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Research that Matters: EU Robotics Aims for the Marketplace
libor_EU
Libor Kral, Head of the EU’s Robotics Unit, sets bold strategy for Horizon 2020
By Emmet Cole



In advance of RoboBusiness Europe (April 11-12, Genoa, Italy), one of the conference’s keynote speakers, Libor Kral, head of Robotics unit in DG CONNECT (the highest-level robotics unit in the European Commission) took some time out to talk with Robotics Business Review.

In an interview that ranges across many of the topics that will feature in his RoboBusiness Europe keynote, Kral shared his insights regarding some of the challenges facing commercial robotics and how the European Commission plans to provide the sector with a boost. 

Interview conducted by Emmet Cole, European Robotics Editor for Robotics Business Review

RBR: As FP7 draws to a close and with Horizon 2020 about to get underway, how has the E.U.‘s EUR400M ($527M) investment in FP7 improved the lot of robotics researchers and robotics companies in Europe and what new developments can we expect to see as a result of Horizon 2020?

LK: Actually, the total figure of EU spending in FP7 research in robotics and cognitive systems is even higher and approaches EUR600M ($774M) which probably makes our funding program the world’s largest civilian R&D program in the field.

libor kral

We have funded the whole spectrum of projects from foundational research to technology R&D and integration of robotics into specific applications. Our funded research projects created substantial addition to the body of knowledge – there are hundreds if not thousands of publications and conference papers.

Many of the European robotics manufacturers participate in EU research and we have managed to bring academia and industries together. Another important aspect is the networking – there are now well-functioning networks of European robotics researchers which started with our funding, there is an established European Technology Platform with mainly industrial participants.

This means that in the European robotics community, we already have a well-established forum for exchange between industry and academia. Now, we want to go further. Horizon 2020 offers a new opportunity to strengthen our technology base and to translate academic research more quickly into new products and services. We want to take this next step together with key stakeholders. To this end, we want to establish a Public-Private Partnership in Robotics. This initiative will improve collaboration between stakeholders, create stronger industry-academia ties and also get those much more involved in defining research priorities.

RBR: Exciting innovations in the world of robotics are reported on a weekly—if not daily—basis and yet few of these innovations seem to translate into commercial successes. What are the reasons for this and how will Horizon 2020 support the transition from research project to successful commercial enterprise?

LK: First of all, robots are still a very complex technology. Just because something works in a lab does not necessarily mean that it will also work in our everyday world. This means that more research is needed, in particular to make robots more robust and versatile.

At the same time, academia is often not aware of the real-world problems of industry and end-users in general. This results then in solutions that no one asked for. We want to further close the gap between academia and industry. Concretely, we will base our future funding priorities on a research roadmap that is developed jointly by industrial and academic stakeholders. In doing so, we want to stimulate research that is relevant for companies and the commercial sector in general.

RBR: From the ad hoc, anecdotal evidence of robotics entrepreneurs, there is no “standard” way to set up a robotics company. Some advocate the lean start-up methodology for example, while others rely heavily on government support. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the target markets tend to be very specialized and diverse.

Given the relative newness of robotics technology it’s understandable that business best practices are yet to emerge, but what will Horizon 2020 do to accelerate this learning curve for researchers and SMEs hoping to bring their innovations to market?

horizon2020

LK: In Horizon 2020, we hope to bring researchers, industrialists and end-users much closer together so that they can benefit from each other’s experience. For example, pre-commercial procurement will enable companies to test and showcase almost mature products with public procurers.

We will also use dedicated instruments to enable technology transfer between academia and industry. In FP7, we already successfully experimented with such an approach in the ECHORD project.

Finally, we want to make access to finance easier. During the upcoming European Robotics Forum (19th – 21st March, Lyon), for example, we will organize an Investment Forum where promising start-ups can pitch their ideas and business plans to potential investors. Later this spring, I will be chairing the Venture Capital session at RoboBusiness Europe (Genoa, April 11-12, 2013).


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About the author

Emmet Cole has been writing about robots since 2006. Formerly Wired UK's robotics expert, Emmet's bylines include Wired News, The Economist, BBC Future, and Robotics Trends. He is particularly interested in commercialization of research and in the ethical, legal, and regulatory implications of emerging robotic and cyborg technology. Twitter: @emmetcole

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