The Horizon for Europe project spoke to over 30 experts on the topic of applying for European funding as HEI-SME consortia and created a blog series of expert voices out of it. One of the experts they have interviewed during the research phase of the project to assess the status quo, is Gabriella Lovasz, our Managing Director.
What drives HEI-SME consortia to apply for European funding?
The main motivator is the prerequisite to have both universities and SMEs involved in a project. Apart from that, SMEs are slowly becoming more aware of what collaboration with HEIs and involvement in the framework can bring them, whilst HEIs are also getting better at approaching collaboration and getting more experienced in the process. Over the last years, throughout the FP7 and Horizon 2020 funding programmes, this has led to an increase in SMEs involved, not only as participants but also as coordinators. Other motivation for SMEs specifically, is to gain access to know-how, IP, and the infrastructure of the HEI(s).
What are the main challenges?
There are two main challenges. First, the prerequisite to have both universities and SMEs involved often leads to universities asking SMEs to join without informing them on what participation in an EU-funded project exactly entails. There are obligations that SMEs are not fully aware of and get surprised by, such as the IPR landscape, legal conditions, administration, reporting requirements, and obligations beyond the lifetime of the project. And secondly, neither party speaks the same language. Ideally, there would be an intermediary between the partners (either a person or organisation) to support the communication and finding compromises where necessary.
How could HEI-SME consortia applying for European funding best be supported?
There should be an increase in information provision and awareness of opportunities, both in SMEs and universities. For SMEs, the information is usually spread on a national level or by NGOs. The EC itself could also consider spreading information not only on the benefits but also on the obligations, such as creating a fact sheet that lays out the obligations for SMEs. Universities would benefit from an innovation advisor within the institution. They could then provide the SMEs with the necessary information when they invite them into the consortium. Universities as coordinating organisations will in that way make sure that the collaborator is fully on board.
Another way to support the consortia is to provide funding for training programmes for SMEs. SMEs that regard EU-funded projects as a strategic priority might be interested in participating in a training course to develop their skills. However, SMEs usually do not have time to participate, nor resources to hire someone with the expertise. They will be more willing to participate if there is a funding opportunity on a national level to prepare the proposal and further develop the skills.
What skills and capabilities and required for universities and businesses to collaborate?
SMEs have to follow the open data and open science principles in EU-funded projects. Furthermore, universities should be aware that when inviting SMEs to collaborate, SMEs may not want to participate if the collaboration does not generate direct income. Internal communication about these principles should be enhanced. Besides this, SMEs also need to have a commercial plan, be aware of what the collaboration can bring them, be proficient in English, have management skills, and understand the EU agenda.
Universities need to set up different support structures for researchers, as the EC expectation is that the researchers will become innovators. Researchers new to collaboration, need to be supported in the collaboration process. They need to know what steps to take to create a win-win situation. The TTO or innovation department could join forces with the research grant office to put information together for researchers.
In conclusion, what are some successful strategies for HEI-SME consortia?
First, there should be a certain level of trust between the different partners. Second, when an SME is an initiator, collaboration might be easier as universities are in general happy to be managed. And third, SMEs should only consider applying for Horizon Europe (and similar funding) if they have a good strategic scope and commercial plan. If SMEs do not yet have a clear strategic plan, they should first consider local funds, rather than applying for EU funding. Before participation, SMEs should also consider that the impact that the projects should achieve has to be on a European scale. This means a huge investment of efforts on their side, also after the project has ended.
Authored by Fleur Schellekens, Junior Research Officer at UIIN.
This article was originally posted on the Unite for Horizon Europe website.
About the Unite for Horizon Europe project
Even though there has been an increase in collaboration activities in the Horizon 2020 programme in comparison with its predecessor FP7, the European Commission aims to increase the involvement of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in innovation partnerships, as this has been reported to be considerably low. The Unite for Horizon Europe project has the goal to help build strategic engagement capacity between European academics/researchers in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and SME representatives to increase the proportion of successful collaborative participation in the Horizon Europe initiatives.