During the recent finals of the EIT Digital Challenge 2019 in Brussels we had the opportunity to interview Chahab Nastar, the Chief Innovation Office of EIT Digital. Chahab has over 20 years of diverse experience as an academic, an entrepreneur, and a large company executive. EIT Digital is a leading European digital innovation and entrepreneurial education organisation driving Europe’s digital transformation.
What are your main tasks and goals as Chief Innovation Officer at EIT Digital?
My first responsibility at EIT Digital is to run the Innovation Factory. With an investor mindset, we bring mature research results out of the labs and quickly into the market preferably in the shape of startup creation. We typically launch about 60 innovation activities annually. Each activity is executed by a few of our 250 partners of startups, SMEs, large corporates, research and technology organisations, universities.
My second responsibility is the EIT Digital Accelerator. Our job here is to identify fast growing European startups and help them concretely on the ground to acquire customers and raise funds across Europe. We do this thanks to a pan European team of business developers and fundraisers. Note that we are only interested in scaleups here, that is, startups that have already existing customers and that are ready to scale up.
Within the Innovation Factory, we are a high risk/high reward investor in deep tech. Within the Accelerator, we support fast-growing European scaleups by treating Europe as their domestic market.
On a global scale, Europe is lagging behind when it comes to global innovation and technology. Are there any fields or areas of technology where you see an opportunity for Europe to become a leading player?
At EIT Digital, we have identified five strategic focus areas in which Europe can win – these are the same five categories of the EIT Digital Challenge, our flagship scaleup competition. We develop expertise, critical mass and a strong ecosystem in each of these five areas. Everything that we do at EIT Digital, Innovation Factory, Accelerator but also our Education programs are within these areas.
A quick overview of these areas: Digital Tech is a horizontal area that comprehends Cybersecurity & Privacy, Data & AI and Connectivity & IOT. They are at the core of what digital is all about and we believe in the convergence of these technologies. Then, we have 4 verticals: Digital Wellbeing (leveraging data for prevention rather than the cure), Digital Industry (data platforms and the seamless value chain from production to logistics to retail), Digital Cities (building happier cities – safe, data-driven and with smooth mobility) and finally we have Digital Finance (building trust and transparency in the financial sector).
You see a lot of innovation in different areas. Is there a specific innovation that you were recently excited about? Something that sparked your interest or where you saw a lot of potential recently?
I’m really excited about autonomous systems. These can be – of course – the driverless cars, but can be also robots that do all kinds of tasks. As an example, we have a current project focusing on wellbeing for the elderly which counts on a robot assisting the elderly and interacting with them, it’s called SARA.
I also think that cybersecurity and privacy is an area in which Europe definitely needs to lead, thanks to a mix of technologies and protective regulations.
Where do you see the most exciting innovations happening in Europe: is it from the rebellious startups coming out of nowhere or is the real innovation happening in the labs of big corporations?
Everybody loves outlaws. That goes well with the boldness of the entrepreneur, who doesn’t have legacy customers, legacy systems or hierarchichal org chart. The best entrepreneurs are free, bullish and keen on deploying real-world experimentations. Disruption is their thing.
That being said, every startup dreams to be big and become a large corporate one day. Europe has traditionally not been strong on building startups that scale fast, become scaleups and then become large corporates in the digital domain. In fact, the one dominant digital company I can think of in Europe is SAP – but they are a company that is 45 years old, right? It’s a wonderful company, but we haven’t been able to build so many of them. Large companies play a crucial role in the innovation value chain, because they create a whole ecosystem around them: they work with startups, with universities and due to their large-scale market access, they have good sensors to understand what the customers need.
Technical innovation always has two sides. Nowadays, with the rise of AI, some people are afraid that it might become a job killer or even a threat the whole mankind. What is your perspective on the impact of technological innvations like AI in the future?
I don’t buy at all the fear of AI – it’s an innovation like we have had many before. We have had previous industrial revolutions and each time people said “Oh, this is going to kill everything and it’s going to destroy the economy!”. I think it morphs the economy and brings changes to the economic scenario.
There is a famous saying that what’s going to happen with AI is that there will be about two kinds of jobs: jobs that tell machines what to do, and jobs that are told by machines what to do. It’s maybe a bit simplistic to put it that way, but I do think AI is going to offer a transformation rather than a destruction.
How do you and your colleagues discover new innovations? What tools or approaches are you using for that?
Within our Innovation Factory, which I described earlier, we launch an annual call in which we look for strong deep tech-based business plans – more often than not in the shape of a startup creation. To stimulate the call, which is open to every European organisation, we facilitate the connections between universities, research and technology organizations, startups, SMEs and large corporates. From this brokerage process, we end up with a large number of innovation proposals and then we select the most promising ones and we invest in them. In some other cases, we design the innovations. An example is Last Mile Autonomous Delivery, another example is Pay with a smile. For more innovations that we support, I recommend to take a look up the specific sections of our website for Digital Tech, Digital Wellbeing, Digital Industry, Digital Cities and Digital Finance.
When it comes to the EIT Digital Accelerator, well, one way is the EIT Digital Challenge, our flagship scaleup competition. This is not just another competition just for the sake of winning a prize and bringing it home. Much higher stakes here – part of the prize package is the dedicated support of our Accelerator for 12 months. But you can also apply to enter the EIT Digital Accelerator at any moment, all year long. We have had companies that have significantly grown thanks to our Accelerator, including Konux, SecurityMatters, Metron and Firstbeat, to name a few.