On 5 June 2016, I was invited to participate in a Panel Discussion organized by the Oxford University Society Cyprus and the MBA Program of the University of Cyprus on the topic of “Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Cyprus of 2020.” The other panelists were: Kyriakos Kokkinos, National Chief Scientist for Research & Innovation, Republic of Cyprus; Christodoulos Agastiniotis, President of the Cyprus Chamber of Commerce and Industry; Angela Panagiotou, Manager of the IDEA Accelerator of the Bank of Cyprus; Vassilis Tsakalos, Director General of the Research Promotion Foundation of Cyprus, and Yoav Yair, Dean of the School of Sustainability, IDC Herzliya. The panel and the ensuant discussion was coordinated by Charles Dodd, Oxford University Society of Cyprus.
The panel took place in the Learning Resource Centre-Library “Stelios Ioannou” of the University of Cyprus in Nicosia.
Following are 3-minute answers I gave to the questions posed to the panel:
Question 1: What will research, innovation, and entrepreneurship be like in Cyprus after 2020?
Ι will try to answer the question by telling some short stories; some are Cypriot, some not..
According to a report from the U.S. National Academies (2012), most of the technologies that shape today’s landscape, from Broadband, the Internet, the Web and the Cloud, to Mobile Computing, Entertainment, Design, Robotics and AI, trace their roots to university-led research done back in the 60- and 70s to the beginning of the new millennium.
In 2012, Peter Droell, head of policy development and industrial innovation at the European Commission was quoted by Reuters saying that there was a strikingly strong correlation between R&D spending in the European Union in the period 2004–2009 and economic growth in 2011.
In 2014, a Cyprus-based telecommunications company was acquired by a Japanese firm for a reported amount of $900M. The company now is based in Luxembourg. The company was run from Israel, early investors were Israeli venture funds (with over 20M USD) and most of the development was done in Belarus.
In an article published by Athens’ Kathimerini newspaper in 11/1/2019, “Alibaba purchased the startup of a Greek entrepreneur for 90–100 million euros.” This was the FlinkForward startup, established in Berlin as a spinoff from the research project Stratosphere, led by prof. Volker Markl. Volker, speaking at the CCGrid2019 conference in Larnaca, in May, showed a diagram of the “innovation pipeline” that led to the establishment of FlinkForward. Work started in 2008 and involved basic research activities from 2008–2014, applied research activities from 2011–2015, and commercialization efforts starting in 2015.
So, if we want to answer this question, I think we need to review what happened in Cyprus in basic and applied research, in the period 2000–2010. We also need to see where does the top talent of the country goes now, and what does it do? Last, but not least, we have to be ready to accept that a Cypriot “success story” may not materialise here in Cyprus, or that a success story we celebrate in 2020 is, in fact, the outcome of efforts undertaken elsewhere.
Question 2: What is going to help get us there successfully?
Since 1992, Cyprus has been gradually and steadily developing a world-class research infrastructure. Although we often speak as if the research infrastructure — human, institutional and material — is fully developed, we still have a long way to go. This has to be developed even further and at a much faster pace, taking into account that an increasing number of countries around the world aggressively develop their research and innovation potential. Unfortunately, quite frequently, we see deviations from stated principles, aims, and international best practices, leading to delays and setbacks, to fragmentation of resources, and to unnecessary replication of efforts. We see bureaucratic procedures and politics taking center stage and displacing scientific and technological pursuits. This kills innovation and shifts the agenda and effort from substance to trivia.
For decades, governance of Research and Innovation has been fragmented across various ministries and services. This situation was changed very recently. It is an important improvement in the right direction that we applaud. We hope that all branches of government, administration, legislature and other stakeholders will embrace and support this change.
There is need for consistent and sustained funding for basic and applied research, and for innovation actions. The government should not subsidise profit-making entities, but provide instead a clear incentive structure for private venture, possibly with matching funds based on meritocratic evaluation under clear principles safeguarding the public good.
Question 3: What are the obstacles which have to be faced?
In two words: Critical Mass and Culture.
There is lack of critical mass in talent, especially in IT and STEM. We need to build it, early on, from the schools.
As a society, we have a conservative culture that is not committed to true excellence and does not embrace risk-taking and failure. The best minds often wish to enter the public sector and work as public servants.
Short-termism is another problem in our mindset. It is also a problem in other western cultures. If you combine this with political inertia and red-tape, you can hardly achieve any positive change!
There is a shortage of “smart” money that is willing to embrace risk, and can demonstrate a true understanding of international markets.
Question 4: Name one action which any agency/individual in government/business/sponsors/universities/others could do to make 2020 a truly memorable year for research, innovation and entrepreneurship
Do not copy initiatives from here and there.
Design and develop a comprehensive program for promoting basic, applied research, innovation, combined with clear incentives for private funding from ‘smart’ money and an international outlook.
Let it run for 15 years, with sustained funding schemes.
Maintain its principles and review and revise its implementation every five years.
Look at Yozma in Israel (20 years ago), Singapore (country of a very small size, world leader in innovation but not so successful in startups), but also Egypt and countries that despite their challenges have developed forward-looking and comprehensive policies addressing their needs.