Innovation with impact: an interview with Marta Fernandez

Innovation with impact: an interview with Marta Fernandez

RMIT Europe’s Executive Director, Professor Marta Fernandez, recently spoke to The Collider about European and Asia-Pacific innovation ecosystems and Barcelona's position as a European innovation hub.

Fernandez also shared the key factors involved in innovating and creating real impact.

What is the role of RMIT Europe and what are your responsibilities as Executive Director?

RMIT Europe is the European hub of RMIT University, one of the largest higher education institutions in Australia.

We have approximately 100,000 students and 11,000 employees, and we are among the top 200 universities worldwide according to the QS World University Rankings 2023 .

The University excels in art and design, architecture, computer science, engineering and communication systems. It has a very powerful internationalisation ambition, with a presence in Melbourne, Singapore, Vietnam, and our innovation hub in Barcelona, ​​which covers Europe.

My role is to design and implement the innovation hub’s strategy, focused on establishing research and innovation collaborations with companies, technology centres and universities in Europe. We also provide our students with international experiences connected to industry.

What are RMIT Europe's main research areas and what technologies do you work with?

We focus on urban and sustainable development, digital transformation and Industry 4.0, and design and creative practices. These are areas in which we have cutting-edge research capabilities that sets us apart in the European market. 

To give a few specific examples, we have developed a project on disaster resilience to better predict the dangers of climatic events. It includes a model of cognitive reasoning, understanding of human behaviour and a traffic model to analyse impact and mobility.

We have also promoted a project to design buildings that generate energy based on climatic and cultural differences in Europe.

RMIT Europe connects research, industry, companies and government to boost innovation. How do you implement technology transfer?

Like The Collider – Mobile World Capital Barcelona, ​​we strive for impact by collaborating with stakeholders from the public-private sector, academia and civil society.

We do this through research projects with European, national and local funding to advance in the areas in which we work.

We are based in Barcelona’s innovation district, also known as 22@, ​​an environment with great permeability and potential for collaboration with other players in the innovation ecosystem such as the technology centre Eurecat, among others.

One example of this is OpenInnoTrain, a research project we coordinate from RMIT Europe with 22 partners from different countries, focused on open innovation and research translation between universities and industry in the FinTech, Industry 4.0 CleanTech and FoodTech sectors.

What are the limitations and barriers to tech transfer?

Bringing the technology to market requires significant investment for its actual implementation, as well as assuming the associated technological risk. This is not within the reach of all investors and companies, therefore we must find a strategic fit, capacity and an objective.

As an applied university, we have our own resources at the business development level to understand the needs of companies, based on a technology pull model, not technology push. We always try to make sure that our work has real impact.

Profile picture of Marta Fernandez Professor Marta Fernandez

What is the innovation ecosystem of Australia and Asia like, and how does it differ from the European model?

When we talk about the European model, we must differentiate between countries – investment and public spending in Spain cannot be compared with that of Germany or Finland. As a whole, Europe has the largest research and development funding program in the world, together with China and the United States.

European companies account for a quarter of the world's industrial research and development. But if we want to maintain the long-term growth model, we cannot lag behind. The United States has increased its participation and secured its leadership position, and China and South Korea are very advanced in terms of investment in innovation and are challenging Europe's capacity.

Australia has a highly-skilled workforce and academic and scientific institutions that rank among the best in the world. Despite the fact that Australia accounts for just 0.3% of the world's population, 7% of the world's top 100 universities are Australian and their contribution to the total number of publications and research is 4%.

However, scientific production does not translate into a transfer to the market, as it is the case in Spain.

What should we import into Europe from the Asia-Pacific model?

We should import the concept of impact, which is now being implemented in Australia and some countries in Europe. It consists of periodically evaluating the impact of the research conducted by universities.

Based on this impact, the government decides what funding to provide to universities as core funding. Universities must justify the return on investment and strive to ensure real impact.

RMIT Europe is headquartered in Barcelona. Is the city a talent and innovation hub, ahead of other European cities?

Barcelona is a leading city in smart city initiatives and one of the most important tech centres in Europe. It ranks among the 10 European cities that received the most technological investment in 2021, it has a strategic location and fantastic infrastructure.

Barcelona is a pole of attraction for qualified international talent and large companies and has all the potential to compete with other major European cities.

But in my opinion, public-private investment should be strengthened, bureaucracy and administrative processes should be simplified and it should be easier for entrepreneurs and new companies to set up in the city.

What are the biggest challenges humanity faces, and how can we address them?

That’s the million dollar question! In terms of global trends, if we think optimistically, there have been improvements in wellbeing, quality of life, GDP and access to education.

But some trends point to a darker future. For example, those related to the environment, climate change, socio-economic and political instability.

It is important to consider all these trends in order to imagine the role that all of us play in building a better future for everyone. It is up to us to make that transformation and we must start now.

Can you share the motto that best defines you?

Be passionate, energetic and inspired and fight for your goals. And never give up.


Original interview published on The Collider’s website in Spanish (the innovation programme of the Mobile World Capital Barcelona).

21 December 2022


  • RMIT Europe

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Acknowledgement of Country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.