The Malta Independent 12 May 2021, Wednesday

Taking our country to the next level

Owen Bonnici Friday, 16 April 2021, 07:43 Last update: about 26 days ago

We strongly believe that talent, research and innovation are key drivers to take Malta’s economy and industry to the next level. 

Keeping on doing the same things, in the same way, is simply not enough, particularly so in a changed post-Covid world.

The recipe for success is nurturing talent, applying that talent to research and providing new ways to do things. These new ways are then commercialized, not only locally, but also abroad to a wide portfolio of clients, leading to solutions to the burning questions or to improvements in the quality of life.

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Talent alone in a vacuum cannot give rise to all this. We need a whole robust ecosystem of innovation in which new ideas can be transformed in economic growth and generate new wealth. To do that, the academic sector and private industry alike have to be strong protagonists.

Today, I would like to focus on the private sector and the need to understand their requirements in the context of the excellent work the Malta Council for Science and Technology does in the creation of this ecosystem.

I would like to share with you the results of an internal survey undertaken by MCST between May and July 2020, through the help of an external consultant, to understand better the whole landscape in so far as the private sector is concerned.

A total of 485 companies were identified in this survey and the response rate was 26%. The majority of respondents were from the ICT/Digital (37%) sector and the Manufacturing business (47%). 40% of the respondents employ less than 50 employees, while another 36% employ less than 10 employees.

15% of the respondents employ more than 250 employees, with the absolute majority of them hailing from the manufacturing sector. 

In crude terms, the survey concludes that the awareness of MCST is very high, but the knowledge of services is comparatively low. 

When asked how they became aware of MCST, the respondents said that they were referred to MCST by other entities. Social media, in turn, was the most effective platform through which entities learned about MCST and its programmes.

In fact, MCST, over the past months and as a result of this exercise, has strongly ramped up its focus on promotional channels and outreach campaigns. The excellent communication team at the Council designs dedicated marketing campaigns for each of the programmes, including branding and social media and Google ad promotion and sponsored ads.

Here comes the beef of the survey: Recruitment (68%) was identified as being by far the largest challenge in R&I by the private sector respondents. Put simply, the companies participating in this survey said that they are not finding the required human resources or talent for the particular research or innovation they would like to embark on.

Access to funding (40%), became a relatively distant second. Other challenges were the ability to form collaborations (30%), as well as not understanding the need for research and how one undertakes research as a process (25%).

An exercise was also taken on these four challenges according to the size of entities. Access to funding, according to the results, becomes more difficult the larger the company is. 

In turn, the recruitment challenge is more difficult for companies employing 249 employees or less. Surprisingly the R&I process challenge is deemed to be very difficult by the larger companies and less difficult the smaller the company is.

As I see it, there seems to be general agreement across the size of entities that recruitment is a challenge, access to funding is perceived to be generally difficult, and access to collaborations seems to depend on the experience of the respondents.

MCST has already started reaching out further to the private sector, through working closer with governmental entities such as Malta Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Malta Enterprise.

An example of this collaboration is the joint event held in the form of a Webinar, in March 2021. This webinar, which was well attended, focused on the presentation of the MCST FUSION programme, the presentation of the Malta Enterprise R&D scheme, as well success stories from either side.

In that webinar, a poll was taken on a number of very pertinent questions on the same line of the survey which I have just written about. For instance, the attendees were asked whether they were aware of the funding schemes presented in that webinar. The majority (55%) said no.

When asked whether the organisation has participated in externally funded research projects, 72% said no. 14 % participated in one or two, 7% participated in 3 to 5 and another 7% participated in more than 5 externally funded research projects.

Again, the largest challenge, according to the webinar attendees, to participation was the unavailability of human resources to undertake research projects. It seems to be a constant theme that private entities struggle to recruit expert researchers for their research projects.

The second highest response (24%) was that the entity does not normally conduct research. Despite very clear deliveries from MCST and Malta Enterprise, some entities answered that they still did not understand the programmes and others said that they are not relevant to their needs. We need to work harder to instil a culture of innovation in our collective mind-set and underline why there is an absolute need of having a robust ecosystem of innovation to take Malta to the next level.

It is clear, from an analysis of both exercises, that there are four challenges that we need to overcome in order to build a robust ecosystem of innovation wherein the private sector is an active protagonist.

Firstly, we need to present our funding opportunities very clearly. Secondly some entities remain unconvinced that research is important and that is why effective promotion that is structured and continuous is required. Thirdly, we need to ensure that the funding available is appropriate for the entity’s needs. Finally and most importantly, we need to address the human resources/skills gaps in research.

It is a fact that private sector participation in national programmes of MCST is limited.  While MCST is the largest Maltese funder by far of research projects involving the private sector, still, over 75% of MCST funding goes to public entities.

On a more positive note however, the private sector in the widest sense of the definition (thus including foundations and private research organisations) is a good protagonist, with regards to R&I&D, in the EU Framework Programme.

Here, most of the private sector participation is in the Marie Curie Actions, particularly with regards staff exchanges and training, but there are other projects which stand out. 

A notable project from the private sector is one piloted by AcrossLimits which is participating in a Research Infrastructure project. This project is about digitalisation, computational techniques in processing and analysis for the BioExcel Centre of Excellence. Hats off to Angele Guiliano and her team!

Let us all make an effort and do our part to construct a robust system of innovation in Malta, where both the academia and the private sector are protagonists. Let us take our country to the next level!

 

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