Mark Nicklas © EU
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Last Thursday three European start-ups recieved €50,000 in prize money from the European Commission as winners in the European Social Innovation Competition. Out of the ten finalists, their solutions to the global plastics problem were judged by the jury to be the best. The money is meant to be used for growing their businesses. According to Mark Nicklas, head of the Innovation and Investment for Growth department at the European Commission, this competition is about so much more than just the three winners and the prize money.

“We want to help those innovators who have good ideas to implement their ideas. It is a waste if society cannot benefit from potentially great techniques or ideas. We think it’s important that someone with a good idea gets support so they are able to turn that into a business.” According to Nicklas, this support is far from a matter of course when it comes to all of the member states. The European Commission is endeavoring to close this divide. “Entrepreneurs or innovators often do not know where to look for support. Or there is little support available from their local government. We want to nurture good ideas and encourage local authorities to do the same through a competition like this.”

Out of some 550 submissions, the jury (consisting of experts on social innovation and the circular economy) chose the 30 most innovative ideas with the highest potential for a positive impact on society. “They all followed a three-day masterclass in Turin so they could further develop their ideas. Here, they exchanged ideas with each other, received tips from experts and learned everything about sustainable business operations. They each rounded this off with a business plan.

Getting a broader perspective

A three-day course such as this may seem short, yet it’s extremely useful for participants, Nicklas states. “The difference in their business plan after they had adjusted their initial version was huge. And on top of all this expertise, they make new contacts as well. Not only within the industry, but also among each other. That’s also very valuable. Moreover, they learn from each other. For example, they talked about how legislation on waste in their country is regulated. This in turn led to new insights. They also have their own business coach. This coach helps them with the things that you typically come across when you set up a start-up.”

Aside from all of that, the ten finalists pitched their ideas and all the semi-finalists had the chance to meet potential investors and financiers during the final held last Thursday. They may not have won first prize, but they did have the opportunity to benefit from a broad EU network.”

Social Innovation Impact Award

During the announcement of the winners on Thursday evening in Brussels, the Social Innovation Impact Award was presented as well to one of the semi-finalists of last year. This year the award and prize money of €50,000 was won by “MTOP goes digital”, an Austrian-based blended learning program that helps young, highly qualified refugees enter the local labor market. Under the theme “Rethink Local”, the 2018 Competition looked for projects that turned local challenges emerging from the changing economy into opportunities for the younger generation. “Here, we look at what start-ups have achieved after one year of work. A jury looks at whether they have achieved their goals and whether their initiative has a positive impact on society. This prize is also an incentive to spend the €50,000 well,” Nicklas explains.

New this year is an alumni network of which all participants from previous editions are involved. “We want to encourage participants from previous years to help new start-ups. They can exchange experiences here or ask each other for help. They all have different backgrounds and are active in various sectors, which can lead to some great cross-pollination. As the European Commission, we think it is important to stimulate cross-border cooperation.”

Drop in the ocean?

Certainly when it comes to the plastics problem, which affects not just one country, but the whole world. “In Europe alone, we are talking about more than 27 million tonnes of plastic waste per year. This forces us to look at how different links work. We have to look for ways to do something different. We want a clean circular economy for the whole of Europe. That is only possible if we look across borders.” But aren’t these start-ups just a drop in the ocean?

Nicklas: “This year, the EU has developed a strategy with measures for reducing plastic waste, increasing recycling and plans for developing bio-based plastics. We have also made agreements with large companies in the industry. They are working to recycle at least 10 million tonnes of plastic by 2025 and are looking for ways to produce less waste. So, a lot is happening already. And I hope that the start-ups from this competition will also make their contribution.”

Solutions should not only be provided by the government or by established industry, Nicklas believes: “Solutions are also welcome from the community at large. They also have a role to play here. It doesn’t even have to be a groundbreaking technology. An idea that changes people’s behaviour which causes them to use less plastic or make consumers more aware, is also part of social innovation.