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Smart Story: Turning the COVID-19 threat into an opportunity for S3: transformation of industrial sectors in the Valencian Community

Sometimes having good ingredients does not guarantee a successful recipe. However, the creative spark, the hybridisation of technologies, and the urgent need have triggered productive refocusing processes that have long been desired.

This could be the case of the emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in the Valencia Region (Comunitat Valenciana). Problems with the supply of healthcare material, or the demand for solutions for the new scenario of social distancing that is approaching, can also be interpreted as an opportunity for Smart Specialisation for local manufacturing sectors that were dragging on for years of difficulties due to competition from products originating in Asia.

The rise of a textile-sanitary cluster

This is the case of the Valencian textile industry and the related activities of spinning, finishes and textile machinery. Thanks to its interconnection as a cluster throughout the territory and the initiative of the regional authority in just a few days, it has gone from a situation of survival to one of strategic activity. The necessity has generated a virtuous confluence of interests that have given birth to a transformed textile-sanitary cluster. This was an unexpected opportunity a few weeks ago to promote new lines of business in the textile industry and to guarantee a stable supply of sanitary material, now considered strategic. "The objective is not to completely transform our activity, but to achieve a versatile industry that manufactures complementary sanitary material even when there are no epidemics, prepared to adapt to the need of large volumes quickly and guarantee the country's supply in times of sanitary crises like the present one", comments the president of the Valencian textile employers' association ATEVAL, Càndid Penalba.

The constant relations between competition and collaboration, the exchanges of information and knowledge, the transfer of this knowledge to companies, fostered by universities and technological centres nearby, were the propitious breeding ground. The Smart Specialisaton process has managed to accelerate the maturation of collaborative environments between the different actors within the Region. It was an advantage to have the ground prepared at the moment when the COVID-19 "spark" came about. Contacts and working groups were able to come into play straight away and with ease, as we are used to share and debate with each other, and now we have a tangible and urgent goal to address.

Vicente Blanes, Director of the Textile Technology Center, AITEX, explains: "Our experience and knowledge generated through years of research projects, many of them linked to the rigorous characteristics required by health-care textiles, have made it possible for us to now address the demand with agility and to overcome the problems of transformation and homologation of our industries, that were not designed to manufacture products with the requirements of a hospital, but rather of fashion or home".

Mobilising stakeholders to foster the regional economic transformation

Textiles is the pilot case, but the Regional Ministry for a  Sustainable Economy and the Valencian Institute of Business Competitiveness (Ivace) have activated an action model to initiate plans to reconvert or revive regional industrial sectors.

Rafa Climent, Regional Minister for a Sustainable Economy, details the regional government’s (Generalitat Valenciana) objective: "The plan aims to turn a moment of crisis into a drive for transformation, thanks to the maturity of the regional innovation system and the initiatives and mobilisation of our companies. We have learned about smart specialisation in recent years, and now we have an opportunity to apply it. We know that, in the first instance, companies already need an injection of liquidity to keep their activity alive, but immediately they will have to undertake investments to consolidate the reconversion: new machines, clean rooms... Finally, we believe that, with our accompaniment and the support of research and technology centres, the different clusters will redirect some of their value chains with a cooperative innovation mentality, to provide products and services with a strategic, social and sustainable purpose”.

To this end, the regional government (Generalitat Valenciana) is rearranging its lines of support so that the emergency financial instruments, both regional and national, are sequentially complemented with aid for investment first, and then for innovation and cooperative research. The aim is to select companies that can prove their viability, as well as clusters that present a joint initiative to re-invent and relaunch themselves in these times of crisis and come out of it.

There are numerous examples and many of them are already a reality. Temel, dedicated to artificial ventilation products, and Power Electronics, specialised in electronics for energy management, have already begun the production of the only approved respirator for Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and anesthesia manufactured in Spain. They will be responsible for producing respirators in the coming months for the Valencian health system.

Researchers at the ITENE technology centre together with the company Controlnano, are developing a new low-cost portable device that instantly detects the virus on blood samples, urine or even exhaled air, so it could offer an immediate diagnosis. The hybridisation of biosensor and nanomaterials that act as support technologies is already in the scaling and validation phase, and have received support from the Valencian Institute of Business Competitiveness (IVACE) and the European Union.

In just a few days, business initiatives have introduced into the market cleaning machines that have become disinfection points, production automation systems were converted into arches for the measurement and preventive detection of the coronavirus, ozone shower cabins or ovens are also being used for disinfecting objects with ultraviolet rays. Furthermore, new applications have emerged from already available tools, such as the reuse of route optimisation software to minimize infections.

In the preparation of the next step of the Research and Innovation Strategy for Smart Specialisation (S3) and the upcoming programming period, one of the challenges of the regional government of Valencia is to further engage and bring together different priority sectors. We have gained speed: we no longer have to concentrate our efforts on maturing the interconnection of stakeholders from each cluster; the Region is rather moving towards "sewing" complementary fabrics (sectors) with each other and consolidating the regional commitment.

"We hope to move from isolated examples to a major mobilisation that will have an impact on the regional productive model. In the end, we have to produce close by, and commit to a local industry that generates quality employment. Always depending on third parties makes us weaker as a society", stresses Rafa Climent from the Regional Ministry of Economy.