BLUE BIOECONOMY IN THE MEDITERRANEAN: CHALLENGES AND NICHES FOR GROWTH

Ms. Iva Milašinčić is the Head of the Development Unit of the Croatian Agency for SMEs, Innovation and Investments (HAMAG-BICRO) where she is in charge of more than 10 EU and national projects. PANORAMED caught up with her recently, diving into an interesting Q&A interview on Blue Bioeconomy.

1. Can you tell us about the main activities of your organisation? What is your role and area of work within the Agency?

During its 25 years of operation, the main objective of the Croatian Agency for SMEs, Innovations and Investments (HAMAG-BICRO) is reflected in the strategic creation of a unique system that would provide support to entrepreneurs through all development stages of operation. These start from research and development of an idea to the commercialisation and placement on the market. The Agency also provides financial support to innovative and technology-oriented enterprises in Croatia. It does so in numerous ways such as increasing the commercialisation of knowledge and awareness about the value of innovations, supporting the transfer of knowledge and technological solutions from the scientific sector to industry and the economy, promoting the establishment and development of technology infrastructure and providing loans and guarantees. The Agency is included in almost all relevant initiatives and bodies responsible for programming and strategy development in the area of entrepreneurship and innovation, on the national and regional level.

I am the Head of the Development Unit at the Development and Beneficiaries Support Division. This aims to implement innovation projects in order to develop new programmes that contribute to strengthening the innovation system and the competitiveness of entrepreneurship by implementing EU projects dealing with the testing of new policy instruments.

2. What is your level of involvement within the PANORAMED platform?

HAMAG-BICRO’s involvement within PANORAMED platform started with its appointment as an external expert in the National Thematic Group for Innovation (NTG10) which is included in the third strategic theme - Innovation structured in two sub-themes: 1) Blue technologies and 2) Social entrepreneurship. Moreover, we are currently applying as partners to the announced Second Call for strategic project proposals: Enhancing Mediterranean Governance.

3. From your perspective, what are the main challenges for innovation, and particularly for Blue Bioeconomy, in the Mediterranean?

Blue biotechnology R&D is supported under a broader strategic network, within an overarching science and technology strategy and as part of a more general marine or biotechnology research plan. Blue biotechnology is a new area of biotechnology that is considered rather ‘invisible’ by current key players. The sector is complex and from the outside, there is little understanding of what exactly it is. As such, blue biotechnology is seen as unattractive to investors and investment hard to obtain.

SMEs tend to be single-focus marine bioactive companies, operating at the high-risk ‘cash-burn’ stage where screened products are converted into potential products for up scaling and commercialisation. Due to the inherent risks associated with this phase, financing is unpredictable. SMEs can therefore be very vulnerable. Currently, there are either non-existent or weak partnerships between researchers, SMEs and industry. There is a lack of coordination further along the chain between those conducting research in initial product development, investors and the SMEs and industry (within which the blue biotechnology application is planned to be used). Concerning the timing of engagement between researchers and industry, engagement with industry is often regarded as incidental to basic R&D or post-research, downstream activity. This can leave R&D results stranded, either without a ready market or unable to reach the anticipated market for technical or feasibility reasons. SMEs tend to be absent from industrial production, for reasons mostly linked to high capital expenditure.

4. What steps should be taken in the coming years to efficiently tackle these challenges you mention?

SMEs are important actors in the blue biotechnology value chain as they bridge the gap between public sector, R&D and commercialisation of products. Blue biotechnology SMEs are generally responsible for the initial product development stage of the value chain. This stage includes identification, validation and de-risking of industrial opportunities related to marine bio resources. Earlier collaboration between researchers and industry (within funded R&D projects) would help to make sure that products of blue biotechnology research are appropriate for upscaling and commercial production. In the absence of easy access to investment, research funded from public funds is usually part of the financing model, and SMEs can work in collaboration with researchers at universities or institutes as well as larger industrial companies.

Moreover, there is a need to:

  • Increase focus on spreading awareness about the importance of blue biotechnology and social entrepreneurship.
  • Create initiatives and networks with the aim of providing a coherent framework for blue biotechnology activities.
  • Achieve more acceptable climate for the development of start-ups and innovative technologies.
  • Interconnect the accompanying measures and programmes by following all the phases of the research and the process to ensure avoidance of overlapping or double financing.

5. What are the actions carried out by HAMAG-BICRO in this regard?

HAMAG-BICRO promotes the establishment and development of technology infrastructures and provides loans and guarantees by implementing programmes such as:

  • Innovation vouchers - Provision of professional support by scientific-research organisations in the field of contractual service delivery
  • Innovation of newly established SMEs - Phase II - To foster the innovation of newly established MSPs and to successfully launch new and emerging market growth products and services with a focus on commercialisation of products and services
  • Development of new products and services - IRI Phase II - Development of new or significantly improved products and services arising from research and development activities
  • Commercialisation of Innovation Products/SMEs Services in S3 Areas - Encourage SMEs on commercialisation of innovation products and services exclusively in line with the priority thematic areas of the Smart Specification S3
  • Integrator Programme - To support the collaboration of MSPs with the creation of new innovative products and services to establish supplier relations with Integration companies and become part of their value chain
  • State aid for research development projects
  • Programme of the innovative concept - PoC 8 - To finance pre-commercialisation activities at an early stage of research and development of innovative products and services that are not known whether they are technologically feasible
  • EUREKA and Eurostars - International Network for Supporting Market-Oriented Research and Development Projects

6. In your opinion, what are the main niches for growth in the Blue Bioeconomy field in the Mediterranean?

Many areas of emerging technologies could open new opportunities. On one side, enabling technologies (e.g. bioinformatics, advanced robotics, nanotechnology) have a big potential to improve results. On the other side, many BBT specific technologies are available yet not integrated into the value chain such as technologies related to biomaterials, biotechnology, biomedicine, synthetic biology, bio-sensing, information technologies, etc. Last but not least, the promotion of balanced land/sea exploiting is important. Innovative ICT based solutions related to food security, blue growth, bio-based innovation for sustainable goods and services (combining specific scientific and innovative expertise in ICT, life sciences and ecological monitoring) Micro and Macro Algae, sponge Farming and Exploitation, solutions for water management, wide spectrum of cross-sector possibilities among health, cosmetics, food, energy, aquaculture, environmental health and ICT. 

7. How can Europe make the most of these opportunities? In your opinion, are PANORAMED’s activities contributing to this? 

In my opinion, PANORAMED activities can and are contributing to opportunities for growth by:

  • Establishing efficient blue bio policies and governmental solutions (less fragmented, more focused, with close relation to S3)
  • Establishing policy solutions for fruitful international/regional cooperation and harmonisation (related to policies, legislation, R&D, economy)
  • Creating a common regulatory framework/legislation among the different countries
  • Accelerating economic development based on Blue biotechnologies (health, cosmetics, food, energy, aquaculture, environmental health, ICT)
  • Supporting jobs creation and maintaining competitiveness
  • Removing or lowering the barriers for cooperation among researchers and high-tech companies
  • Developing national/international funds and mechanisms to support blue bio projects and start-ups
  • Increasing understanding on and developing investment landscape for Blue bio projects and businesses
  • Supporting R&D, SME and start-ups as crucial economic engine of development
  • Enhancing the development of business models addressing market needs and providing final solutions
  • Developing business models that enable cooperation of large companies and start-ups
  • Creating training programmes which should address expert specific and interdisciplinary topics as well as soft skills (e.g. regarding cooperation among scientists, stakeholders, policy and decision makers, civil society)
  • Defining new blue bio jobs’ profiles addressing current & future needs
  • Creating know-how ecosystem services (access to R&D results, projects, know-how, data)
  • Mapping and sharing of blue biobank infrastructures
  • Strengthening synergies among science, industry, policymakers and civil society
  • Building/promoting international networks and sectorial consortia
  • Raising awareness of blue biomass/products value regarding quality, health benefits and functionalities.
  • Developing new data mining tools and exploiting research results
  • Strengthening cooperation with other sectors by fostering the implementation of actions that promote cross-sectoral interconnection and knowledge sharing in the fields of R&D, technology transfer, open innovation and entrepreneurship

8. Specifically for the case of Croatia, are there any specific examples worth mentioning in order to illustrate how the country is approaching these opportunities? 

Projects listed as examples of good practices implemented in Croatia:

  1. HTP-GLYCOMET (Methods for high-throughput glycoproteomic analysis)
  2. Development of an efficient methodology for the analysis of the construction of vessels by the finite element method – remake
  3. GDi Ensemble FloodSmart
  4. Innovative production of biodiesel from microalgae
  5. solarCat
  6. BlueGenics – From gene to bioactive product: Exploiting marine genomics for an innovative and sustainable European blue biotechnology industry
  7. Parasite risk assesment with integrated tools in EU fish production value chains
  8. Consumer driven Production: Integrating Innovative Approaches for Competitive and Sustainable Performance across the Mediterranean Aquaculture Value Chain
  9. ERA-NET Cofund on Blue Bioeconomy - Unlocking the potential of aquatic bioresources
  10. HYPERBIOCOAT- High performance biomass extracted functional hybrid polymer coatings for food, cosmetic and medical device packaging