What do Michael O’Leary, Dr Margaret Chan, Vivienne Westwood, Andrew Witty, and Eric Schmidt have in common?

December 6, 2011

Let me start with telling you who they are. Perhaps that will help.

Michael O’Leary is the Chief Executive of Ryanair we love to hate. Vivienne Westwood is a leading fashion designer; you know the one with the shocking red hair. Dr Chan is the formidable Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO). Andrew Witty is the omnipresent CEO of GlaxoSmithKline Group. And Eric Schmidt is the Executive Chairman of Google, all the way from Mountain View, California.

It’s a tough one, I know, so I’ll end the suspense here.

Turns out some inspired soul at the European Commission’s Directorate General for Research and Innovation came up with the above, it must be said, rather innovative list of people (amongst others) to speak today  and yesterday at DG Research’s first innovation convention. The convention comes one year after the adoption of the EU’s Innovation Union flagship initiative, the EU’s masterplan to exiting the economic crisis by making Europe more innovation-friendly and competitive.

Fueling innovation to help solve all our problems and create more, sustainable jobs sounds like a viable strategy, but finding the right cocktail of ingredients to achieve such innovation is altogether less obvious. Making Europe the leader of such innovation is an even tougher conundrum.

To help Europe on its merry way, Michael O’Leary offered this bit of advice – ‘get the hell out of Brussels as quick as you can’ he said, or risk losing your innovative streak and new ideas, doomed to be dulled by the politicians and technocrats of the EU. Marvelously constructive advice I thought.

Dr Chan and Andrew Witty were more helpful when discussing their views on how innovation can deliver better health care globally. Innovation is seen as the necessary ingredient if we are going to make the next big discovery in healthcare, something we badly need given ever decreasing national healthcare budgets exacerbated by an ever increasing ageing population.

According to Dr Chan, innovation can come from just doing more with existing resources, given 20-40% of all healthcare spending is wasted. But it can also come from the power of collaboration across the international community, as demonstrated by the examples she cited ranging from the creation of a meningitis vaccine for sub-Saharan Africa through collaborations with industry to tackle tropical diseases.

But both Dr Chan and Witty warned that even when innovations are found through investment in research and development, the power of innovation can only be realised through effective delivery. Put simply, Witty said, ‘research for research sake doesn’t work – we need to know what to do with innovation once we achieve it’.

But I was left wondering whether the current policy and regulatory frameworks across Europe facilitate the required speed and depth of collaboration to achieve and deliver real innovation? Will the proposed funds and much promised reduced red tape in the Commission’s newly proposed research and innovation programme Horizon 2020 (the new FP8) help solve the challenges it seeks to address from well-being and excellent science through to industrial leadership? Dr Chan says yes, so long as the goal of achieving innovation is achieving social benefits (even if those ideas did originate in Brussels).

-Aoife

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