Innovation has always been the key to the progress of our civilization. But nowadays they also face a number of difficulties. Mainly because of the crises that have befallen Europe in the last few years. However, crises are also a chance for innovators and startups to show their potential. Here is the role of Cleantech Bulgaria as a hub manager of the EIT, which supports and evaluates proposals of investors and start-up companies with ideas. And such efforts are always worth noting, because they can offer a variety of solutions to food policy problems, for example. Some of these possibilities were discussed at the international conference Green transition 2022: "Green Deal - Innovation, Investment and Fair Transition", organized by Dir.bg and 3eNews. On the topic of how agro-innovations are developing and have potential in our country and whether there are already beginnings of an ecosystem, we are talking here with Mariana Hamanova, Executive Director of Cleantech Bulgaria.
Ms. Hamanova, your organization is a leader in the field of innovation and sustainable development in our country. How do you manage to make other companies also believe in the green idea and sustainable development?
For over ten years, Clienttech Bulgaria has been working to promote innovation and support sustainable economic development in Bulgaria. Involving universities, research organizations and businesses in the process of creating and implementing innovations is a key factor in our work. At the same time, the involvement of state institutions and interaction with local authorities allowed us to be active participants in defining a strategic framework to support innovative solutions and helped us in the implementation of follow-up activities. On the basis of successfully completed projects we achieved great visibility and the companies began to recognize Cleantech Bulgaria as a trusted partner with proven expertise in the topics of green and digital transition, circular economy and innovation.
At Cleantech Bulgaria we follow daily the current policies and trends in the field of green transition, as well as international sources of funding and targeted support. We have established networks of contacts and partners in the country with whom we communicate this knowledge and experience and we manage to feed the local innovation ecosystem with the latest information, while providing expert support in the process of realizing these opportunities. The circular economy and the green transformation of business is particularly relevant in the context of declining access to key raw materials and rising prices of various goods and services globally. I would say that the need to address these challenges is already quite apparent, and the only possible way is to optimize resources and introduce more sustainable business models.
Tell us a little more about how the European Institute of Innovation and Technology perceives Europe's green policies? Do businesses and people manage to understand that this is important not only for the environment but also for our existence as a European civilization?
The main role of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) is to take innovative technologies out of research laboratories and turn them into marketable products that will qualitatively change life and the economy in Europe. The EIT works through so-called Knowledge and Innovation Communities, which work in key areas such as climate, food, manufacturing, health, digitalisation, urban mobility, sustainable energy, and raw materials. They all work to transform different aspects of the socio-economic environment with a focus on education, science and business.
With the adoption of the Green Deal as a framework strategy document for achieving climate neutrality by 2050, the role of the EIT has become even more important as they have an international community of leading companies, universities and research centers partnership implement innovative projects, develop capacity, digital, green and circular solutions in various fields, but also promote the role of innovation as an engine for sustainable development. In this regard, Europe's green policies are the natural framework in which the EIT operates and grows. I think that both business and the public already clearly recognize the importance of such measures, because the world we live in requires tackling various challenges - climate, economic and social.
What is the role of Cleantech Bulgaria in its capacity as EIT Hub Manager in support of startup innovation ideas?
Cleantech Bulgaria has been an official partner of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology since 2015 till now, it has managed three regional innovation centers - in the field of climate (EIT Climate-KIC), manufacturing (EIT Manufacturing) and food (EIT Food). At the national level, our model of work is to connect universities and research centers where research is born, with entrepreneurs to turn them into successful businesses and with the industry that is hungry for innovative solutions. Every year we provide access to nearly 20 entrepreneurship programs and training formats in which our startups and entrepreneurs can get involved and benefit from funding and specialized business development services. By joining the innovative formats we offer, Bulgarian entrepreneurs can grow their business internationally, while strengthening their domestic capacity. Over 200 companies have so far been part of these programs and dozens are those for which Clienttech Bulgaria has been a springboard to success nationally and internationally.
Does the business succeed in producing fruitful ideas on climate or food policies that are sustainable? Are investors interested in supporting such startups and companies in general?
Yes, businesses are increasingly interested in innovation in these areas. Bulgaria has excellent prerequisites for the development of organic farming, for the creation of innovative products and services in a number of sectors such as transport, light industry, as well as in the processing of various materials. The key is in linking the traditional sectors of our country with innovations in the field of circular economy and digitalization of processes. Companies see the business potential of these solutions because it leads to cost optimization and increased profits for themselves. In this way, an amalgam of positive effects is obtained - the development of innovations with sustainable environmental and human impact and increased competitiveness of companies, therefore improved working and social environment in the regions.
It has recently become clear that you, together with the Agricultural University of Plovdiv and the Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski", are taking an initiative in support of young entrepreneurs and their development in the agricultural sector. Could you tell us more about this initiative?
Since 2021 we have launched a key partnership with the Agricultural University of Plovdiv and Sofia University, working together to develop entrepreneurial skills in students, teachers and researchers. It is very important for change to start with the education system - where knowledge is formed. In today's world, it is not enough to be a good engineer, but also to have the skills to transform the knowledge acquired and learned at university through the prism of business and trends in the sector in which you work. This is how innovation is born. They are the result of a specific need on the part of business or society.
The agro-industry and innovation have been well known for years. How do you see the development of the sector in the next decade? Can we expect more and more startups and innovations to help solve Europe's food problems?
The growing population of the planet is putting pressure on economies and production chains. On the other hand, climate change puts at risk both the harvest and access to key resources that until recently were not considered insufficient or endangered (such as water). In this regard, innovation in the agro-industry will be increasingly important both economically and socially. Agro-innovation has the potential to transform the sector so that it meets growing nutritional needs without adversely affecting the environment. We already have some excellent examples of innovations from Bulgaria that are recognized at the international level and we expect this trend to deepen and see more and more innovative solutions in the agro-industry at the European level.
Is digitalisation a key priority for Europe's development? How can this new universe of opportunities reach more companies and ultimately improve people's well-being? Where are your efforts as a hub manager?
Digitalisation is perceived by the European Commission as a driving force for the green transition, ie. digital solutions are the key to a more sustainable Europe. This concept is also at the core of the European Industrial Strategy, which puts the dual transition (green and digital) in the focus of current transformation processes. In this regard, the entry of digital solutions into the industry is essential both for the EIT and for other programs such as Digital Europe. Cleantech Bulgaria as the Hub Manager of the EIT Innovation and Knowledge Communities provides a number of opportunities for Bulgarian companies to develop their digital potential, incl. building internal capacity for digitalization and solving specific production challenges.
I could also give a few examples of our current open programs - through EIT Manufacturing we offer the opportunity for Bulgarian manufacturing companies to join the Smart Digi program, where they can submit specific challenges in the field of digitalization and absolutely free to receive solutions to deal with them from experts and scientists from Greece, Spain and Czech Republic. On June 14, 2022 we organized an online information session about the program and we invite all companies that have an interest to get involved and learn more about this opportunity.
Another example is the EC's Digital Europe program, which is currently building a network of European digital innovation hubs. The main activity of these hubs will be to provide digitalization services to companies from all sectors. Cleantech Bulgaria is a co-founder of such an innovative hub in construction and together with the Chamber of Builders in Bulgaria, the Chamber of Architects, universities, BAS and leading construction companies will provide access to various specialized services for digitalization of the construction sector. This is a good example of bringing these technologies to practical use in industry and improving the competencies of those employed in the construction sector, as well as the well-being of the population as a whole.