Innovation in IT

How to Develop an Innovative Company Culture...

and get away with it

Between 2007 and 2013 the European Union has spent around €50 billion for R&D activities, through the 7th Framework Program. For the next 7 years (2013-2020) the amount has been raised to €80 billion, through the Horizon 2020 framework program.

With the humanity relying more and more on technology for managing even the most basic aspects of everyday life, it becomes clearer why the EU is investing more and more money as the years go by in encouraging research & development activities in its member countries.

This may lead you to think that European stakeholders, in every crucial R&D area, and especially ITC related, are standing on a pile of money that is just there for them to take. Things are not so simple. But read on, to find out why.

Innovation as a Strategy

Starting as the majority of the Romanian IT companies in the early 2000 by developing applications for companies who needed to outsource their software development needs, within a few years’ timeframe, RomSoft has grown a vision to develop its own, innovative products. From that day on, RomSoft has built its long term strategy around this objective, which then influenced its development processes, choice of projects and management decisions.

To clear out a small detail: research is expensive, and its results - somewhat unpredictable. So if you’re a software development SME from Eastern Europe and want to bring your contribution to reshaping the world as we know it – through technology, where do you start? Launching your ideas on KickStarter? That might help too, but RomSoft decided to explore other options.

Besides the basic ingredients that are pretty easy to grasp, like intelligence, hard work, perseverance, and good intentions, RomSoft knew that it needed investors. Let’s take a look at the following picture. You may call this a first aid kit if you want. Suppose you have an idea for an innovative product. Being in the European Union, the potential “customer” who is most likely to have the money to invest in your idea is the EU, through its R&D strategic funding programs (dating back in 1984).

The first aid kit

What’s Your Area of Expertise?

This goes by default. If your company CV looks like this, and you want to apply for research funding at the EU, you should definitely look for ideas in the medical field:

Area of expertise

OK, the picture above is a bit of an exaggeration, but only to prove a point.

It doesn’t mean you can’t handle projects in other areas, because that simply isn’t true, but it’s more likely that your proposal will receive extra points from the application evaluators, and therefore chances of approval go higher.

The R&D department at RomSoft got itself working and soon learned that there are particular areas of modern medicine that are rapidly developing, like e-Health, tele-monitoring or self-health management. These areas are emerging precisely from the opportunities created by the rapidly evolving technologies, addressing problems that could not be addressed a few years ago:

  1. Reducing patients’ dependency from doctors and caregivers
  2. Better, improved data on patient history
  3. Prediction and prevention of seizures
  4. Less invasive treatments

Is Your Idea Unique?

Here comes the second issue. Your idea must be unique, at least at European level. Also, it has to solve a global problem. The EU doesn’t really want to waste its research and development budget on small purposes. Throw in feasibility and you have a good candidate.

Hold on, there’s more. The EU may not care about your idea, even if it’s unique, global and feasible. In order to check, go to their calls for proposals page at H2020 calls.

There you’ll find a complete list of European Union’s priority research themes. Domains like health, information technology, environment, sustainable development are top of the list right now. The better your idea is aligned with one of the announced themes, your chances to succeed are better.

No Place for Loners

The third rule learned by someone looking for EU R&D funding, is that this is not really a place for lone runners. You’ll need a wolf pack. Well, in bureaucratic Brussels terms they are called research consortiums, but you get the idea.

About the application process, Lucian Nita, Head of RomSoft R&D Department, reveals:

Brussels clerks have a very precise check-list of parameters when they perform the selection of projects. For instance, if you take a university – all they care about is: does the idea have scientific value? If you take a company, they’ll ask: does this have a market potential? But from the EU standpoint, a project is analyzed from all these perspectives. A research consortium must be well-balanced, to include universities – who sell pure research; to include entities that can apply the research, for example, in the medical field – hospitals and clinics that will test the results; and also, to include private companies that will develop a physical product based on the research, a system to be marketed and sold. The more balanced the consortium, the better its performances.

In order to find your best match in a Europe full of wolf packs, you can address the Enterprise Europe Network. EEN is an institution created mainly to help European SMEs to increase their competitiveness on external markets. It offers both EU funding expertise, as well as innovation and transfer technologies consultancy. Their services are offered for free by a number of 600 territorial member-agencies, including chambers of commerce, technological centers, universities and regional development agencies. You just have to identify the agency closer to you and ask for its services. In the North-East region of Romania, you can contact either Tehnopolis or ADR Nord EST.

Expectations vs. Reality

Up to this point, things look clean and pleasant. Find an idea, find a consortium, write a proposal and hit the SUBMIT button.

In reality, things might happen a little bit differently. We’ll turn to the RomSoft R&D department again, for some insight information:

To sum it up, the most sensitive aspect of the whole process is the way the proposal is written. Be precise. Be complete. Cover all chapters, no matter how unimportant you think some of them. Act quickly. Calls are active for relatively short periods, and you have to submit your proposal in due time.

If your proposal is rejected, it’s not the end of the world. You will get a report from the commission with key aspects you need to improve. This is valuable knowledge, don’t ditch it in the trash bin. Some ideas get financed the 3rd or 4th time around. The only condition is that you have to rename your project. And of course, improve it.

A Case Study: From DIAdvisorTM to PEPPER

As we’re done with the introduction part, here is a page of RomSoft history. Well, actually 5 pages, but who’s counting…

DIAdvisorTM

In 2007, an European research consortium made up of 11 partners, RomSoft among them, was getting a grant of approx. EUR 7.1 mil (from the EUR 50 billion budget of EUs 7th Framework Program), in order to develop a personal blood glucose prediction system. The product is meant to help patients struggling with type I and II diabetes lead a much closer to normal life, wherever they are.

DIAdvisorTM workflow

The potential impact of the project has been evaluated on more levels:

Cutting Costs

The main benefit of DIAdvisorTM is that it considerably reduces the frequency of extreme blood glucose (BG) levels. These extreme values are most often the cause of complications associated with the disease, which are responsible for the biggest part of the treatments cost (both in emergency interventions and in treating long term associated diseases). Treating a patient with diabetes complications is 2 to 3 times more expensive than a non-complicated patient, while the annual expenses for all diabetes treatments rise to ~ EUR 130 billion.

Another cut in costs comes from the estimated replacement of invasive sensors with new generation, non-invasive sensors. This cut has been estimated to EUR 30 million/day if at least 60% of diabetes diagnosed Europe patients would measure their BG at least once daily.

Reassuring Patients They’re Doing Things Right

Pairing up the prediction algorithm with the permanent doctor-patient connectivity is reassuring to the patient, who now knows that she’s doing the right things, and taking the best decisions for her own health.

Access to Quality Treatments

Reducing the costs of diabetes therapies will increase access to correct treatment for people in under-developed countries, with much smaller health budgets.

Personal portable BG prediction device - DIAdvisorTM

For the first phase, the project had encouraging results, and made it clear that prediction can be made based on three parameters: blood sugar levels, insulin levels and food intake.

Preliminary DIAdvisorTM testing, broadcast on Euronews

Developed by RomSoft in collaboration with physicians, research institutes, universities, the application integrates prediction algorithms with a decision making module.

Self-learning: the prediction becomes more accurate after multiple uses

The decision-making module is of highest importance in this context, as most patients, even when given a blood glucose prediction for the next half-hour, probably wouldn’t know what to do with it. According to preliminary clinical trials, the application substituted successfully the doctors’ advice 88% of the cases and, out of almost 1500 recommendations, it never offered a harmful advice.

The next important stepping stone before the product could hit the market was represented by the full battery of clinical trials and tests (large scale testing), as well as obtaining validations and approvals regarding European homologation.

PEPPER

But for RomSoft, a beneficial side-effect of the DIAdvisorTM project has been the know-how gained in areas like vital signs sensor acquisition, data processing, prediction systems, and decision support modules design.

We had a well-functioning product on our hands, but still some steps to take before reaping off the market benefits.” Lucian Nita says. “So in 2014 we applied for a new grant, this time in the Horizon 2020 program, as we realized that the DIAdvisorTM system could be used with an insulin pump. The patient wouldn’t have to inject himself anymore”, Lucian Nita adds. “And the process would be completely automated.

In 2015, UE approved EUR 3.9 mil for PEPPER (Patient Empowerment through Predictive PERsonalized decision support), a project to be implemented by a 6 European partners consortium, including RomSoft.

PEPPER would offer a continuous BG measuring function through minimum invasive sensors and would administrate the calculated insulin amount automatically through an insulin pump. In this way, PEPPER rids patients of the permanent hassle to introduce data into the system by hand, like it’s the case with DIAdvisorTM.

The cloud data storage enables instant mobile alerts and notifications, easy manageable info, and an overly improved patient-doctor collaboration.

Still in the side-effects chapter, the chance to work with the other consortium members is a privilege on its own. The project coordinator is the prestigious Oxford Brookes University (UK), with a research engine fueled at ~£5 mil in 2015. Also part of the PEPPER consortium are the Imperial College of Science Technology and Medicine (UK), Universitat de Girona (Spain), Institut d’investigacio Biomedica de Girona Doctor Joseph Trueta (Spain), RomSoft (of course) and Cellnovo Limited (UK).

Bringing along the partner Cellnovo Ltd. is a key aspect to the project, as they have solid background in building portable systems for diabetes management.

PEPPER workflow

Areas of Impact

Similar to DIAdvisorTM, the project impact has been estimated on multiple levels:

  • Improving the Participation of the Patient in the Care Process
  • Reducing the number of severe episodes and complications
  • Predictive modelling makes prevention a more prevalent sector in healthcare
  • Boosting the development of personal devices and apps used for self-management of health
  • Enhancing integration of new technology in healthcare
  • The system is designed to be applied to other areas, thereby increasing the impact of the project

Innovation Management: Cheat Sheet or New Benchmark?

RomSoft R&D Timeline

As of 2016, RomSoft is part in not one, but two Horizon 2020 research projects: OPERANDO and PEPPER.

At the same time, we are working on more research projects financed by national authorities, like UEFSCDI through National Research and Development Plan PN II (SIMAP, SIACT), or by the POS CCE management authority – Operational Sectoral Program for Increased Economic Competitiveness (SIMAPS, USMED).

Working simultaneously in multiple research projects, if you’re not being careful, you can get easily lost in the paperwork jungle, and the management system you’ve previously used successfully might not perform well in these conditions. You need a coordinated effort on all levels: team development, logistics, administrative processes and ultimately, a new management system. OK, but how?

IMP³rove – European Innovation Management Academy offers innovation management support services on a global scale. IMP³rove is perceived world-wide as the knowledge hub that offers systematic training and certification schemes, consulting and support services in innovation management, continuously and significantly contributing to the wealth and competitiveness of economic agents in Europe and beyond.

RomSoft has started the process to improve its management of innovation with the help of IMP³rove, and just passed the first evaluation stage.

Ultimately, all these efforts come from the more powerful feeling that research is our chance, not just for RomSoft, but the entire software development industry in Romania.

To Conclude

We all started working for clients who needed to outsource their software development needs. Based on previous experience, we could say that we are very good at developing software – for others. But true visionaries never rely on what is known.

So here are a few take-away thoughts:

  • Not every research idea will prove a good idea when put into practice. A research project must be thought within reasonable risk limits
  • Every research project is a learning process and if at the end you can say “hey, I’m smarter!” this is a progress
  • The innovation capability is like a muscle: the more it’s exercised, the stronger it gets
  • There is no longer research for the sake of research. Though we don’t necessarily like the word “must”, we must come with new products, especially innovative ones, with significant added value, so that we can compete (at EU level) with the US for example, that have a major advantage due to being more result oriented.