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“We’d like to offer SMEs the opportunity to introduce AI to actual applications”

An interview with Alexandra Fezer and Stefano Sbarbati from Steinbeis Europa Zentrum

The Vanguard Initiative aims to bolster innovation and industrial growth in the EU. Starting points for the project are regional strategies aimed at fostering intelligent specialization. This involves focusing on the existing strengths of regions and their strategic development. For the initiative, in 2020 Steinbeis Europa Zentrum launched an AI pilot program with the support of the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. In an interview for TRANSFER magazine, Alexandra Fezer and Stefano Sbarbati, who are in charge of the project at Steinbeis Europa Zentrum, explain what it’s all about.

Hello Ms. Fezer. What are the goals of the AI pilot project?

Alexandra Fezer: We’d particularly like to offer SMEs the opportunity to introduce AI to actual applications and by doing so, accelerate innovation processes at companies. This is an important step in laying a course for the future, and it will enable companies and research institutions to participate in European funding and interregional partnerships – in addition to the initiatives and instruments that already exist in each state – and this will make it easier to gain access to markets. This complements our commitment to building and networking the European Digital Innovation Hubs (EDIHs) with relevant stakeholders in Baden-Wuerttemberg.

Hello Mr. Sbarbati. What does implementing the project entail in concrete terms?

Stefano Sbarbati: It’s a pilot concept and it’s been organized in the form of demo cases. The aim is to make the results of collaboration facilitated by the project more accessible to the market. We’re currently helping with two different demo cases, and we’d be happy to expand our portfolio of demo cases and help regional stakeholders apply their concepts. In addition to focusing on the key topic of resource efficiency in production, the pilot project is also looking at the user experience, data analytics, user-centered design, AI-enhanced cyber-physical automation, HMI evolution, and other topics.

Are there already any concrete examples of applications?

Fezer: At the moment, we’re busy pulling together a demo case spearheaded by stakeholders here in Baden-Wuerttemberg. Our focus lies in researching AI applications that allow processes to be optimized in production. At the same time, we’re exploring a variety of options for supporting AI applications at SMEs in Baden-Wuerttemberg, but also beyond. We also investigate international funding options – with a particular focus on Horizon Europe – and we’re trying to make it easier to introduce AI at our SMEs by also taking advantage of these funding opportunities.

As an initiative, Vanguard falls under European policy. What’s the role of Steinbeis Europa Zentrum in this project?

Sbarbati: We’ve been supporting research and innovation in the field of artificial intelligence for many years. Aside from the goal of getting AI innovations onto the market, a particularly important aspect of the Vanguard Initiative is interregional cooperation within Europe. Our role at Steinbeis Europa Zentrum is to help on a European level with conceptual planning and the development of research and innovation policies, and in addition to supporting the European Commission, we also accompany stakeholders in Baden-Wuerttemberg with the implementation of political initiatives and partnerships. Being a member of a whole variety of initiatives, such as the Enterprise Europe Network and the Digital Innovation Hubs, also contributes to networking.


Alexandra Fezer (interviewee)
Senior Project Manager
Steinbeis Europa Zentrum
Steinbeis 2i GmbH

Stefano Sbarbati (interviewee)
Project Manager
Steinbeis Europa Zentrum
Steinbeis 2i GmbH