Interview with NIA Director on supporting SMEs: generating economic return from Europe’s emerging industries

Europe is home to a great wealth of knowledge and skills but while it invests heavily in innovative technologies, all too often that investment fails to translate into economic returns within Europe itself. The Nanotechnology Industries Association (NIA) is aiming for big change, supporting its members in order to bring translational research out of academia, into development and out to market for the benefit of Europe. As Dr Claire Skentelbery puts it, “it’s all about making it easier to turn really interesting research into products.”

This year ENF2017 is excited to be joined by Skentelbery as the new director general of NIA. The conference is always a great opportunity for participants to widen the nano-communities in which they operate. As well as taking a high profile role with a shared stand in Malta, NIA are also co-organisers of the nanosafety workshop. We spoke to Skentelbery and Dr David Carlander, currently NIA’s director of regulatory affairs, to get an insight into the challenges faced by nanotech companies in Europe today and how NIA is helping to support their endeavours.

NIA is not exclusively for industry. It aims to engage researchers, academia and both large and small companies but its focus lies heavily on SMEs, as Skentelbery explains. “If SMEs were missing, a huge number of technologies would never leave university and never be developed to the maturity required for larger companies to take them further.”

SMEs are crucial but they are vulnerable. They usually have limited resources and management experience and require financial and administrative support at a regional, national and European level. Aside from that, they must also successfully navigate a highly complex regulatory landscape. Which is where NIA comes in.

Recently NIA announced the launch of its Funding Tracker. Recognising collaboration as a key driving force for better research, this tracking tool constantly scans for funding opportunities across many different programmes to find collaborative R&D projects that its members can get involved with. The idea is to focus on SME participation and allow their industrial perspective to drive scientific development. Often when university consortia take the lead they are more likely to stay within their comfort zones and take research only as far as the translational level they intend to reach. “You really need SMEs to take it that step further, develop it sufficiently so its de-risked for large company and investor attractiveness,” states Skentelbery. “Funding Tracker allows us to do that, and gives us the funding tools to use. Unfortunately we don’t have a large pot to fund collaborative R&D so we should make as much use as possible of what the EC and EU provides.”

While it is specifically targeted at SMEs, it could bring in the latest innovations from universities and large companies as downstream validation partners and market entry partners. Funding can also be sought further afield in the US or Canada or anywhere there are resources that a European SME can look to for potential funding and partnership. For most SMEs, it’s simply too large and complex a field to look at. With the Funding Tracker, NIA supports its members and provides focus to filter for what’s appropriate and beneficial. “We know our members so we can advise whether its a good a thing for them or not, and focus their limited resources on following the right collaborative funding,” says Skentelbery.

Another area where NIA’s members benefit from crucial guidance and support is nanomaterial regulation. The association plays a key role as accredited stakeholders to a variety of important decision making institutions, sitting with ECHA’s nanomaterial expert group and EFSA among others. It’s also involved with the OECD Working Party on Nanotechnology which is very active in ensuring test guidelines are appropriate and harmonised for worldwide use. The goal is to responsibly enforce regulation while at the same time ensuring a smooth product approval process. The potential to create asbestos-like structures has led to a comprehensive regulatory framework for working manufactured nanomaterials in a safe and appropriate way, but it’s a difficult balance to achieve, understanding and complying with regulations, getting a product to market and staying afloat.

NIA is most helpful to SMEs in the early stages of development because it’s then that they are at the most risk. It’s at this point that instruments like Funding Tracker come in to help SMEs strike the balance and work their way through the regulatory process and understand what the main questions and issues and are. “Understanding what you’re selling to customers, avoiding worker exposure, grasping the environmental impacts, safe-by-design approaches, avoiding the use of substances which may face regulatory hurdles further down the line – it’s a long and complex story.” says Carlander, “That’s where the regulatory director can provide support.”

At the heart of all of this is a deep concern about the future of Europe. From the industrial perspective there’s a huge desire to see Europe focus much more strongly on how it generates economic return from the early stage technology it invests so much in. Hence why NIA joined over a hundred other signatories in signing the Joint Declaration for an Ambitious EU Industrial Strategy. “We were approached a few months ago to sign it and it’s an extremely logical thing to do,” explains Skentelbery. “It takes a step back and looks at the whole raison d’être of Europe. It’s whole aim is to expand prosperity and harmonise collaborative working, but with all the great societal benefits that brings, it needs to have the same impact on a commercial level so it can really push things through the pipeline better. Europe’s run out of time to continue investing with no economic return. It needs that return now, and there hasn’t been enough specific focus on an industrial strategy.”

Skentelbery believes it’s critical to get this right in the next ten years, to generate economic returns from emerging industries across Europe so the benefits are felt at both a European level and a local level. NIA’s contribution is vital – by supporting SMEs, they are able to maintain their place in the product pipeline and ensure innovation is ongoing.