Creating a European ecosystem for data innovation: reflections on ODINE

ODINE, the Open Data Incubator for Europe, has been transformational in its approach to exploiting open data and championing innovation in the European business community. Set up in 2015, with the aim of providing essential seed-funding for SMEs and startups using open data to create economic and social value across the EU, ODINE’s initial funding stream of €7.8m (£6.8m) has enabled a further €22m of investment to be leveraged by its successful companies to date.

Elena Simperl, ODINE director and professor of computer science at the University of Southampton, reflects on the programme’s achievements.

“ODINE was ambitious and unique in many ways,” she says. “It represented a new type of public funding instrument, taking place on an unprecedented scale, focusing particularly on open innovation with open data, and aiming to support activities with an impact on three main areas – people, planet and profit.”

While ODINE had a national precursor in the successful open data incubator programme set up by the UK’s Open Data Institute (ODI), the scale of operating across the EU was one of the biggest challenges. “Transferring aspects of the ODI model to the EU level was a logical step and an excellent opportunity,” says Simperl. “But it brought significant challenges, not least the tension between physical and virtual presence.

“Incubators are usually based around a physical location, but with the resources available and the constraints of funding and supporting startups across Europe, we were setting up a virtual incubator,” she explains.

“We decided from the beginning to set up a programme that operated almost entirely in the virtual sphere, balancing opportunities to meet face-to-face with a wide range of online activities that enabled us to scale.”

While this worked well in the circumstances, Simperl would like to see how a stronger physical presence might work in a future scenario, but acknowledges that this might require a number of hubs – perhaps involving 10 EU countries housing startups operating across fewer sectors.


Ongoing structured support for startups and SMEs

The second feature of the programme in which Simperl sees opportunity for future development is the provision of ongoing structured support to the companies that graduate through the process. The 57 successful companies that graduated through the ODINE programme continued to receive support, enabling networking opportunities to multiply.

“These links generated interesting synergies and collaboration opportunities,” says Simperl. “The interaction between the companies enabled further ideas about the follow-up programme and it was obvious that activities such as regular forums for sharing experience and information, hackathons, and startup showcases to meet and do business could all be of great value in future collaborations.”ODINE’s success was a key factor in the launch in April of Data Pitch, a new Europe-wide data accelerator

Finally, Simperl points to the success of the programme itself as strong evidence for future ones like it. “There is huge demand for this kind of funding instrument,” she says. “We received over 1,000 applications to be part of the programme.

“This represents a mandate for developing open data business applications in every EU country,” she adds. “It would be very interesting to see more investment in specific open data incubators – nationally and regionally – providing a strong context for startups and enabling easier organisation of activities.”

Simperl is keen to see insights gained from ODINE applied in generating ideas about future needs and developments: “The wide range of applications to ODINE provided a valuable overview of the sectors in which open data is perceived as most valuable – including education, environment, agriculture, and healthcare.”

Her conclusion is that business opportunities among EU countries would be much stronger as a result of further initiatives like ODINE. “We learned that it works,” she says. “The model was successful, the companies generated four times the original investment and, in the process, provided tangible proof that open data makes a difference.”

ODINE’s success was a key factor in the launch in April of Data Pitch, a new Europe-wide data accelerator which will provide up to 50 European startups and SMEs with world-class business support, including funding, mentoring, investment opportunities and access to data. The three-year project, funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, and directed by Simperl, will be delivered by partners including the ODI and the University of Southampton, which will house a new secure data innovation lab. Applications for places on Data Pitch are now open.

“Open data is just one piece of the puzzle,” says Simperl. “And Data Pitch is a further fantastic step on the journey towards creating a European ecosystem for data-driven innovation.”

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