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Vinnova launches National Digital Advancement project

Swedish state innovation initiative invests in a network of regional research and development centres

Vinnova, the Swedish state agency for innovation, launched the latest-phase of a multi-branch national digital advancement (NDA) project in January, the core segment of which involves the establishment of a network of eleven new research and development competence (RDC) centres at strategic geographical locations across the country.  

The NDA is linked to other digital technology capital investment programmes being run by Vinnova in collaboration with leading Swedish industrials, including Saab and Ericsson.

Vinnova has earmarked €90m towards investment in phase-one of the five-year project. Overall, the NDA will pursue a number of key targets that embrace the development of a centres’ of excellence concept to strengthen innovative capacities and bolster the global competitiveness of Swedish companies.

The RDCs will serve as multi-function innovation spaces where technology companies can form partnerships with universities to accelerate societal transformation projects in the digital stream.

In the main, the RDCs will run advanced research and development (R&D) projects to drive sustainable industry and digital societal transformation in Sweden, said Cecilia Sjöberg, the head of division for industrial development at Vinnova.

“The approved competence centres have enormous potential to become knowledge nodes for ground-breaking innovations that can strengthen access to the kind of competence that can meet the new challenges and changes faced by society,” Sjöberg said.

The ambitious reach of the NDA project creates a fusion between the envisioned “centres of competence excellence”, but a significant resource to enable universities’ research departments to partner with private companies to jointly conduct R&D specific pilot-studies and analysis to advance the needs of enterprises searching for sustainable industry solutions.

A principal goal of the NDA project is the quest for new knowledge and ground-breaking technology to be developed, disseminated and used to speed up the transition to a more digitalised society, said Pontus de Laval, chairman of Vinnova’s advanced digitalisation (Avancerad Digitalisering) board.

The NDA project presents Sweden with a huge opportunity to conduct long-term research in cutting-edge areas where researchers collaborate with innovative companies, de Laval said.

“This type of project and investment strengthens Swedish innovative capacity and competitiveness. We expect the project will help attract top drawer expertise for world-leading research and development to Sweden ,” said de Laval, who also Chairs the board of the Wallenberg AI, Autonomous Systems and Software Programme (WASP).

WASP was established in 2015 as a strategically motivated basic research national technology initiative to elevate Sweden ’s status as a leading international actor in focal areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous systems and software.

Out of the projected €90m capital investment in the NDA mission, Vinnova will oversee a budget of €70m to build and equip the eleven RDCs. Half of the capital funding requirement is being provided by private sector partner companies and universities.  

The RDCs will be structured to focus both on defined areas of research as well as conducting joint R&D programmes that are based on knowledge-sharing.

Core R&D areas in the RDCs include data-dedicated advanced communication systems; networks to software solutions; transforming the software-intensive systems sector into a digitised industry; producing energy efficient semiconductor components to reduce the environmental impact of wireless systems; the development of integrated sensors and adaptive technology for sustainable products and manufacturing.

In addition, the RDCs will also run R&D studies to produce digital-led innovative energy reduction solutions for smart and sustainable buildings.

The funding models being used for projects such as the NDA are expected to undergo a series of future refinements in 2024. The Swedish government is currently examining new models to improve the value and efficiency in funds’ distribution to research and innovation projects. Among the models being considered is a proposal to concentrate capital support payouts for research and innovation schemes in to a smaller number of state funding agencies. 

The proposed solution favoured by the Swedish government would create a new authority to govern all of the state’s research and innovation funding. Under this model, the government would route all funding for research and innovation projects through three organisations: the Science Agency, the Agency for Strategic Research and the Innovation Agency.

An alternative solution, which is supported by agencies including Vinnova, proposes the creation of just two funding organisations for state research and innovation – namely, the Swedish Science Agency and the Agency for Strategic Research and Innovation.

In a submission to government, Vinnova argued that the two funding agency capital funding distribution model would deliver a more cost-effective solution and provide more optimum conditions to coordinate state-financed R&D initiatives being run as stand-alone or shared projects.

The existing apparatus governing R&D funding in Sweden was put in place more than 20 years ago. A modernised structure should aspire to provide greater opportunities to promote ground-breaking research, technology development and innovation, said Darja Isaksson, Vinnova’s director general.

“Sweden needs to improve its capacity to promote ground-breaking research if we are to increase our ability to solve the significant societal challenges that lay ahead. It’s important that any new structure be better than the one we have today so that we can improve Sweden’s position as a leading research and innovation country for the 2030s,” Isaksson said.

Mindful of the need to grow R&D spending, Vinnova has petitioned the government to increase the state’s funding for research and innovation year on year. Vinnova’s solicitation for higher funding comes with the recommendation that Sweden should strive to reach a point where the country is spending a minimum of 1.2% of its gross domestic product on technology research and innovation by 2030.

Vinnova saw a visible increase in the funds it distributed to R&D-based technology research projects in 2023. In November of the same year, Vinnova allocated €21m for 62 separate projects under its Advanced Digitalisation (AD) capital funding scheme. The programme aims to develop future digital solutions for industry. Projects grant-aided within the framework of the AD programme cover cyber security, gender equality and AI.

The €21m in capital financing forms part of the Swedish government’s broader mission to elevate R&D spending for three key areas: digital, AI and robotics. Vinnova has already earmarked capital investments of more than €210m to these three areas in the period 2024 to 2027. Industrial partners in the AD programme will match Vinnova’s capital input and contribute an additional €210m.

The level of ambition in the AD programme is evidenced by the close partnerships between the state, universities and major indigenous industrial groups ABB, Ericsson and Saab. Teknikföretagen, an employer’s organisation that represents 3,500 enterprises within Sweden ’s engineering industry, is also a partner in the Vinnova-run AD programme.

The final call for proposals from enterprises applying for inclusion in the AD programme closed on 14 February 2024. The proposals received cover eight primary areas, including advanced innovative digitisation, cyber security, AI, acceleration of deeptech companies, product digital passports, data-driven labs, new tools and methods for gender equality in digital technology development, and green-digital transformation for sustainable freight transport and logistics.

“The proposals received for grant-aid cover a large number of difference making projects at the absolute forefront of digitisation. The projects reflect the breadth of technology and competence needed for Swedish industry to stay competitive generally, and become global forerunners in the green transition,” said Sjöberg.

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