Samuel Maenhout, policy officer at the SME Unit of the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation (DG RTD), discusses the key role SMEs will play in 2013 and beyond, as well as the strategic communication activities planned by the unit.
‘2013 is the European Year of Citizens, and there is a genuine will in the EU to enter into dialogue with citizens about topics that concern them most,’ underlines Mr Maenhout. ‘Our unit subscribes firmly to this, as we will be reaching out to specific target audiences in a language that they understand via the channels that are theirs.’
SMEs are at the heart of Europe 2020, the decade-long strategy which envisions a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy delivering high levels of employment, productivity and social cohesion. ‘A 2012 survey shows that the chief concerns of Europeans at national level remain unemployment, the economic situation at large and rising prices due to inflation,’ he says.
‘Throughout the economic downturn, SMEs have continued to be the backbone of the European economy, primarily responsible for wealth and economic growth, alongside their vital role in innovation and R&D,’ stresses Mr Maenhout. About 20.7 million firms account for more than 98% of all enterprises, of which the lion’s share (over 92%) are firms with fewer than 10 employees. According to the annual report on SMEs in the EU entitled ‘EU SMEs in 2012: at the crossroads’, it was estimated that SMEs accounted for 67% of total employment and 58% of gross value added.
SMEs translate research results and innovative ideas into products, services and business models that meet market demand and provide solutions to societal challenges. More highly innovative companies are instrumental in helping Europe to exit the crisis and to become a knowledge-based economy. ‘The EU’s motivation to give a firm boost to SMEs is stronger than ever,’ emphasises Mr Maenhout.
2013 marks the build up to the launch of Horizon 2020, the research and innovation (R&I) programme for the period 2014-2020. The successor to the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) intends to fill gaps in funding for high-risk innovation projects by SMEs. As such, it will create business opportunities in response to major societal challenges. In addition, it will strengthen productivity and innovation capacities and help innovative SMEs to grow.
Horizon 2020 seeks to provide much greater support to SMEs through a new dedicated instrument. By bringing together the R&I-related SME measures that are currently spread across several programmes, this instrument will provide one comprehensive and simple scheme adapted to SME needs. Under Horizon 2020, a single SME or a group of SMEs will be able to apply for funds to finance a project of economic and preferably also societal relevance in a user-friendly manner that puts business first. Mr Maenhout explains that a large part of the unit’s communication efforts will concentrate on providing details of the application of the new instrument from start (idea/concept design) to finish (commercialisation/go-to-market). Support networks, expert evaluators and coaches will have the opportunity to attend specific events where their potential role will be clarified. According to Mr Maenhout, the particulars about such SME support under Horizon 2020 will gradually become available.
2013 in particular will see a stronger emphasis on the importance of innovative SMEs in order to prepare them for the launch and implementation of Horizon 2020, which places greater focus on market delivery. The unit aims to appeal to innovative SMEs more directly by bridging the communication divide that exists between the small business world and the EU public support infrastructure.
Mr Maenhout outlines the unit’s upcoming communication initiatives, including but not limited to the following:
‘Getting relevant and value-added information to innovative SMEs, but also sincerely listening to their concerns via dedicated networks, events or social media platforms, will be complementary actions to ensure that SMEs have sufficient knowledge and know-how about EU support and funding application processes to start acting upon them,’ says Mr Maenhout.
He believes that one of the main objectives for public intervention in Europe in research, innovation and industrial policies should be to increase European innovative company growth. To translate the EU policy agenda into effective policy actions, EU support policies need to foster R&D investment in a specific innovative company type, and only where there are market failures (e.g. difficulty in accessing capital, knowledge and infrastructures) and clear high social returns, for instance in such domains as aging society, climate change, energy supply, safety and security.
‘It is this ambition that will drive the SME Unit forward in 2013, and it is based on this premise that the bulk of our energies will be spent,’ concludes Mr Maenhout.