With unprecedented levels of EU funding, Cyprus is on track to develop three new centres of scientific excellence, drawing on a pool of world-class talent.
These are exciting times to be working in research and development in Cyprus. There is greater recognition of the importance of applied research and its role as an engine of the economy than ever before. Unprecedented government investment in the sector, combined with an unparalleled per capita base of skills and expertise, mean that Cyprus is superbly placed to become a powerhouse of R&D in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Pioneering research is being conducted in fields as diverse as the monitoring of climate change through atmospheric emissions, the genetics of hereditary kidney disease, and maritime and marine studies, where plans are in hand for the development of a research centre in Larnaca. Together, these ground-breaking projects are establishing this small island, not only as a leader in innovation and research in its own right, but also as a regional centre of excellence, one that provides valuable links between the established pan-European research infrastructure and emerging hot spots of scientific and technical innovation in the Middle East and North Africa.
Historically, Cyprus has been slightly behind the curve when it came to research and development across Europe. Its current spending on research – at only 0.56% of GDP – is well below the European average of 2%. This is partly because, despite having significant numbers of highly qualified scientists and researchers across a wide range of disciplines, the island has lacked a tradition of research and innovation, so talented individuals followed careers elsewhere. However, the tide is now turning with the government determined to at least double spending to boost this sector.
The financial crisis of 2013 compelled the government to conduct a rigorous reassessment of its strategic economic priorities. It became clear that a flourishing culture of innovation and entrepreneurship would play a vital part in the development of a robust and stable economy capable of meeting the needs of future generations. After extensive consultation, the government unveiled a national strategy on research and innovation for 2019-2023. The cornerstone of that strategy has been the establishment of a National Council for Research and Innovation and the appointment of Cyprus’ first Chief Scientist. The goal is to bring academic research to the market in order to release its economic potential, a process that naturally involves building bridges between the worlds of academia and commerce.
Under the slogan ‘Innovate Cyprus’, a range of specific incentives is being introduced, including the expansion of a pilot programme offering Start-Up visas to third-country nationals who want to establish and develop innovative start-ups in Cyprus. In addition, the government has committed to doubling its expenditure on developing technology, promising to assign €400 million to R&D infrastructure, matched by a corresponding injection of private finance.
More recently, the government has allocated annual revenue from its citizenship scheme, where, among other criteria, applicants must also contribute €75,000 into a National Research and Innovation Fund in order to acquire Cypriot citizenship. The fund, which currently totals €200 million, will also receive matched funding from the EU, the Cyprus government and the private sector. This is expected to bring the country’s total contribution to R&D up to 1.5% of GDP over the next five years – aligning it more closely with EU averages.
One of the main pillars of the Innovate Cyprus strategy is to maintain existing rates of participation in Europe’s largest research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020. The island ranks first per capita among all EU members competing for funds from the programme and this year three Cypriot proposals for the establishment of new centres of scientific excellence were selected for funding, with a total budget of €90 million.
Fighting Climate Change
The island’s pre-eminent institution of research and development is The Cyprus Institute, a truly international organisation with more than 100 research staff – of which about half are Cypriots and the rest from around 20 countries. Already an undisputed centre of excellence in scientific and technical research, the Institute was awarded €15 million by Horizon 2020, funding that will be equally matched by the Cyprus government. This will enable the institute to expand its vital work monitoring atmospheric pollution as an indicator of regional climate change and establish a Research Centre of Excellence for Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East Climate and Atmosphere (EMME-CARE). The EMME region has long been recognised as an area subject to rapid environmental change and increasing demand for dwindling resources such as water. The rate of temperature change in summer in the EMME for example, is more than twice the global average.
The Institute is a world-class centre for drone development and will utilise a range of cutting-edgetechnology, including a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, unique in the region, in order to conduct atmospheric and earth surface observations and collect samples. These will be analysed in an advanced laboratory facility equipped for trace gases and aerosol analyses, and the results used in conjunction with data from EMME-CARE’s ground-based observatoryat Agia Marina Xyliatou in the foothills of the Troodos Mountains.
Through continuous, comprehensive measuring of levels of airborne atmospheric pollution, along with advanced computer modelling, EMME-CARE will build up a unique database. This, in turn, will enable the development of a portfolio of regional-specific strategies for climate change mitigation and adaptation that take account of the region’s societal challenges. In time, the research will reduce dependency on Western know-how, particularly on services that have generally not been devised for the region’s particular needs. Meanwhile, the Institute’s Energy, Environment and Water Research Center (EEWRC) has carried out well-documented work in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on the development of solar power and on monitoring climate change.
The University of Cyprus (UCY) FOSS Research Centre for Sustainable Energy also carries out cutting-edge research in the field of renewable sources of energy, with emphasis on solar energy, smart grids, smart buildings, grid integration and enabling technologies. FOSS has been highly successful in competing for funds, so far securing €16 million from more than 50 EU, national and industrial-funded projects. Well-known international players in the field of energy such as Honeywell, Hanwa Q Cells, Gantner Instruments and IBM amongst other leading international brands are already collaborating with FOSS and are testing their products in Cyprus.
FOSS strives to promote cooperation between academia, industry and business sectors, as well as contribute to the transfer of knowledge from advanced European clusters to the region. A key aim is to make Cyprus a hub for solar innovation, technology transfer, industry start-ups and job creation where ideas can grow and achieve their full potential.
In addition, Cyprus was a testing ground for an innovative community project delivered by a German electric utility company Autarsys, where 30 kW/50 kWh was connected to a conventional distribution substation in Nicosia. The project provided the opportunity to interact with real battery systems and gather knowledge about their operation, branding the efforts as a success. State-of-the-art high-voltage lithium-ion batteries were used, and the battery system provided services to the distribution network, such as power balancing, network and frequency support, as well as services that stabilise and protect the seamless operation of the network and are considered essential for modern power networks. The project received funding from the European Union’s Interreg Mediterranean research and innovation programme under the project StoRES.
Uncovering Mysteries of the Past
Perhaps one of the most satisfying applications of IT is when cutting-edge, futuristic technology is applied to help us make sense of the mysteries of the past. The Cyprus Institute’s Science and Technology in Archaeology and Culture Research Center (STARC) brings together researchers from a broad range of subjects, including art history and archaeology, computer science, chemistry and physics, to preserve and understand cultural heritage. More specifically, STARC employs bio-chemical-physical techniques to analyse works of art, ancient artefacts and archaeological discoveries. It has also led the way in the 3D documentation of heritage assets and the development of digital libraries.
Earlier this year, a STARC team from Cyprus collaborated with the Antiquities Department of Israel on a 3D mapping project of the Cenacle in Jerusalem, the building that is believed to be the site of the Last Supper. The building is a popular tourist site but has worn and uneven surfaces, and poor illumination, making any detailed investigation of its construction and archaeological phases virtually impossible. Thanks to laser technology and advanced photographic techniques, the precise dimensions of the room and its architectural chronology could be carefully mapped, providing conservationists with invaluable insights into how the structure should be preserved. This technology, pioneered and developed in Cyprus, has the potential to be exported worldwide and map and record the dimensions of any number of global historical and cultural landmarks across the globe.
Cyprus Marine and Maritime Institute
Cypriot history has largely been shaped by the fact it is an island nation, mid-way between Europe and Asia. Yet remarkably, despite a long maritime tradition, Cyprus has never had its own institute for the study of the sea. This too, like much else in the research and development sector, is about to change. Horizon 2020 funding has been secured for the development of the island’s first Marine and Maritime Institute, based in Larnaca. Driven by the needs of industry and society, the institute aims to support all aspects of the blue economy and act as a centre of research, innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as serving as a catalyst for societal and cultural transformation. It will promote international and inter-disciplinary partnerships, seeking to build alliances between academic and research institutes and business.
A National Biobank for Cyprus
The third new centre of excellence to benefit from Horizon 2020 funding is the national biobank, a collection of medical records and biological material, including blood, DNA/RNA, plasma, serum, urine, tissue biopsies and genetic samples to support biomedical research. This builds on work begun in 2010 by the Molecular Medicine’s Research Centre (MMRC), under the auspices of the University of Cyprus, which established a small biobank of genetic material related to the study of hereditary kidney disease. Despite the fact that serious biomedical research only began in Cyprus 25 years ago, the MMRC has rapidly established a solid reputation for its work on kidney-related problems.
The hope is that the expanded repository will ultimately accommodate a vast collection of genetic samples from hundreds of thousands of individuals, providing a reference point for research projects of the future. In time, this will enable the comprehensive study of the Cypriot genome and provide future generations of medical scientists with the resources necessary to locate genetic markers for a wider range of hereditary diseases, improving the prospects for diagnosis, prevention and therapy.
Genetic researchers in Cyprus enjoy a unique advantage over their counterparts elsewhere in the world. The country’s size, combined with the fact that it is surrounded by sea, have meant that the population still maintains a high degree of genetic homogeneity. The existence of a unique national biomedical resource on this scale, will in turn, attract a critical mass of medical scientists and experts, keen to utilise the biobank’s genetic material for the development of their own cutting-edge research and innovation.
One of the island’s biggest ongoing research projects involves the University of Cyprus’ KIOS Research and Innovation Centre of Excellence. In collaboration with Imperial College, London, it conducts multidisciplinary work focusing on the monitoring, control, security and management of ‘critical infrastructure programmes’.
In April 2019, the Centre was awarded three new EU-funded projects to address key research challenges related to cancer monitoring and therapy, security of health data, and border surveillance. New technology and pioneering methods will be developed and are expected to have significant economic and social impact in the region and globally.
The first project, Gladiator, aims to develop a comprehensive theranostic (therapeutic and diagnostic) solution for brain malignancies by using life sciences, bionanotechnology, engineering and information communication technologies. The results should substantially improve patient prognosis and prolong survival. Gladiator, also funded by Horizon 2020, is a project that contributes to Future and Emerging Technologies (FET). This is the first FET scheme to be coordinated by Cyprus.
The second project, also funded by EU Horizon 2020, is Curex (an approximate acronym for Secure and Private Health Data Exchange) and addresses the confidentiality and integrity of health data by producing a new awareness-oriented platform. This will enable patients’ privacy to be safeguarded, thus increasing their trust in the currently vulnerable critical healthcare information structures.
The third project, Ceretab (Cooperation for Increased Situational Awareness Establishment) aims to improve border surveillance by enhancing cooperation between Greece and Cyprus. It will focus on technologies such as the use of unmanned aircraft systems that will facilitate information exchange. The methods developed here could potentially be adopted by other EU states to monitor cross-border movements of all kinds – providing yet another example of how Cyprus’ vision in R&D extends far beyond the shores of the island itself.
Contemporary concerns that national infrastructure of all kinds is vulnerable to cyber-attacks underscores the global importance of KIOS’ work, producing advanced engineering and management tools that can be applied to solve real-life problems. To ensure that its research has maximal applicability and impact, KIOS collaborates with a large network of national and international academic, industrial, and governmental organisations. KIOS also has an innovation hub to promote technology transfer and liaisons with industry, as well as an entrepreneurship network to facilitate start-ups and venture capital investments.
On the RISE
A new kind of highly accessible research centre that aims to have a permanent and pivotal presence in the research and innovation ecosystem of Cyprus was established in 2017. Situated in the centre of old Nicosia, RISE (Research into Interactive Media, Smart Systems and Emerging Technologies) is an incubator and accelerator for both start-ups and established companies, with common working spaces and laboratories where innovative ideas can be tested. It is also a place for students and academics to develop their research in a user-friendly direction.
The project is a joint venture between Cyprus’ three public universities and the municipality of Nicosia, along with the German Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Saarbrucken and University College London. In effect, RISE builds creative partnerships between local government, commerce and academic scientific research. RISE has an initial team of academics from its partner institutions and is recruiting researchers with plans to have a staff of 120 within three years. The project has been very successful in competing for funds, so far securing €50 million, with €15 million from Horizon 2020 – a figure matched by the Cyprus government that will be scheduled over 15 years, and with PwC and Eurobank offering their services in kind.
Achieving Commercial Success
A key challenge for Cyprus is to create better links between innovative academic research centres and businesses that excel in transforming ideas into commercially viable products and services. This is a target also set for the new National Research and Innovation Council. However, there are private R&D companies which are commercially driven. The flagship of these companies, and currently the country’s only certified Business Innovation Centre (BIC), is the Cyprus Research and Innovation Center (CyRIC). Its core areas are mechanical engineering design and prototyping, electrical and electronics engineering, robotics and wearables, biomedical engineering and information communication technologies. As a certified BIC, CyRIC has a national role in propelling innovation and supporting the entrepreneurial ecosystem, providing high-quality services to start-ups and SMEs and anyone who has a bright idea for an innovative product or service. The centre can assist in validating an idea, drawing up a business plan, developing the IP, design and develop a prototype which it can then help take to investors and the market. CyRIC has been involved in more than 35 R&D projects – mostly funded by EU and industry – worth over €40 million. It also founded an international venture-building incubator branded Gravity, which focuses on developing start-ups from early-stage to mature ventures, by assisting them in all the necessary steps and being with them throughout their journey.
A Future of Innovation
With a multitude of innovative projects up and running, and three new centres of excellence soon to emerge, Cyprus is well on its way to achieving its ambition of becoming a leading regional innovation hub. Its talent, experience and state-of-the-art facilities will be attractive both to those wanting to invest in emerging technologies and to the brightest minds seeking opportunities in the sector. No EU country per capita is better at competing for EU R&D funds, while coordinated strategic planning by the government and private sector has already resulted in the launch of successful projects and products. Situated on the edge of both mainland Europe and the Middle East, Cyprus is the ideal location for research and innovation with the fruits of its endeavours being in easy reach millions of potential customers.
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