Kyriakos Kokkinos: We need to educate the country’s business world on the benefits of investing in innovation.

Kyriakos Kokkinos: We need to educate the country’s business world on the benefits of investing in innovation.

On 1st February 2019 the Cypriot president appointed Kyriakos Kokkinos as the new chief scientist of Cyprus. Kyriakos is a former executive of IBM and PWC with 3 decades of experience in the Information Technology sector.

The appointment of this new role is an important milestone to the research and innovation scene in Cyprus. So we decided to send some questions to the new chief scientist and conduct an interview about the future of innovation in Cyprus.

1. Who is the new chief scientist and what is his role?

It is important first to identify the reasons that led to the creation of this new institution, almost a year ago. Recognizing the importance and impact of research and innovation on economic growth and societal benefits, the Government of the Republic of Cyprus adopted a new research and innovation (R&I) governance system that reflects the need to draft and implement an ambitious national strategy for R&I. The decision was taken by the Council of Ministers in October 2018, followed by the appointment of the first Chief Scientist by the President of the Republic of Cyprus in January 2019. My role as a Chief Scientist within the new R&I Governance System entails the political mission to lead and coordinate all efforts that will establish Cyprus as a dynamic and competitive economy, driven by research, scientific excellence, innovation, technological development and entrepreneurship while enhancing our country’s role as a regional hub in these fundamental areas. Essentially the Chief Scientist is the political and executive owner for Research and Innovation within the newly adopted R&I Governance System and also holds a number of ex-officio roles such as Member of the National Board for R&I (NBRI), Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Research and Innovation Foundation (RIF) and Chairman of Ministries’ R&I Coordinators’ Committee.

2. The Research Promotion Foundation was renamed Research and Innovation Foundation in which you have also been appointed as Chairman of its Board of Directors. What are the new actual changes and what is the role of the Foundation?

Within the new R&I Governance System, RIF’s role is being expanded, marking its transition into a new era. More specifically, RIF serves as the executive arm of the new governance system while its renaming reflects its broadened mission, given that innovation is now part of its portfolio. Apart from its mission, its statute has changed as well as both the composition and structure of the Board of Directors, aiming at better serving the research and innovation ecosystem in Cyprus while supporting the mission of Chief Scientist. Our main objective nevertheless, is to emphasize its role as a customer-centric organisation and as a platform of expression for the recipients of the Foundation’s services such as the research, academic and scientific community, businesses, startups etc.

3. What is the new strategy for Cyprus and the vision for a more innovative country?

The R&I strategic framework, which has been developed by the NBRI and aspires to bring the aforementioned vision into realization, revolves around three principal strategic pillars and six horizontal pillars that act as enablers of strategic importance. These include the adoption of an integrated, coherent and operational governance system, the implementation of a national strategy for technological, social and economic development of Cyprus, the development of a sustainable system of academic and research excellence, the enhancement of knowledge transfer and commercial exploitation as well as the development of a favorable environment for innovative entrepreneurship. The sixth pillar deals with cultural change and the need to nurture a culture of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship across all levels of education, industry, society and state. Other pillars include the international dimension, communication and digital transformation. The Office of the Chief Scientist (RIF and Directorate for Research and Innovation of DG EPCD) is responsible for its implementation through a set of policy measures and activities targeting the aforementioned strategic pillars and enablers, kick-starting the reform of the national R&I system and facilitating a strong boost of the research and innovation ecosystem.

4. What is your opinion of the startup and innovation scene of Cyprus?

Cyprus is undoubtedly a country with significant potential in research and innovation. This fact is demonstrated through our fast-expanding community of scientific excellence, strongly interconnected to the international research arena. Yet, our country’s innovation performance remains low, placing us among “moderate innovators” based on the results of the recently published European Innovation Scoreboard. Finance and support, as well as linkages, between the public and the private sector, but also between enterprises and research organisations, are the innovation dimensions where our country shows the weakest performance. This situation shows the persistent need to increase the efficiency of our R&I system and to support the transformation of new knowledge into innovation and tangible benefit for our economy and society thus resulting in the expansion of our economy’s productive capacity.

5. Recently RIF announced new funding schemes for startups and innovative enterprises. Can you elaborate more on these schemes and what the Foundation wants to achieve?

RIF, following the recent uptake of its expanded role, has introduced, in June, three funding programs with a total budget of €18 million for supporting innovation activities in enterprises. The schemes are announced under the programme RESTART 2016-2020 and are aiming at start-ups and existing businesses. The programs focus in supporting the creation and initial development of innovative startups which intend to develop competitive products and services with global market penetration prospects. These programs are groundbreaking for Cyprus and provide an exciting opportunity for the local enterprises to start, grow and internationalize innovative products or services.

6. In your opinion, what are the problems that we need to solve and what our strengths in terms of building a more innovative Cyprus?

One of the most important issues we are required to address is culture. In order to unlock our research and innovation potential as a country, it is fundamental to address these as a culture, a mindset and a way of life. It is also vital to educate the country’s business world on the benefits of investing in innovation. We need to familiarize companies with terms such as R&D, startups and venture capital. What is more, it is essential to create open channels of communication between different stakeholders while encourage knowledge transfer among the science community, the public and business sector and the society. At the same time, Cyprus has a number of comparative advantages that can make our country’s innovation system successful such as its geographical position, highly skilled workforce, existing research infrastructure and the growing interest of Cypriot businesses for innovation activities.

7. If I am not mistaken, during an event you announced that part of the new plan is for the government to create a high-risk equity fund that will invest in high-risk startups. Can you tell us more about that?

Just a few weeks ago the Council of Ministers approved the creation of an investment fund aimed at boosting economic growth, supporting startups and fostering business innovation, according to a proposal put forth by Finance Minister Harris Georgiades. The fund, which will fall under the regulation and framework of the Securities and Exchange Commission, will receive an initial sum of €20 million from the state, although the government will have no say in the fund, which will operate on strictly business criteria and will follow international standards on management and investment.

8. Our country has a lot of social problems that social innovation and social enterprises can solve. How do you plan to help social innovation to flourish in Cyprus? What is the action plan for startups with social impact?

The ever-increasing recognition of social aspects in the existing major global challenges (such as addressing poverty, health care, population ageing, climate change, energy security, etc.), has gradually, during the last years, highlighted the importance of Social Innovation to overcoming fundamental social problems and challenges. Within this framework, social innovation is shown to be one of the main routes for investigating and accomplishing the principal objectives of the “Europe 2020” Strategy of the EU, for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. This is also highlighted through specific initiatives supported by the Flagship Initiative “Innovation Union”, such as the “European Platform Against Poverty”, the “Digital Agenda for Europe” and the Innovation Partnership for “Active and Healthy Ageing” as well as the “Horizon 2020” Framework Programme of the EC for R&I. Taking into account the above, the new Strategy Framework for R&I provides for specific actions supporting social innovation and social entrepreneurship being fully aligned with the efforts of the Government to introduce legislation for social enterprises.

9. During an event, you mentioned that we need to become better in branding Cyprus as an innovation, startup hub and knowledge centre. How do you plan to achieve that? What are the planned outreach activities to achieve it?

Our aim is to put Cyprus on the map as a regional innovation centre. In order to succeed we should first of all realize that when we refer to our country’s branding, we should not only think about tourism, real estate and so on. We should think of Cyprus as a destination for innovators, investors and academics. Extroversion is undoubtedly a key to that. It is essential to promote Cyprus as an R&I hub, as a means to attract foreign investment in high-tech companies based in Cyprus while also, developing strategic collaborations with selected countries and international organizations in fields including science, technology and innovation.

10. Our startup scene needs to create more startups with international direction. What are your plans to help the startup community develop more and facilitate better quality projects?

Among our top priorities is exactly to boost innovative entrepreneurship and internationalize innovative products or services. We pay significant attention to the commercialization of an idea and whether this could be successful in the global market. I have already mentioned RIF’s innovation programs through which funding to beneficiaries will be channelled, exactly to cover the investigation, evaluation and development of the idea, the development of an initial product/service and the first efforts towards the commercialization of the product/service. Also, various seminars and professional workshops are organised in Cyprus and abroad in which participants have the opportunity to gain valuable insights about available tools and expand their knowledge on how to develop their ideas.

11. Another problem with our startup scene is the lack of mentors with international expertise. Do you have any plans to help and facilitate some programs, in order to improve the competitiveness of the Cypriot startups?

Our effort is not only to bring to Cyprus great business people and academics but also highly skilled mentors and experienced industry experts who will be able to share their stories and provide insights. We offer the opportunity of officially expressing their interest in mentoring through a series of specific programs. We also, make connections between them and accelerator programs. It is my strong belief that the ecosystem needs them and we are working towards establishing channels of communication and partnerships with countries that are typically included in the most innovative among the most innovative. Having mentioned that, I would also like to stress the importance of successful individuals of the Greek and Cypriot Diaspora in Europe and beyond, contributing to the guiding and mentoring of our startups and entrepreneurs.

12. The government is trying to create a blockchain strategy. Can Cyprus compete on a global level?

Indeed, the Council of Ministers approved the National strategy on Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLTs) on the 18th of June 2019. Following the announcement of the National Strategy on Blockchain and DLTs the sub-committees on both the technological and the legal and regulatory framework are intensively working towards its implementation. Among the first steps of the implementation of the National Strategy is the identification and selection of the most prominent cases in order to proceed with the formation of Proof of Concepts. This effort is led by the Chief Scientist and his team. Moreover, there is work in progress for introducing the legal framework for blockchain technologies. Finally, a call for expression of interest will be announced for stakeholders in Cyprus interested in these technologies, in order to initiate the formation of a community of practice for Blockchain and DLTs.

13. What is your message about the future of innovation and startups in Cyprus?

My main message is that innovation is the key to future economic growth, competitiveness and social prosperity. It’s a necessity and Cyprus has all the prerequisites to develop into a dynamic and competitive economy with key drivers research and innovation. Our goal is to build an ecosystem in which companies and the state will be able to make use of innovative ideas and products while bringing the academic-research area closer to the market thus, securing bright and sustainable future of our country and our citizens.

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DisruptEurope Team
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