EIT ICT Labs’ Idea Challenge Breaking Down Barriers to Pan-European Innovation

By David Knight |

Reporting from CeBIT in Hannover

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Europe is fragmented along cultural, linguistic and economic lines. When it comes to innovation and entrepreneurship, that’s a serious drawback compared to somewhere such as, for example, the US. One organisation which is bucking the trend by building a truly pan-European network is EIT ICT Labs, an EU-funded platform for bringing together research, education and innovation.

Its latest initiative is Idea Challenge, a startup contest launched at the CeBIT fair in Hannover on Tuesday. The contest will see startups and entrepreneurial teams invited to enter in eight different categories, each in a different city across Europe which features an EIT presence.

Each city will pick three winners who get €40,000, €25,000 and €15,000 as well as coaching and mentoring from business development experts, integration into future EIT activities and office space for six months.

The hope is that the contest can help break down the barriers to true innovation within Europe a little; especially given that EIT won’t take any equity from the winners and therefore does not measure success in terms of seeing the startups exit for a huge profit, but rather by factors such as job creation.

The eight cities involved in the Idea Challenge include two in Germany in the form of Berlin and Munich. They are being divided into two batches, one being contested from now until April 20 and the other in September, on the following topics:

First batch

Eindhoven, the Netherlands: Health and wellbeing

Helsinki, Finland: Smart spaces

Munich, Germany: Cyber-physical systems

Rennes, France: Future cloud

Second batch

Trento, Italy: Cyber security and privacy

Stockholm, Sweden: Internet of things

London, UK: Urban life and mobility

Berlin, Germany: Smart energy systems

Startups (or teams with an idea) from across Europe can apply to any of the cities, and the organisers hope it will cement their pan-European network.

For Tobias Heger, who is heading up the Idea Challenge, measuring its success is about long-term economic growth: “One good indicator [of success] is the creation of jobs. We can measure that in the startups we support – one could be four founders now, and measure it in a year and it’s maybe ten, then measure it again in five years time…”

It’s not that they are aiming low, mind. Klaus Beetz, EIT’s business director, said: “We are really going for European growth success stories. I will be happy if we find a company in Helsinki or in Berlin with five or six people right now, and in a few years time they have 200 all over Europe. … We are ambitious; we want to help create the next SAP.”

There is a clear focus, too, on providing the right kind of support to young, inexperienced teams perhaps falling short in the necessary business skills. Heger added: “We provide the whole package, not just money as [these kinds of] contests often do.” That means making sure the winners are careful with the money – they have to provide a project plan of what they will do in the first few months, and how they will use the cash, before they get it.

“It is their money but we are just trying to control it a bit,” Heger said, “because otherwise it could be that we hand out €40,000 and they have a nice holiday. That’s not what we want.” The money comes with some strings attached – “but no equity.”

So why did Berlin get smart energy systems? Energiewende, German for “energy change,” the need for a move away from traditional sources of power most notably in recent times nuclear, has become a watchword not only in Germany but across Europe, and makes the country the perfect choice (and of course, Berlin’s startup scene takes care of the rest). It can only be hoped that initiatives such as the Idea Challenge can help generate a breakdown in the barriers preventing Europe from achieving its potential.