What do you get when you cross small businesses, big businesses, academic institutions, and research bodies from 29 countries (EU and non-EU Member States), all with the common goal of securing Europe’s leadership in the global digital economy? Long answer: a public-private joint undertaking that spearheads initiatives in electronic components and systems, enabling technologies for initiatives in digital health, smart mobility, energy conservation, and beyond. Short answer in seven letters: ECSEL JU.

ICTC’s Senior Director of Research & Policy, Alexandra Cutean, sat down with ECSEL Joint Undertaking’s Executive Director Bert de Colvenaer and the organization’s Head of Unit for Communications, Alun Foster, to learn more about how this multi-faceted consortium is simultaneously shaping a strong digital future for Europe and setting a transatlantic example worth exploring.

Alexandra: Thank you both for joining me today. Let’s start with the basics. Can you please provide a bird’s eye view of ECSEL JU for those who may not be familiar? What is it, and how does it work?

Bert: The ECSEL JU is a European community body and, to a certain extent, a funding body. It’s one of funding arms of Horizon 2020 and the upcoming Horizon Europe program. We provide funding to various projects that are selected according to an open call, based on an overarching strategy. In so doing, we support a consortium of research institutions, universities, and companies that are working on different aspects of electronic components and systems (ECS).

However, we are more than just a funding agency: we are really here to build an open community around technology and to reinforce that community in a more organized and systematic way. In Europe, every country has its own national strategy for the digital economy, but our goal is to generate a holistic European strategy and enable companies across Europe to work together. We bring the best companies across Europe together to develop new technologies that are close to the market. By this I mean that we aren’t here to do blue-sky fundamental research; rather, we support projects that are almost ready to go to the market. Although we focus on ECS, this approach applies to many broad areas, like digital health, mobility, energy, and security.

Alexandra: Have these areas evolved over time? For example, now that we are dealing with an international health crisis, are you more focused on digital health versus say, mobility?

Bert: It’s always evolving, but it’s an evolution that is steered both by opportunities and necessities. If you look at the digital health space, where we are now is very different than where we were five years ago. The same can be said about AI. Today, because of necessity, digital health applications are a much higher priority than they previously were.

Alexandra: Are there any key technologies that you focus on? You mentioned AI. Is 5G also on the radar, given the ties to electronic components and systems?

Bert: We have what we call the Strategic Research Agenda, which drives our activities. The activities or technologies that are priorities at a given time depend largely on what industry is most interested in or seeing the most need. It’s basically up to the consortium to come up with a proposal and, in it, they specify what area they want to focus on. Over the years, we have seen interest in 5G-directed technology developments — this ranges from chips that can power electronics, to enabling autonomous driving. Companies from across Europe submit project ideas, and it’s up to us to evaluate them according to the criteria of excellence, implementation, and impact.

Alexandra: What would you say is your biggest success to date, or something that really stands out as a successful initiative?

Bert: We have a couple. One is the base technology progress we’ve made on 5G, with silicon on insulator (SOI). Essentially, this is a wafer design that optimizes energy at the chip level. The technology allows for high energy efficiency in digital applications. Everyone struggles with battery life, so the question becomes how can we reduce the power drain on batteries by reducing the energy needed by the chip? Europe is one of the leaders in the new energy technology market, but a lot is required to power electronics that can bring energy from where it’s generated to the point of consumption. This is a process that includes energy transfer and load balancing. It’s something that’s needed by anything from your smartphone to autonomous cars.

Alun: Another success story I’d like to highlight is in regard to digital health, since it was mentioned. There has been a quiet revolution ongoing in the medical equipment industry and a huge amount of progress made in this domain in Europe over the years — much of it has been attributable to ECSEL JU-funded projects.

There are a whole branch of technologies being used for key developments, like minimally invasive surgery and drug discovery. Many of the players in this market have realized that they can benefit a lot if they get their volumes up. They’ve also realized that they can’t get their volumes up unless they collaborate. So, with the help of ECSEL JU funding, open platforms have been created, allowing each supplier to create their own marketplace while ensuring they can still fall back on the same basic sets of technologies that they chipped in to develop in the first place. This kind of collaboration is really evident in our medical equipment industry at the moment, and it will have a big effect on society in the coming years.

Bert: The world “platform” is pretty abstract, so perhaps I’ll explain that in more detail. Take the example of a catheter. There is a tube where the wire is, and this is common to all catheters. The pin of the catheter is where all the sensors are, measuring devices, and biomarkers. The [open] platform in this example would be the tube and the wire, and the specific application would be the tip. Open platforms allow many companies to move forward because they can leverage a technology that has already been developed and proven to be effective.

Alexandra: Is it fair to say that these platforms are the base upon which to scale digitization across the whole European economy — that is, across various sectors?

Bert: They are an enabler, but it’s interesting that you mention other sectors because one thing we have discovered in our work is that some of the most innovative technologies are often built around traditional communities. For example, the automotive industry is metal and wheels, and traditionally, many players in this space are less digitally advanced than, say, the electronics industry. On the other hand, we have a digital industry that knows how to make chips and software, but they have never made cars. The opportunity is in the middle: when the automotive industry blends a bit with the digital industry by finding the right digital applications. The same type of thing can apply to health, energy — to just about to everything. I think that the biggest opportunities in regard to new technologies are within these collisions, and what we want to do is bring these communities, en masse, together.

Alexandra: Is that something that can be challenging to do, particularly when communities have little knowledge of one another?

Bert: It’s not easy, but there are certain activities that can help to facilitate this. A good starting place is establishing a common vocabulary. I’ll give you an example from our own experience. We recently collaborated with the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), and one of our first activities was just ensuring that we were speaking the same language. They have this medical and pharmaceutical vocabulary, so at first none of us engineers knew what they were saying, and I’m sure when we started talking about making better chips or software, they were equally confused. We really had to develop this ground-level common vocabulary as a prerequisite to trying to come up with a solution to a challenge that was affecting us both.

This is something that turned out to be very useful to our collaboration, and it extends to one of the benefits of a program like ECSEL JU, in that we bring different communities together, establish a common ground to start from, and work from there toward long-term goals. This is different from a traditional government program where there is a one-off opportunity to create a consortium for a project, but once the project is finished, the consortium may split up again. We are really trying to develop a strong community of people with knowhow that can have longevity.

Alexandra: It’s interesting that you’re bringing together different players under a consortium to tackle some very broad challenges. Do you run into challenges on the collaboration front, given all the different parties involved?

Bert: There are always frontiers to break down, but we believe it’s worth it, especially in the technology space because without this kind of collaboration, we’d be constantly reinventing the wheel. We want to try to find the best companies from each region and bring them all together to try and move forward.

Yes, of course we have struggles along the way, and there are always political compromises to make as well. This takes time — at the end of the day, the consortium is an exercise in trust-building, and this is the basis for the building of Europe. We are building a strong Europe by making stakeholders from different countries and varying areas of expertise work together. If [ECSEL JU] were not in the picture, I think we would still see a nice French, German, and Italian program but much less cross-border cooperation, especially at such an organized level.

Alexandra: Do you think a program like ECSEL JU is also raising the bar, so to speak, for all EU countries? For example, is it helping to enable industry development in countries that might not have the means to do this on their own?

Bert: Well, not exactly. To be blunt, we are not a charity. We are not here to fund whoever wants to participate, simply to even out the playing field. We want to support excellent projects, with a crystal-clear implementation plan, and the potential to have a big impact. Do all projects fit this? No, and of course some countries have more advanced digital industries than others, but at the end of the day, they all have to create their own opportunities. What you often see in smaller countries is that they do this by supporting SMEs that are spinoffs from universities. These tend to have their own technology developed in-house that we may then adopt, allowing them to flourish into bigger players. Ours is the cultivation of an industrial and scientific cooperation under a market-driven approach — we are not here simply to subsidize the possibility of growth. In some cases, we receive applications and, simply put, the projects aren’t good enough to make the cut. But this happens with big country companies the same way it happens with small country companies — it’s not about the country; it’s about the strength of the idea, its application, and its potential impact.

Alexandra: So, the idea is to fund later-stage projects that are more or less market ready?

Bert: Yes. Basically, we are trying to close the gap between the initial concept and the step right before market introduction. We have pilot lines. These are pre-production lines, where companies can confirm the quality of their project before going into mass production. This helps ensure that companies are in fact ready for that next step. We evaluate their readiness on the basis of technology, testing, and accreditation.

Alexandra: What method do you employ to come up with the Calls? Do you connect with industries on areas of interest and priorities, then develop them in-house?

Alun: Sort of, but it’s a bit more than that. In fact, one of the other success stories of ECSEL JU is really just the way things are done. If you can imagine it, we have a collection of different countries and different stakeholders, all with different ideas about what they want to do and how it should be done. To actually get them all to agree on a research agenda that will shape the future of the European digital economy is a big achievement — and this is what we’ve done.

Within the community, there are universities, research institutes, large companies, and small companies — the “actors”, as we call them. They have all come together and written the Strategic Research Agenda, which Bert spoke about earlier. This is a common document that’s not owned by ECSEL JU, nor is it unique to ECSEL JU. It’s something that the community has developed and put out there for everyone to use — it’s like an open platform, if you will. We used this agenda as a guideline for the calls, and we combine this with a very bottom-up push from industry who decides what the most important priorities are to focus on at the given time. I think this method fills an important gap, and it’s one that’s quite different from some of the other funding instruments available. Something like this is especially important when crossing the bridge between research and an actual product.

Alexandra: What impacts do you think COVID-19 has had on the industries that ECSEL JU supports? How has the pandemic changed your original strategy for 2020?

Bert: I’d say it’s changed a lot — even beyond 2020. There are also positive and negative sides to the pandemic. Of course, the health crisis has been catastrophic, and the loss of life has been tragic. However, I think it’s also served as a big eye-opener in regard to the use of digital technologies. Before, teleworking was an occasional feature. Now it’s becoming the standard way of working, and in my opinion, the disadvantages are relatively minor in comparison to the opportunities that it brings. If we would have gone through the normal process of approvals to roll something like this out, it would have taken years. The pandemic forced us to do this in a matter of days. I hope this momentum of digitization and adaptability is retained.

Naturally, it has also had significant negative impacts on some industries. For example, business travel has been plummeting, and airlines are suffering. But, I also think it’s caused us to recognize that perhaps we were travelling too much. Why did we used to fly to another country to deliver a one-hour presentation? Ironically, it took a pandemic for us to realize that we can do this perfectly well with technology that already exists and from the comfort of our own home.

Alun: If we zoom in on the digital-technology side specifically, it’s something that is actually booming around the world — COVID, to a certain extent, has highlighted the importance of technology and is driving the need for more developments in this area. If you look at mobility, I think COVID created a stronger push to use technology for eco-friendly mobility solutions. There is also more interest in smart cities, something which can help improve the public transit system and will reduce the number of cars on the road.

Alexandra: I’m glad you brought up the notion of environmentally friendly initiatives. I believe that one of the positive elements to emerge from the pandemic has been the renewed emphasis on and commitment to environmental sustainability. Europe is certainly leading in this space, with the Green Deal. Are there any ECSEL JU programs that specifically focus on environmental sustainability or have it as a key output?

Bert: We have a lot of projects that focus on energy conservation. In the big picture, this is something that is already a European strength — electrification and renewable energy are areas that Europe is a global leader in. On the other hand, the energy consumption needed to produce electronics is very intensive. So, we are focusing on individual factories and processes, working with industry to reduce our CO2 footprint in the production of electronic components. We don’t make chips because we like chips. We make chips and software because they are enabling technologies, and they can spearhead change and growth in many areas, including environmental sustainability.

Alun: Expanding on that, sustainability has been on our radar long before the Green Deal came along. Since the beginning, we’ve been conscious of the fact that we’re using public money to support the development of technologies, and therefore the technologies that are developed must be for the public good. There are always societal concerns built into the targets for the research agenda, and the majority of the projects we fund have goals, including CO2 reduction or more efficient energy transmission. These elements, which are part of the Green Deal, have been in our program from the very beginning.

Alexandra: Looking to the future, what are you most excited or optimistic about in relation to the European digital economy?

Bert: Personally, I hope that the ad-hoc opportunities for using and experiencing digital technologies on a daily basis — like teleworking, for example — stick and continue to advance. I also hope that, as society, we will be able to learn from this experience and put in place mechanisms to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Alun: I agree. There are a lot of lessons that can be gleaned from this experience. I hope that we can hang on to those. As for the digital economy, I think that we will continue to see a surge of activity in this space. There’s an upcoming event that we participate in: the European Forum for Electronic Components and Systems (EFECS). It showcases what the community is doing and discusses how that is helping to shape Europe’s digital future.

Bert: Before we close, Alexandra, I have a question for you. Why should Canadian companies look toward Europe? What are the benefits of doing so?

Alexandra: That’s a very good question. I think there are several benefits of doing this. Canada has had a strong relationship with Europe for decades, from the perspective of shared values and norms and, to a degree, a similar culture. Today, this relationship has evolved to also shape one of the most progressive free trade agreements in the world: CETA. However, our research on this topic found that Canadian companies are not yet leveraging it as effectively as they could be. In fact, a recent survey by Global Affairs Canada found that two years after CETA entered into force, only 7% of Canadian exporting companies are familiar with the agreement. Europe is a huge market and one of the leading figures in the global digital economy. We need to focus on building these connections and collaborating in order to shape a resilient post-pandemic Canadian economy.

I also think that it’s beneficial for us to learn from others who have done something and done it well. In this case, we can learn from ECSEL JU, which has successfully built a consortium that appears to have both teeth and legs. Bringing together industry, academia, and research groups from 29 countries, and getting them to work together toward a common goal is no small feat. There are only benefits to exposing ourselves to these unique models and leveraging lessons learned to support our own goals.