As Data Pitch draws to a close, we ask Programme Director Elena Simperl for her reflections on its achievements and her thoughts on the next steps for the European data ecosystem. 

What aspect of Data Pitch are you most proud of as Programme Director? 

I’m most proud of the startups that we’ve supported over the course of the programme. We have seen such fantastic people, full of creativity and dedication. We’re happy to have been part of their journey, helping them in the critical time as they were setting up or growing their business. 

I’m particularly happy to see more and more female entrepreneurs coming through. We’re still not where I think we should be, especially considering that some of these startups operate in a range of different sectors. There are some historical biases that are difficult to overcome but across Europe you would perhaps expect to have more diversity in the teams. Nevertheless it’s a completely different picture than say three or four years ago when we were working on ODINE. As a woman in computing this is a really rewarding thing to see. 

I’m also very proud of what we have achieved as a team. It has been incredibly challenging to run this programme. It was a model that no one had actually tried or tested before, and there were so many things that we had to consider; from the requirements and responsibilities that come with managing public funding, to our own ambition in developing an actual open innovation programme with data. We also had to contend with the sudden emergence of GDPR, so the way in which we have developed this programme is fantastic. 

Has Data Pitch done what it originally set out to do? What is most important to highlight?

Absolutely. I think we were in many ways pioneers due to the sort of innovation programme that we set out to design. The success metrics speak for themselves. Things that we thought might be a bit experimental, in terms of metrics and target numbers, we somehow matched to a tee. Almost like magic! We’ve also achieved the sort of impact that the European Commission was looking for, including the number of engagements with the data providers, the diversity of these organisations and the sectors that they represent.

The startups performed well and the feedback from the data providers has been very positive. We’re currently running a broader exercise which looks at the impact of the project and I hope to get more feedback from the data providers. Fundamentally Data Pitch is an innovation programme bringing together these stakeholders, but it is also an instrument informing policy at the European and national level. This then feeds into the institutional structures and regulations that are needed to make data easier to share. 

Where do you think Data Pitch has offered the most value to startups and data providers?

We definitely offered value to the startups for a number of reasons. We had a team that was very experienced in working with startups, as this is something that we’ve done before. We built on the processes that we had established during ODINE. If you look at the investment that the European Commission has made in setting up the programme, we were efficient in how we have used the resources dedicated to building that accelerator and supporting startups. 

I would say that the relationships that we have helped to facilitate have been invaluable. Forging links between a fledgling business that has a piece of tech that is essentially useless without real data, and a potential customer who can help turn the algorithm into something valuable, is what Data Pitch is all about. I think the relationship, and our role as a programme in establishing the relationship, was vital. 

We have also added value to the data providers themselves. You have to remember that they have invested in-kind resources. In fact, we were impressed with how dedicated some of them were, but this was new territory for us, as well as for everyone else in the world as far as we can tell. Most experiences people have with these sorts of interactions are in the form of hackathons or programmes that are specific to a sector, whereas we went broad, both in the kinds of organisations and sectors. 

We have tried to look at what we have learnt in the last three years and with the data sharing toolkit that we’ve released at the EU Big Data Value Forum in Helsinki in October we tried to demonstrate how a similar programme could be set up today to make interactions with the data providers more efficient, because that is the bottleneck. Our work on the accelerator and on the promotion of the startups was good value for money, but the engagement with the data providers has been extremely costly. This is not really a model that would scale to thousands of organisations, so I think we need slightly different approaches in order to scale that up in every sector. 

What recommendations would you make to future innovation programmes?

I think you should not go in with a preconceived idea about what a typical data provider is, because it’s not just large corporates. It can be anyone – we’ve even had experiences with SMEs. They have perhaps been in the market for a long time, but do not have their own R&D department.

Having said that, there are some low-hanging fruit. Some organisations and sectors that are more advanced than others in digital transformations could facilitate easier conversations. But the question becomes, what do you do with the long tail? What do you do with sectors, countries and organisations that still have a lot to develop in that space? I think that in those instances an innovation programme can provider much higher value because it allows that organisation to have a framework and starting point for their digital journey. I would recommend this sort of innovation programme as a value proposition, not just for  match-making, but you could take the same tools that we have created to develop those challenges and apply them internally to structure the digital transformation conversation. In fact, that could be a model for an innovation programme that would sell these sorts of services to corporates. 

Did the multiple geographies prove to be a hindrance or an asset?

Overall, people are now much more used to remote interactions. We have seen some successful startups applying for a similar ecosystem as the data provider, which is understandable, but in those cases we were essentially a facilitator. But at the same time we also had instances where the startup came from a different country than the data provider, and that worked equally as well. I think the model that our programme managers put together for the acceleration worked well in that regard.

What have we learnt about the European data ecosystem, and how can programmes like Data Pitch strengthen it?

I think Data Pitch was a timely programme. If you wanted to scale Europe-wide, you would have to think about the requirements of specific sectors and build institutional models that are one-to-many, rather than a one-to-one interaction between the data provider and the startup. That will be easier for some sectors than others. In the future we will need to think more seriously about the various institutional and governance models because the policy conversation at the moment at the European level is about the importance of access to data for innovation. 

The UK is in a slightly different situation than the rest of Europe because a third of all AI startups are based here. Of course, we don’t know what will happen with Brexit looming. France and Germany are also starting to catch up, though they are all far behind the US and China in many respects. What will be critical for the European data ecosystem will be scalable and efficient access to data that doesn’t require a six-month-long process for each individual startup. In some sectors we could perhaps set up data trusts or other forms of data sharing, with value shared across the value chain.

Image credit © Paul Clarke used under CC by 4.0