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Kristina Kovařčíková: Supporting advanced materials and technologies is crucial for the Czech Republic

17.04. 2024
line-arrow Kristina Kovařčíková: Supporting advanced materials and technologies is crucial for the Czech Republic

Creating a dynamic ecosystem for innovation and becoming a key driver for creating the future with innovative technologies and materials is one of the goals of the ATM HUB (Advanced Tech & Materials) of the CzechInvest Agency for Enterprise and Investment Promotion. It seeks to achieve this by supporting startups in the early and later stages of growth, facilitating collaboration between them and established companies, and accelerating the commercialisation of innovations.

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What does the layman mean by advanced materials and technologies? And why is their support so crucial in today’s world?

This term includes materials and technologies with new and improved properties that are used in medicine (cancer diagnostics and treatment, implants, tissue engineering), electronics (lighter and more durable devices), energy (solar panels, batteries), transport (lighter aircraft, cars and ships) and other areas. These are e.g. nanomaterials, biomaterials, composite materials or 3D printing.

These areas play a key role in technological progress and innovation, enabling the development of new products and services that improve our lives. Understanding the principles and examples of the use of advanced materials and technologies is also important for lay people to actively participate in discussions about technological progress and innovation. The area is crucial for the entire Czech Republic to be able to maintain a competitive industry.

About 50 years ago, we were a major supplier of industrial equipment to both developed and developing countries. We have excelled in supplying textile machinery, metalworking machines, equipment for the oil industry, sugar mills, cement plants and more.

But during the 1970s and 1980s. we neglected to innovate and lost markets in developed countries. Moreover, developing countries have learnt to produce these machines themselves and can compete effectively with us given their much lower wages. That’s why it’s imperative that we move to the next level and focus on advanced materials and technologies that will help us regain competitiveness in the global marketplace.

Technological incubation is underway under the auspices of CzechInvest. How many startups are involved and how much money has the agency allocated for this project?

In particular, for ATM (Advanced Tech & Materials) only the first call has taken place. We believe that greater tangible achievements are yet to come. The ATM Hub was launched in September 2023, so it is logical that the number of participating startups is still lower than in other HUBs (some of them have already been reported by Vědavý here, here and here, ed.).

12 startups applied for the third Technology Incubation Call, which is also the first call for the ATM sector. The low number of applicants may be related to the short period of operation of the ATM HUB, but also to the low awareness among startups about the possibilities of deep tech solutions. Many start-ups are not aware of the technological background and unique opportunities that centres such as the ELI ERIC laser centre in Dolní Břežany with the most powerful laser in the world can offer them, and if they do, the funding that Technology Incubation can provide for product development plays a role. One of the relatively ambitious goals of the AMT HUB is to remove barriers between the scientific community, corporations and startups.

The CzechInvest agency has CZK 857 million to implement the entire Technology Incubation project. Of this amount, more than two thirds is intended to support startups, the rest is for systemic project support, which in addition to the necessary project team includes, for example, various types of events, incoming experts or project support tools.

We believe that with the growing awareness of ATM Hub and its possibilities, the number of participating startups will increase in the future. The programme has a great potential to promote innovation in the field of deep tech and contribute to the development of Czech industry.

What specific technologies or material developments do you support?

ATM HUB has the ambition to become a catalyst for a future full of innovation. It not only supports startups focused on developing materials with exceptional properties such as high strength, corrosion resistance and recyclability, but also focuses on their use in infrastructure and construction to streamline processes and reduce environmental impact.

The HUB also focuses on robotics, supporting the development of advanced features in robotic systems, such as machine learning, data analytics and autonomous decision making. New materials in robotics increase the load capacity, durability and energy efficiency of robots.

Microelectronics is another area of support for the ATM HUB. Here he focuses on innovative electronics manufacturing technologies, including miniaturization, semiconductor, sensor and display improvements. At the same time, it supports the development of microsystems with integrated sensors for a wide range of applications.

Data and communication security is a critical area of today, and we support the implementation of quantum and post-quantum principles to increase resilience against cyber-attacks. This includes quantum networks for secure data transmission and the development of tools for unbreakable secure communication channels. Whether it is quantum networks or the integration of quantum technologies into IT applications, infrastructure, the Internet of Things (IoT), telecommunications or cloud services.

Fast and reliable data transmission is the cornerstone of today’s world. Therefore, HUB supports the development of advanced optical technologies including fibre optics, chips and lasers. At the same time, it supports the integration of photonic systems into various applications in medicine, industry, telecommunications and basic research.

And that’s not all – the ATM HUB also supports basic research in particle and nuclear physics.

How are startups in this field doing in terms of transferring their technologies into practice, into commercial use?

Yes, for example, the student startup Nuledo has supplied fog chambers to the European Organization for Nuclear Research CERN.

The case of graphene, discovered more than 20 years ago in England, is well known from abroad; two start-ups (one recently bought by a larger company) have been set up in England to commercialise this new material (one of the strongest in the world).

Do the startups you support (incubated) have a better chance – thanks to cooperation with you – to implement their project abroad? Possibly a greater opportunity to find a foreign investor or partner?

Absolutely. They will again have the opportunity to spend 2-3 months in one of the foreign accelerators, for example in Silicon Valley, Tokyo or London, in order to find potential partners, customers and investors. We implemented similar programs in 2011-2022 and many of the startups that went through them are now successful companies, e.g. Legito, Keboola or Manta. The programme also includes meetings with foreign venture capital funds.

I consider the partnership with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which follows on from the original CERN BIC programme, to be a key milestone in our activities. CERN’s new Venture Connect programme opens the door to disruptive technologies and connects startups with investors and mentors from all member states. If accepted into the programme, the startup will receive preferential licensing rights to CERN technologies and access to contacts from the innovation infrastructure and Venture Connect (VC) funds. We initiated the cooperation with CERN in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and Science, which is responsible for the cooperation between the Czech Republic and CERN.

How does such a program work?

Startups that meet the conditions contact the CzechInvest agency. We will connect him with a contact person and he will go through all the necessary formalities with him. If accepted, they will be offered technology and connections to VC funds, incubators and mentors.

We are proud of our collaboration with CERN and believe that it will help to overcome barriers in the field of deep tech startups. In the autumn of 2024, we are planning to organise an event with other partners with the working title “CERN day” to show that doing business in this field is not as complicated as it may seem. We hope that representatives from CERN will honour us with their visit on this occasion.

The Czech Republic was a major player in nanotechnology – is this still true? Are there other areas where this can be said?

Nanofibres are not talked about as much as in the past, but we still maintain the know-how. Otherwise, per capita, we are the second largest exporter of computers or electrical machinery in the EU, the third largest exporter of telecommunications equipment, and the fifth largest exporter of arms. We are also a major manufacturer and exporter of, for example, phonograph records and airguns.

Which of the supported areas have the potential for growth in our country and where, on the contrary, are we not yet succeeding?

We used to have a significant position in the production of equipment for nuclear power plants, but because none was built here for a long time, the sector stagnated. The planned construction of new nuclear reactors should change that, and there is also a lot going on in the development of small modular reactors.

Another promising area is the production of equipment for research – more than a third of the world’s electron microscopes are already manufactured in the Czech Republic (in Brno – 3 companies), as well as vacuum pumps, optical instruments and luminescent materials. All of these can be expected to increase with the development of the semiconductor industry in Europe and the expansion of research in general.

In some areas, the Czech Republic is just getting started, for example in quantum computing there is no company in the Czech Republic yet, only academic research at universities. But maybe some startup or spin-off will be created in the near future.

Author Martina Kurfirstová

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