Elite project strengthening entrepreneurship an innovation

What does it take to succeed in Europe's most competitive educational cooperation programme? Alessandro Leonardi can give a few tips. He is leading one of the ten projects that made the grade last year to receive funding as an Erasmus+ Knowledge Alliance.

Author: Andreas Kjeldsberg Pihl.

Published: 27.07.2016

Alessandro Leonardi (foto: Katrine Moland Hansen)

‘The knowledge and skills of entrepreneurship and innovation among researchers and students are insufficient,’ said Allessandro Leonardi, project coordinator and business manager (photo: Katrine M. Hansen, SIU)

The project, named ECOSTAR, promotes innovation and entrepreneurship in the field of ecosystem services and biodiversity. The aim is to develop a lasting European research and industry alliance that realizes innovation through cooperation between higher education, research and business.

‘Companies that succeed with innovation, create values by making better use of their ideas. By strengthening the cooperation between universities and enterprises, this project will increase opportunities for commercialization of new processes, methods and services in the field of marketing and economics of ecosystem services and biodiversity,’ Leonardi explained.

This is in line with the objectives of Erasmus + Knowledge Alliances, increased innovation and entrepreneurship, together with the development of new methods of teaching and learning together with and within businesses.

Created a business during his studies

‘The knowledge and skills of entrepreneurship and innovation among researchers and students are insufficient,’ Leonardi said. During his PhD studies he established ETIFOR, a spin-off enterprise. ETIFOR provides advice and assistance to private, public and voluntary organizations on responsible management of forests and natural resources. Now the company is one of nine partners from five different countries included in the ECOSTAR project.

A knowledge alliance is a major international partnerships between education and business, supported through the EU education program Erasmus +. Selected from more than 200 applications, ECOSTAR was one of only ten projects accepted in 2015 and was granted almost 1 million euros in funding.

The three-year project includes four universities, four companies and one US-based non-governmental research organization. It is divided into work packages where the responsibility is evenly distributed among the partners.

‘A knowledge alliance needs to be led by people who understand both the research and the business languages. Sometimes the institutional goals are very different and there is the need for people able to link and create clear synergies for both realities,’ Leonardi said. In addition to running his own business, he is employed as ECOSTAR project coordinator by the University of Padova.

Mutual gains for businesses and university

‘For universities, the project helps strengthening market-driven research and education. It strengthens business understanding among faculty and students, and can thus help to create new spin-offs. It also strengthens the network with the business community, which is necessary for future EU funding in Horizon 2020 and Erasmus +,’ he said.

For companies, this is a strategic investment. The project is rooted in the goals of both large and small firms participating, according to Leonardi. Through the knowledge alliance, companies can invest in research and development, engage and recruit young scientists and students, keep up-to-date with sector-specific innovations and strengthen their European network. In addition, companies learn from other business models through collaboration.

The project will develop curricula and training materials that integrate innovation and entrepreneurship in the field. Students completing the courses will compete for a prize for the best business plan and gain support from the companies in the partnership to implement that plan. Employees will sit in on classes at one of the partner universities to learn from research that is relevant to the business.

Companies must participate actively

The project is driven by expectations of a lasting effect on the participants, the industry, the research field and the society.

‘We spent 6 – 8 months to develop the idea. The project had to be designed so that the activities have a measurable impact on all the challenges that were identified in the application. An example of a measurable effect is the creation of spin-offs,’ Leonardi pointed out.

‘Collaboration with companies is crucial to achieve impact. Unless companies actively participate in the project, you can forget about EU funding’ he said.

International study background

Networking and relevant expertise is an important basis for developing a knowledge alliance. As a student, Leonardi went on exchange twice as well as participated in two intensive courses under the EU’s Lifelong Learning Programme. An Erasmus internship in the non-profit organization COPADE in Madrid provided him with useful experience in writing applications for EU funding, which he believes all PhD students should have knowledge of.

Through Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs he also enjoyed a stay with one of the other companies that are now part of the knowledge alliance.

‘I would never hire someone who has not been on Erasmus. Being "European" is a prerequisite for success in nowadays businesses and projects.’