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Developing research and innovation infrastructures in the Western Balkans: From SEEIIST to 3D printing

Top research also needs top research infrastructures (RI). This is recognised by the European Commission who defines, evaluates and implements strategies and tools to provide Europe with world-class sustainable Research Infrastructures and encourages all EU Member States as well as associated countries to develop national RI roadmaps.

In the WB6, the stakeholders are well aware how important it is to get large-scale research infrastructures in to the region. A lot of effort has been invested in to a proposal to include the South East European International Institute for Sustainable Technologies (SEEIIST) into the strategic roadmap of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) for key infrastructures. Such roadmaps are important to reduce duplication, to structure financial support and to ensure adequate coverage of all areas with state-of-the-art instruments. This goes for the large-scale investments, but also for smaller research infrastructures.

Montenegro and Serbia have already completed their national RI roadmaps, while roadmaps for the other WB6 have been created during 2021 with the support of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC). Together they will feed into a WB6 regional Roadmap on Research and Innovation infrastructures which will be available by the end of the year. Sinisa Marčić from RCC highlights the importance of such ambitious projects because “often we do not know what is going on regionally, who does what, which initiatives are ongoing or planned and may be beneficial to our partners in the WB”. He adds that, whenever possible, available research and innovation infrastructures should be made accessible regionally and beyond.

There is a particular need also for innovation infrastructures that are available to wider target groups, companies but also interested citizens and students, who want to experiment, test their ideas and acquire crucial development skills. This is crucial at the PoC stage of a project. With a 3D-printer available or some digital electronics, different materials and cutting equipment, tools can be developed and rapid prototyping can take place. However, a survey by EU4TECH PoC demonstrated that in general, prototyping support in the WB6 is very low, particularly in North Macedonia. Some fabrication laboratories (FabLabs) are available in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia, as highlighted in an international mapping exercise but they are also absent from the landscape in NM.

In order to support the development of prototyping facilities, the Fund for Innovations and Technology Development (FITD) in North Macedonia launched a call for FabLabs. These must build on existing R&D facilities e.g. hosted in higher education or research organisations. The aim is to open up the available equipment and create networks within the innovation ecosystem, reaching out to schools and to run programmes for students and young people. The applications received are currently under evaluation and Katarina Kreceva, Head of Department for Development of Programs at FITD expects the programmes to be starting at the beginning of 2022. She highlights that the EU4TECH report on mapping of prototyping facilities “was an important argument to convince the authorities that this is very much needed. We could see from the report that there are no prototyping facilities that offer the diverse scope of services.” This pilot programme will be running for one year and it is expected that the experience of the initial two FabLabs will be scaled up further.

Filip Kostandinoski, a twenty-year old entrepreneur currently establishing a company under the working name of FIXIGO. Together with two fellow students from the University “Ss. Cyril and Methodius”, Gorjan and Mihail, he experienced the need for improved prototyping infrastructure first hand. With mentorship and support from EU4TECH, the group carefully surveyed the market in agriculture and secured the support of local agricultural companies to implement tests in the field. However, all hardware and software development has been undertaken by the team and a local company has supported them by ordering the components that they needed. Here availability of structured prototyping support would have helped a lot.

FIXIGO hope that the farmers in North Macedonia and beyond will be able to “produce more with less” using their product and services. They have indeed wider goals, as the means to collect and process data can also be used in other industries and by research organisations. “A lot of good ideas stay in the lab because of a lack of entrepreneurial skills” said Filip. Therefore, he expects the upcoming FabLabs to be critical hubs, supporting ambitious young people to build up their skills, create networks and exchange experiences – while their prototypes can be developed and validated and their intellectual property rights remain protected. These young innovators have already benefited from both national and EU-funded support, and appreciate the private and public sector actors who empowered them: They offer a truly bright outlook for the future of the Western Balkans!

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