Cooperation with a human face

“European projects are an opportunity for SMEs to work with major partners, such as multinationals.” © Shutterstock
“European projects are an opportunity for SMEs to work with major partners, such as multinationals.”© Shutterstock

The specific measures for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) under the Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP7) seem to be bearing fruit. Initial results of increased participation, promising partnerships, projects realised and jobs are a boost to the world of European SMEs and to all those that revolve around them.

“The impact of FP7 on SMEs is clear to see! We are witnessing un pre cedented interest and participation,” explains Imelda Lambkin of the Irish National Contact Point (NCP). This is certainly encouraging news when you consider that 99 % of all businesses in the EU are SMEs and that they provide some 75 million jobs. As such, they are an essential resource in meeting Europe’s knowledge objectives. This is only the case, however, if they are able to overcome the many obstacles along the road to funding under the framework programmes for research. FP7 has learned the lessons of the past and adapted conditions of access and budgets to bring them as closely into line as possible with the specific needs and nature of these businesses. Under the Cooperation-specific programme, for example, cofunding is available for up to 75 % of research costs, an increase compared with FP6, and at least 15 % of funds are reserved for SMEs.

In the field, however, the reality is above all human. “Human relations are crucial factors for success and must be in place well before the Commission launches any calls for projects,” stresses Kostadin Kostadinov of the NCP for Bulgarian SMEs. An engineer and professor of robotics, he is very familiar with the world of SMEs, having himself created a number of spinoffs. “SMEs need to be active within international networks of SMEs as it is there that they can meet possible future partners. The networks set by the Commission, such as the Enterprise Europe Network (EEN), launched in 2008, or, in the field of health, the SMEs go Health initiative, are opportunities that must be seized. But that is not enough. The R&D activities of SMEs must be closely linked to academic research as this provides major potential for innovation.” Imelda Lambkin also stresses that “in Ireland – but it is true elsewhere also – SMEs that participate successfully in calls for offers are often spin-offs originating in university laboratories with strong links between private-sector researchers and university researchers”.

Visionary bosses

Michel Ganoote of the French NCP believes that “participation in European financing requires business managers to have a strategic vision, set their sights firmly on excellence and cooperation, choose their partners carefully, and devote a lot of time to the project…In other words, their participation should be seen as a medium- or long-term investment.”

Competition is keen, which is why candidates need all the help they can get. “The EC has set up several networks and knowledge bases and SMEs should make full use of these. At the same time, more experienced partners that have already won European funding are also a valuable source of information,” conti nues Michel Ganoote. “They should also not hesitate to bring in specialised consultants that are familiar with the procedures, know the jargon and can help draw up the application.”

Rallying points

But where to begin? For online aid, the Commission has a specific portal dedicated to SMEs, known as SME TechWeb. This guides SMEs in taking their first steps through the procedures of European financing. But there is no substitute for human contact, and one of the key players in the participation of SMEs is the network of National Contact Points. These are national structures based in and financed by FP7’s 27 Member States and Associated States. The NCP staff is the interface and interlocutor for any SME considering participating in a transnational project. The organisation varies from one country to another, but the mission is the same: to offer immediate individual support to candidates in their mother tongue. The NCPs operate proactively, offering guidance, practical information and aid with all aspects relating to participation in FP7. “When we are unable to offer personalised coaching ourselves, we are able to make the link between the SME and a more local structure, such as an innovation transfer agency. Through contacts between NCPs we also act as a relay between countries,” explains Kostadin Kostadinov.

Michel Ganoote would like to see increased and more integrated training for NCP staff. “We need better integration of the national funding possibilities open to SMEs, to coordinate more effectively with the other NCPs at European level, and to be more effective at explaining Europe to the SMEs and the SMEs to Europe.” Imelda Lambkin also acknowledges that “SMEs need more assistance than other types of partners. Ideally, we should be able to indicate the best financing for their project, by exploring, and sometimes combining, European funds and national funds. When setting up a project we endeavour to use all the information gathered, often over a period of several months, to the best of our ability. Especially if the request for funds has failed.”

She also stresses the quality of the proposal evaluations by the Commission experts. “They are always well argued and this makes it possible, if necessary, for the consortium to rework the weak points in the proposal so as to submit it again for the next call for participation,” explains Michel Ganoote.

What benefits for SMEs?

For an innovative SME, access to European funding offers much more than a financial contribution alone. A genuine quality label is therefore needed, “that should be capitalised on much more than it is,” remarks Michel Ganoote, “in particular in contacts with national and regional innovation agencies and when supplementing European funding with other aid that may be available.” In addition to funding their activities, “European projects are also an opportunity for SMEs to work with major partners, such as multinationals,” adds Imelda Lambkin. “This is not something that is necessarily available to them outside of this context. Yet in some fields, such as aeronautics, cooperation of this kind is simply essential.”

The limited resources available naturally force some difficult choices and many good projects must ultimately be rejected. Those active in the field believe that this is another major potential source of innovation that Europe could exploit by using specific tools such as the ERA-NET national and regional calls for proposals, which are complementary to the FP7 calls, if it does not want to lose out on the wealth the SMEs represent.

Kirstine de Caritat


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Tripping on a carpet

The future Mini’Fall B3 © Courtesy Vigilio
The future Mini’Fall B3 © Courtesy Vigilio

You trip on a carpet, slip on a wet floor, and most of the time get up and think no more of it. But with advancing years such falls can have serious effects, including fractures, wounds and complications such as infection. In Europe it is estimated that 30 % of people over 65 have at least one fall a year.

VIGILIO, a French SME that develops innovative telemedical solutions, is currently coordinating the European project FallWatch. A consortium of 12 partners is seeking to develop, by 2010, a miniature intelligent fall detector for persons of risk age, known as the Mini’Fall®.

“Putting together the proposal is a genuine investment,” explains Jean-Eric Lundy, CEO of VIGILIO. “It requires a clear vision of what you aim to do and how to do it. Our NCP put us in contact with a consultancy company that helped us prepare the proposal.”

Identifying the partners of the future consortium and spending time with them in forging a shared and coherent vision are other key ingredients. “This preparatory work, the creation of a project dynamic, must be done before the Commission launches the call,” says Jean-Eric Lundy. “This stage requires considerable time. It is illusory to regard European money as easily obtained support. The competition is fierce.”

Another lesson learned along the way is not to become discouraged. “When we first submitted a proposal we fell just short of the mark. But the specific and pertinent comments from the Commission helped us improve some of the details and, six months later, we made the grade!”