that requires a collaborative process that involves all stakeholders within the ecosystem and not just one or two.
FNR’s future challenges will lay in developing strategic partnerships and putting standard, functioning frameworks in place with institutions, politicians, media, the society, researchers and the government. Only by working together with the same goals in mind, can we have a greater impact on society and the Luxembourgish economy. FNR should become a place where researchers feel free, protected and where their efforts are appreciated in the process of generating ideas that will positively change the world.
That is why I personally really like Luxembourg’s’ new motto: ‘Let’s make it happen.’ It means a beginning and beginnings are full of hope. And fun.”
This interview was originally featured in the May/June 2017 edition of Entreprises Magazine (in French)