Demetris Skourides: RIF is the driving force behind Cyprus’ journey to becoming a major tech hub

In July 2023, Demetris Skourides was appointed as the new Chief Scientist for Research, Innovation and Technology. His role also includes the Chairmanship of the Research and Innovation Foundation (RIF).

He spoke to GOLD about RIF’s plans to address challenges on the local innovation scene and to connect innovative companies with market opportunities as well as explaining what Cyprus stands to gain from evolving into an innovation powerhouse.

Let’s start on a personal note: after almost six months in the Chief Scientist’s office, how have you settled into the role? Have the nuances of the position aligned with your initial expectations, and have there been any revelatory surprises, pleasant or otherwise?

When I left Cyprus to study and later work abroad, the country lagged behind in the research and innovation (R&I) arena. Upon my return to assume the role of Chief Scientist, I am proud to say that I have found a country with great prospects and opportunities, a vibrant R&I ecosystem and a rapidly growing community, consisting of a highly skilled and educated workforce. Following my appointment, I came to the delightful realisation that our country boasted twelve universities, seven Centres of Excellence, private and public research institutes and over 400 startups and innovative businesses. Moreover, it has filed more than 417 patent applications to the World Intellectual Property Organisation and has a high absorption rate of R&I funds from EU funding programmes. Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to visit an important number of research centres, startups and innovative companies, witnessing high-quality output first hand.

Indeed, these are some of the reasons why Cyprus emerged as a “Strong Innovator” on the 2023 European Innovation Scoreboard (EIS). However, the rankings also revealed that we lag significantly behind in finance and support; private funding, R&D expenditure and government support for business R&D are far below the EU average. How can we overcome these challenges?

While we have made great strides in improving the attractiveness of our ecosystem, we understand that cross-market synergies and opportunities can help us grow even more, allowing the ecosystem to become a major contributor to the country’s GDP. Namely, we need to strengthen collaborations between ecosystem stakeholders, commercialise the good research results generated in our country and enhance our international competitiveness through innovative entrepreneurship and innovative solutions. R&I rank high in the Government’s priorities, something that is evident by the Cabinet’s recent approval of the Research and Innovation Strategy 2024-2026, which aims at the sustainable development of the country and the modernisation of the state apparatus, as well as the reforms and investments as part of the National Recovery and Resilience Plan and the long-term Vision 2035 strategy. At the same time, the Smart Specialisation Strategy 2030 is already being implemented, while the action plan for 2023-24 recently published by the Deputy Ministry of Research, Innovation and Digital Policy promotes initiatives for the country’s digital transformation with a €230 million budget.

Do you believe that Cyprus has begun to establish a culture of innovation? And how does RIF actively contribute to nurturing such a culture?

Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, meaning that even if one has drafted a comprehensive strategy, it is bound to fail without a healthy culture. Having said that, the average Cypriot citizen has a very high understanding of technology and how to use it in a way that makes their life easier. Knowing this, RIF aims to instil a high-level innovation culture at all levels. Besides organising numerous student competitions and events, we have specifically designed the PhD in Industry, Post-Doc and R&I Internship programmes, offering career opportunities and prospects to students and postgraduates, encouraging researchers to pursue their goals and pushing businesses towards innovation. Moreover, these programmes foster and enhance the build-up of a collaborative culture between industry and research organisations leveraging top talent.

Tell us more about the RIF programmes designed to enable SMEs and startups to invest in strong R&D and not just digital adoption or marketing technologies.

Since 2016, RIF has allocated more than €148 million to members of the local ecosystem. Furthermore, through its Innovation programmes, the Foundation has allocated €28 million in funding to 104 companies, including 64 startups. At this moment, a new programme (CODEVELOP- REPowerEU) is accepting proposals and offering funding opportunities of up to €600,000 to businesses forging partnerships with research organisations to develop technological solutions for energy challenges. Furthermore, the call for proposals under the Research in Business-Energy programme, with a €4 million budget, which aims at the development of solutions to address challenges Cyprus is facing in the production, storage, transmission and distribution of electricity, recently closed and the evaluation process is ongoing. The new call for proposals under the Pre-Seed programme was also recently completed, reporting a record number of 134 applications, 106 of which were from newly established startups. Additionally, RIF will announce 2024 programmes targeting startups and SMEs, such as the Innovate programme. It should be stressed that the beneficiaries of all programmes automatically gain access to the innovation and knowledge transfer services offered by the RIF Central Knowledge Transfer Office (CKTO) – they are free of charge!

The small size of the Cypriot market means that developing strong innovations is only one part of the equation; Cypriot startups and SMEs will need to sell abroad. Can you expand on how RIF facilitates the extroversion of local innovation?

RIF is the driving force behind Cyprus’ journey to becoming a major tech hub; therefore, promoting the local ecosystem abroad is at the top of our priorities. At the heart of this policy is our close cooperation with relevant agencies abroad, such as The Tech Gala, which we co-organised with our Bulgarian, Hungarian and Polish counterparts in Helsinki. It was organised in the context of the renowned Slush festival and participating in world-class exhibitions plays an integral role in our bid to promote our country abroad. On this note, we have also participated in GITEX Global in Dubai (and plan to be part of the Mobile Work Congress in Barcelona), among others, where, together with RIF’s team, we present our country’s advantages as an R&I hub and provide Cypriot startups the opportunity to promote their work. Regarding our programmes for the Cyprus ecosystem, due to increased interest, we recently extended the deadline of the Disrupt blended finance programme, increasing the budget by €3 million. The programme combines public funding with private equity to support the exponential growth of Cypriot businesses in international markets.

You mentioned the recently established CKTO, which is spearheaded by the internationally acclaimed expert Dr Leah Speser. How does the Office help connect startups with local corporates to validate their products and services, which is currently not a common feature of the local scene?

The Central Knowledge Transfer Office specifically aims to bridge the gap between academia, research institutions and industry, turning research into innovative products. As mentioned, the services are free of charge to all R&I-performing organisations in Cyprus and are provided by a group of experts with extensive international experience and an established track record. They include IP ownership assessment, patent landscaping, IP protection strategy and commercial opportunity assessment, as well as technology marketing and negotiations support for commercialisation agreements. It should be noted that the CKTO operations are funded under the ‘Cyprus Tomorrow’ Recovery and Resilience Plan, its services are complementary to the funding programmes provided by RIF and aim to increase the impact of the investment made in R&I.

As public funds amplify within the local ecosystem, how has RIF structured its programmes to incentivise private investments?

For the current programming period 2021-2027, RIF has launched a new framework of funding programmes, allocating a total of €150 million in targeted investments in various areas, including research, collaboration and knowledge transfer, innovation, infrastructure and capacity development, as well as expansion and internationalisation. Moreover, we will allocate a budget of €34.5 million specifically for internationalisation programs, €30 million for research, €33.6 million for collaboration and knowledge transfer programmes and €34 million for innovation programmes, while another €16.9 million will be allocated for the development of infrastructure and capabilities.

How does RIF plan to streamline processes to support the ecosystem and provide on-time fund disbursement?

To accelerate and improve our processes, namely the speed and effectiveness with which RIF examines submitted proposals, disburses funds and checks and controls their implementation by beneficiaries, the Foundation has taken steps towards developing its employees’ technological skills. We aim to enable the Foundation to use cutting-edge technology, such as Artificial Intelligence, for the benefit of the ecosystem. To this end, we also plan to launch a tender to revamp the IRIS Portal. The steps we took in recent years have taken RIF’s operational efficiency to a whole new level, greatly increasing the number of disbursements to beneficiaries. At the same time, we have greatly reduced the time required for contracting projects while we are actively working to minimise it even more.

Finally, let’s speculate about the future: What will be the tangible benefits to the socio-economic landscape of Cyprus if it evolves into an innovation powerhouse?

The role of technology and innovation in accelerating growth cannot be understated. They have the potential to develop transformative innovations in response to real-world needs, facilitate knowledge spillovers and drive business specialisation, create new and more meaningful jobs, as well as modernise and build synergies with the strongest traditional industries. However, even though we are rapidly turning into a regional hub for R&I, we are far from calling ourselves an innovation powerhouse. Imagine the positive impact this status could have on our economy and the citizens of our country. Cyprus has all the attributes to advance even further, with the right policies and strategies, the availability of talent, skillsets and a tech-savvy workforce, which are complemented by a central location between continents, its climate and landscape, and a growing economy. We are confident that we are on the right track to pursue further growth!

(Photo of Skourides by TASPHO)

(This interview first appeared in the February edition of GOLD magazine. Click here to view it.)

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