The role of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the OCEAN2020 (Open Cooperation for European Maritime Awareness) project was the main theme of the recent webinar organised by Leonardo, which was attended by representatives of the European institutions and SMEs involved.
Funded by the European Commission and managed by the European Defence Agency (EDA), OCEAN2020 is the most important military research project on maritime safety. It has a €35.5 million budget, and is within the scope of the Preparatory Action on Defence Research (PADR) which has a budget of €90 million. Initially planned on a three-year period (April 2018-March 2021), the project has been extended for seven months until October 2021 because of the pandemic. The OCEAN2020 team is coordinated by Leonardo and includes 43 large and small companies from 15 countries, including research institutes, universities and navies, all working together on this single defence project.
The webinar, moderated by Alessandro Marrone, Head of Defence Programmes at the Institute for International Affairs, highlighted SMEs’ roles in OCEAN2020, the expected outcomes in the medium and long term, the benefits of collaboration with larger companies in technological development, and the consolidation opportunities in the European defence sector.
The OCEAN2020 team features 11 SMEs from nine countries, who have collective access to 10% of the total budget. Silvia Kainz-Huber, head of the Common Defence unit at the European Commission, stressed that Europe “supports and encourages the participation of SMEs in joint defence projects at all stages of the supply chain, helping regional clusters’ development and the improvement of national and international cooperation. The medium and long-term success can be driven by the synergies between firms of different sizes. In this sense, OCEAN2020 is an excellent example of the fruitful participation of SMEs in common defence projects.”
Pieter Taal, who is responsible for the EDA’s industrial and strategic unit, agreed. He also highlighted the technical, financial and bureaucratic challenges that SMEs sometimes face in dealing with governments “that are at the same time policy makers and customers of the defence industry.” According to Taal, “there is a need to involve a wide range of companies to invest and make profits in defence programmes.”
Acknowledging the role and importance of SMEs in defence projects, webinar participants raised the prospect of OCEAN2020 being scalable for larger projects in the future. According to Antonino Arecchi, Leonardo’s OCEAN2020 Project Coordinator, “this is absolutely possible, demonstrated by us bringing together 43 companies from across Europe.” According to Arecchi, the project’s success is “thanks to the governance; we have a Management Committee with representatives of all companies that meet every month to discuss all aspects of the project. Then there is a smaller committee with one representative from each of the 15 countries and one from NATO, which meets with longer deadlines to discuss timing and execution. The two bodies report to a General Assembly which takes stock of the results and plans strategies and targets on an annual basis.”
The webinar’s special guest was the Vice President of the European Parliament, Fabio Massimo Castaldo MEP, who emphasised the strengths of OCEAN2020 model and the role of SMEs in defence programmes. “OCEAN2020 proves how the European integrated defence model is not just a long-term goal,” said Mr Castaldo. “SMEs represent 99% of European businesses and account for more than half of EU GDP and employment. They are the heart of technological innovation and play a crucial role in many sectors, including defence. The commitment of the European Parliament and mine, is to increase SMEs’ role and involvement in European defence projects, just as we have done with OCEAN2020, encouraging technological sharing and innovation for the project’s success.”
Representatives of five of the SMEs operating in OCEAN2020 attended the webinar and shared their thoughts on how their companies have been positively impacted by the project.
Tomas Zalaundaskas, CEO of Baltic Institute of Advanced Technology (Lithuania), which operates in electronics and artificial intelligence applied to the defence, space and energy sectors, explained that “In OCEAN2020, we take care of system integration and processes, human factor and project management. The expected benefits are an increase in experience and knowledge by working on projects of this size and, at the same time, a portfolio growth and new partnership opportunities in key sectors.”
Baldur Kubo, Project Manager of Cybernetica (Estonia), who presented his company's profile and activities in security software development and information security R&D, added: “Along with Leonardo and four other companies, we take care of OCEAN2020’s cyber security issues. Thanks to our participation, we’re now involved in other European cyber security projects, we’ve increased our defence sector network and we’re improving cooperation and negotiation skills.”
Kenny Barraud, software engineer at Prolexia (France), spoke about business activities in robotics, simulation, in virtual and augmented reality, and in artificial intelligence. “Thanks to OCEAN2020, we contributed to the development of the radar sensor behaviour simulator and the synthetic aperture radar simulator. The benefits of participating in the project are the creation of new partnerships at European level, increased competitiveness, the chance to be part of other continental programmes and being able to leverage the know-how we’ve developed.”
Benjamin Shpigler, Technical Director at Infinite Vision (Germany) which operates in Communication Design, 3D animation, virtual and augmented reality, explained: “Our task in OCEAN2020 is to provide the 3D models to visualise simulations. We’re very proud to be part of this project and we hope to increase our experience and competence at an international level, extend our network of contacts and continue working on other European projects.”
The final SME participating in the webinar was the Greek company, ALTUS LSA, represented by Principal Thanos Yamas, who said: “We offer technology solutions for defence and civil use, operating with uncrewed systems. In OCEAN2020, we carry out system simulation and modelling, and human factor and training projects. The main benefits gained from participation in OCEAN2020, are the increased expertise gained through projects of this size, the synergies and collaborations with other subjects, and the improvement in growth prospects.”