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EIT launches Solar Academy: Aims for water, maritime innovation next [Advocacy Lab Content]

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The EIT Summit 2024, which took place on 20 February, revealed the European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s (EIT) ambition to harness the power of the sun, focusing on solar technology innovation and the training of thousands of solar engineers.

The EIT is Europe’s largest innovation ecosystem and at INNOVEIT 2024 it announced a collaboration with the Solar Impulse Foundation to create a new European Solar Academy.

An EU Institution and an integral part of Horizon Europe, the EIT is tasked with supporting the entire innovation chain: from educating and providing skills to the development of innovative ideas and technologies right through to business creation.

The Solar Impulse Foundation is an international environmental non-profit project founded in 2003 by explorer and environmentalist, Bertrand Piccard. Piccard noted as one of the greatest pioneers of our time, made history by circumnavigating the globe in an aircraft powered entirely by solar energy: the Solar Impulse.

Delivering the keynote speech at INNOVEIT explained that his motivation is to do away with waste and inefficiency to deliver a sustainable future.

Critical technology areas

Solar energy has been identified as one of the 10 critical technology areas for Europe’s economic security. In the past 10 years, the manufacturing of solar technology has increased by 25% with China now leading global production. To catch up, the EU needs skilled solar engineers and, with a starting budget of €4 million, the European Solar Academy aims to deliver them.

“We hope to train thousands of workers,” said EIT Chair Martin Kern.

The EIT has been around for 15 years, but in that time has created nine Knowledge and Innovation Communities – or KICs as they are known. As Kern explained: “No matter what stage an innovator is in, we can offer the help [innovators] need: from a student becoming an entrepreneur to a researcher commercialising their idea, or even a local entrepreneur becoming the next biggest Unicorn.”

And the EIT has indeed succeeded in producing eight unicorn ventures worth over US$1 billion. By far its biggest success story is Northvolt – now Europe’s largest battery manufacturer worth more than €10 billion. Away from the headlines, the EIT has more than 2,400 partners, has supported over 7,000 ventures, helped raise over €7.3 billion in private investment, and more than 6,000 students have graduated with EIT Label degrees from top universities in Europe.

The new academy will build on these successes and support European solar photovoltaic technologies and SMEs with a strong focus on training and reskilling employees. It will also “reflect the EIT’s intention to harness its established network to unleash a new wave of strategic innovations that increase Europe’s competitiveness and sustainability.”

“[An] ability to respond to strategic and urgent priorities of the EU is one of our successes,” said Kern. “This new academy shows how fast we can move.”

Educate, innovate, accelerate

Another milestone Kern is proud of is the ability to create an innovation ecosystem that becomes self-sustainable. At the end of the 15-year funding period, the first three KICs – on climate, digital and energy – are now financially sustainable meaning they can continue to work without further EIT funding.

The theme of this year’s summit was built around three pillars: educate, innovate, and accelerate and featured the 10th edition of the EIT Awards to honour those projects and entrepreneurs who are developing innovative solutions to the most pressing global challenges.

And after the launch of the Solar Academy, what’s next for the EIT? The summit revealed that water and the preservation of marine and maritime ecosystems is likely to be the planet’s next big challenge and the EIT hopes to tackle that with its next planned KIC.

Depending on the forecasting analysis carried out by the European Commission with the assistance of independent experts, it is likely that the EIT will launch a Call for Proposals in the not-too-distant future.

Freshwater, marine ecosystems

Managing and safeguarding freshwater and marine ecosystems is essential to deliver the European Green Deal, which aims to tackle water challenges through several targeted actions, including the zero-pollution action plan, the greening of farming practices and the increase and better management of inland waterways.

Water crises are regularly listed among the top five global risks. Recent studies also reveal that approximately 20% of the European territory experiences water stress annually, impacting around 30% of the population. Economic ramifications of droughts are significant, ranging from €2 to 9 billion per year, excluding the unquantifiable damage to ecosystems and their associated services.

Although considerable progress has been achieved, there are still areas where long-term solutions are yet to be identified and breakthroughs can only be expected through innovation and new technologies.

The EIT’s unique innovation model could prove invaluable. Its ability to bring together organisations from the business, higher education and research sectors with innovators and entrepreneurs to turn their best ideas into products and services that address societal challenges.

As Margaritis Schinas, European Commissioner Vice-President said: “Our greatest strength is the talents and skills we bring to form our Union. We need to address the tech and innovation divide head-on at a European level to deliver the greatest impact.”

Read more with Euractiv

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