interview

She Starts Up: Flora Krasniqi & Paola Iljazi – Innovation Factory

Innovation Factory (IF) is a cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary unit within POLIS University, that seeks to support researchers, students, young creators, entrepreneurs, and businesses to innovate. In addition to technical expertise and knowledge, through the recently created Makerspace, IF offers the opportunity for digital prototyping and fabrication for start-ups and businesses, with a special focus on design, engineering, smart innovation and ICT.  The Makerspace was created with the support of EU for Innovation programme, receiving a grant through the “Challenge Fund” implemented by SIDA, combined with the extensive technical assistance provided by GIZ.

To tell a bit more about the story behind establishing and running IF at Polis University, as well their own entrepreneurial journey, we have interviewed two women behind the core team of Innovation Factory: Dr. Flora Krasniqi, Head of the International Unit and Projects and Paola Iljazi – Researcher, Innovation Factory at Polis University.

Flora has led as a coordinator various Erasmus and Tempus capacity building projects with Polis, as well as other projects funded by national and international programmes. With a specific interest in the sustainable development of links between academia and industry, and with a special focus on innovation and applied research, she manages the Projects section within Innovation Factory. While Paola has a background in innovation management and societal transformations through technology. Interested in the linkages between the various actors making research and innovation happen, she currently works as a researcher at Innovation Factory.

EU4I: Can you tell a little us something about your background and how it links to what you do at Innovation Factory/ Polis University?

Flora: I have been leading the International Unit and Projects at Polis University for years now, coordinating projects at a local and regional level, as well as cooperating with European partners in project implementation in the fields of higher education, sustainability, and innovation. The establishment of Innovation Factory in collaboration with EU for Innovation has been a natural progression of the vision of the Projects’ Office within the university, as both interdisciplinarity and the digital and green transitions in today’s economy have been a part of our long-term agenda. Through Innovation Factory it is now possible to be more deliberate and more hands-on with the direction we see the lab taking in the future.

Paola: When I first heard of Innovation Factory at Polis University, I had just completed my studies in Innovation Management and was finalising my work  in an EU project on scaling up co-creation activities, fostering responsible innovation across varied contexts. Simply put, I had been thinking and writing about how innovation develops in different cultural spaces for a few years. Being given the opportunity to join the team at Innovation Factory allowed me to move from the more theoretical frameworks I had been engaging with, to a really tangible set-up, where numerous players are seeking to work together to build capacities across academia, industry, and policy-making. There are always too many variables to coordinate, but it is exactly that dynamic which allows for the rapid change that is so much needed in the local innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem.

EU4I: How did the idea to establish Innovation Factory at Polis University evolve? You Flora have been involved in the process of drafting a project proposal, right?

Flora: The idea behind Innovation Factory was present at Polis before the establishment of the Makerspace. In line with our vision for higher education and research in the fields in which we operate, we had elaborated on a conceptual space to connect the areas of design, architecture, and technology through interdisciplinary teaching and research, as well as joint project initiatives with industry partners. As such, it was important to build relationships with businesses operating in our fields of expertise and interest, but also to start supporting the entrepreneurial community in-house and beyond. In fact, our alumni community is a great example of bringing entrepreneurship into our study fields given that over 20% of them started their own companies upon graduating and still manage them today. When we came across the Challenge Fund project, an initiative of EU for Innovation, it seemed like the right moment to seek support for the establishment of a physical space for Innovation Factory, that would be able to support with both technology and know-how, and help aspiring entrepreneurs materialise their ideas. Thankfully, we ended up receiving such support required to build the Makerspace, the first of its kind in Albania, additionally we received technical expertise to set-up, utilise, and maintain the equipment. The conception of such a space, has from the start aimed at supporting not only our students and alumni, but also anyone interested in building their idea into a prototype, a space open to all, filling a real gap in the local context.

EU4I: What are the key successes in such an initiative, linked both with the academia and the private sector & entrepreneurial journey of students/ aspiring start-ups?

Paola: In addition to offering novel teaching and learning opportunities in digital modelling and fabrication for students, in programmes ranging from design to computer science to architecture, Innovation Factory has supported a certain number of start-ups, working in fields as diverse as renewable energy and energy efficiency, design, and robotics. One of these start-ups is fully operating in the market today, whereas another two are working on their market entry strategies. IF has also served as a key node in connecting various ecosystem actors through collaboration initiatives such Tirana Inc., the first multi-university incubator supporting early-stage start-ups through training and mentoring. In addition to large-scale collaborations with other universities and ecosystem entities, IF has also started building a portfolio of its own projects, ranging from helping start-ups or small companies in their digital transformation to co-creating innovative solutions. For example, one of our recent projects involved developing a VR simulation of earthquake and tsunami scenarios on the Adriatic coast, to be able to further research these phenomena and provide adequate policy recommendations.

EU4I: The cooperation between Polis University and EU for Innovation has been a long and intensive one, but do you recall the first time you heard about EU for Innovation, or participated in one of its activities? Which EU for Innovation intervention did IF/ Polis University benefit from in the start?

Flora: From its onset, EU for Innovation has implemented various instruments/ interventions targeting universities and their innovation capabilities. Polis was involved from the early stages of the programme and participated in the gap analysis conducted prior to the start of the three-year project.

Furthermore, the project has provided technical know-how and training to our university through two series of Masterclasses: “Entrepreneurial University” and “How to teach Entrepreneurship”, that have helped us refine our understanding of the importance of going beyond teaching and research, and engaging in the so-called third mission of the university: to actively contribute in the regional economic and social development, by becoming more entrepreneurial and an engaged actor in a broader ecosystem.

Of course, our largest collaboration came through the Challenge Fund, where we were selected to be supported for the set-up of the digital fabrication and prototyping lab.

At a later stage, Polis was a partner university in the ConnectIT pilot project, where IF served as coordinating unit for the university. In addition to these projects, EU for Innovation facilitated the participation of Elona Karafili (the Deputy Rector for Research and Innovation at Polis) in the Spanning Boundaries Training programme organised by the University Industry Innovation Network, where she validated IF’ s course of action at the time. All these “capacity building instruments” have impacted not only the institution’s growth, but also that of our capacities, through learning from peers, mentors, and experts, thus expanding the local network of start-ups, facilitators, and aspiring entrepreneurs.

EU4I: To your perception, have EU for Innovation activities contributed enough to the development and promotion of IF, or of the innovation and start-up ecosystem in Albania? What about yours as individuals engaged with the Albanian innovation ecosystem?

Paola: Over time, EU for Innovation has created both a vision and a visual, that ecosystem actors and the broad public recognise and associate, within the small context we all operate in. A crucial factor defining all EU for Innovation activities in Albania has been their systemic approach to the ecosystem, where they have made sure to contribute to it from multiple perspectives and levels. Since the inception of IF, EU for Innovation has been a great support partner, not only in terms of funds, but also through the provision of technical know-how, networking, and visibility. A myriad of interventions was listed above. I could add that, we as a team, were able to represent IF participating in numerous ecosystem events made possible with the support of EU for Innovation, the latest being the tech festival Tech Chill, which took place in Milan between 27-29 of September last year and brought together start-ups and facilitators from all around Europe, through workshops, story sharing, and networking.

EU4I: Do you envision further continuation / strengthening of cooperation between IF/Polis University & EU for Innovation programme? How? Any idea/recommendation for improvement and future cooperation?

Flora:  Given the track record of our collaboration so far, and the continued shared interest in developing the local innovation ecosystem further based on the overarching priorities of the digital and green transitions, inherent to our fields of expertise, we are certain both IF and EU for Innovation would naturally continue to cooperate and benefit greatly as a result. That being said, the nascent innovation ecosystem in Albania definitely requires a longer support timeframe to continue building and expanding. Furthermore, a similar structure can be adopted for innovation’s counterpart as well: research. Supporting research in a series of cross-cutting fields, such as material testing, design, computer science, and digital architecture holds a great potential in then securing a richer pipeline of innovations. As IF is more oriented toward providing and matching expertise in the field, while EU for Innovation is more oriented toward establishing structural frameworks of collaboration, some of these frameworks have the potential of becoming permanent fixtures in this cooperation, building capacities, and establishing the main pillars for a form of knowledge production that remains very new in the Albanian context.

EU4I: Tell us a bit more about the current activities and short-term future plans of Innovation Factory?

Paola: Having successfully completed and implemented the solutions from the first cohort of the ConnectIT project, IF has just initiated coordinating Connect IT 2.0 at Polis, a new iteration of the project where computer science and management students, from six universities, are matched with local SMEs to help them optimise their business processes and digitise, whenever possible. Guided by IT professors and grouped in small teams, students will receive managerial and technical training to help them prepare with solution building, which they will develop throughout the course of the semester and present to the respective companies in the end, implementing their feedback into the final solutions to be implemented. At this stage, IF is aiming to introduce practice-based learning as part of the curricula, updating existing teaching methodologies in programmes such as management and computer science. The goal is to have similar initiatives be part of the yearly programmes, in the form of workshops or intensive seminars.

At the same time, IF is working on a new proposal to support the commercialisation of research, also known as research spin-offs, start-ups that transform research results into market-ready solutions.

Another current objective is to eventually register the lab as an official Fab Lab, part of the global network of digital fabrication and prototyping labs, in order to grow innovation and entrepreneurship capacities in-house and also to be able to expand our role in the local and regional ecosystem.

EU4I: What should be done to further promote success stories and improve the visibility of EU for Innovation beneficiaries/ collaborators? Any recommendation?

Paola: One initiative that comes to mind is to give EU for Innovation beneficiaries and/ or collaborators the opportunity to get to know one another in a shared context. Prior to advancing the visibility of these actors in the wider context, it is crucial to also be familiar with these organisations that share a common thread, for you never know what opportunities might arise or what connections might form, potentially leading to a larger and stronger local ecosystem.

EU4I: What would you like to share with readers to encourage them in starting their own entrepreneurial journey?

Flora: Given the historical development of the country in the last few decades, the entrepreneurial spirit is very present. Despite the scale and business model in which these initiatives operate, they can be very motivating for young people today, who can bring on the right tools and vision and really propel the ecosystem forward. Compared to more established start-up hubs, Tirana offers a lot more flexibility and fewer barriers of entry. As the share of digital start-ups is on the rise, the city will continue to attract and retain talent, becoming increasingly diverse. Even though funding opportunities might seem scarce at first, they are only growing, so it is a good time to jump into action and take some risks.

EU4I: Would you like to share any favorite inspirational/ motivational quote?

Flora & Paola: “Practice what you know, and it will help you make clear what you don’t know.”

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