SME Conference:

Listening to what SMEs want

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Nearly 400 operators, experts and policy makers from Europe gathered in Paris this month to examine how we could “do better” for SMEs and ensure the best economic impacts for their research and innovation projects.

SMEs lie at the centre of growth within Europe - “They are the DNA of the European economy,” said the European Commissioner for Science and Research, Janez Potočnik speaking at this month’s ‘Innovation in Motion’ conference (supporting research and innovation in European SMEs) held in Paris.

Commissioner Potočnik was keen to emphasise that in the current economic climate Europe can’t expect to compete with the rest of the world merely by cutting costs anymore. It must do so with knowledge and added-value.

This can be achieved via a number or mechanisms. The newly launched Small Business Act promises to place SMEs into the mainstream of European policy making – “to provide the best environment and the best opportunities for SMEs to grow and flourish”. The 2007 Green Paper on the European Research Area (ERA) also highlighted key areas for development: Creating a single labour market for researchers, creating leading research infrastructures, generating research programmes and international cooperation. With these developments, it is hoped that the ERA will turn Europe into “a spring of knowledge”.

“But whilst the ERA is there to effectively convert taxpayers’ Euros into that knowledge at the best possible exchange rate… It is businesses, especially innovative SMEs, that now have the job of turning knowledge back into Euros at a good rate of return,” said Potočnik.

The Commissioner also noted that:

  • Research organisations and policy makers must now listen to SMEs and appreciate their needs, in particular their ‘time horizon’ which may be very different from that of ‘blue sky research’
  • At the moment there are 70 different national cluster policies around Europe and hundreds of regional ones, so programme and initiatives must be better co-ordinated at regional, national and European levels
  • If SMEs are to innovate effectively, they need fewer obstacles and better regulation
  • They must also have better access to risk finance and markets
  • Programme rules must be made simpler so SMEs can understand them

Success Stories

Organised by the French SME support agency, OSEO, DG Research and the French government, this month’s two-day debate - ‘EU, Research and SMEs: Innovation in Motion’ - featured the richness and diversity of just over 30 SMEs which had used the EC’s financial and technical support mechanisms to help them achieve their commercial objectives. We provide a selection below.

Focuses on areas of high, unmet clinical need in vascular disease, wound care and cancer. “The company would not have been founded without initial funding of its early stage research from the EC to the academic founders,” says Scientific Director, John Martin. “We were formed to capitalise on opportunities arising from research advances made in previous rounds of Framework Programmes, so its very existence is a testament to the significant long-term impact of EU research investment.”

Beti Pletiva (Slovenia)

Textile manufacturer. “FP6 funding was essential, as it gave us the chance to implement our project (WASHCONTROL) and obtain very good results. The consulting offered has also been very important for developing the project,” says Production Director, Romana Petrovic.

Cellectis (France)

Genome engineering. Believes EU and French government support for cross-border projects is a very important resource for helping SMEs achieve a more global positioning and business strategy. “Networking has proved to be very important, especially via scientific networks of partners with experience in cross-border consortia,” says Vice-President of Corporate Development, David Sourdive. “In nearly all cases, the collaboration initiated during these projects has extended far beyond the original project.”

Fianium (UK)

Develops and produces ultra-fast fibre lasers. “FP6 funding helped us complete our development programme. Research networks have also been very important in solving inevitable technical problems, especially within tight timeframes,” says CEO, Anatoly Grudinin. “During our Uranus project, we increased sales four-fold, doubled our manpower and laid a sold foundation for future growth.”

GAT Food Essentials GmbH (Austria)

This research-driven company has developed a range of cancer-fighting antioxidants. With extremely limited funds of its own, around €1 million of FP6 funding has been used for product development. “We also benefited from collaboration with universities that contributed to the physiological research dimension of the industrial development,” says CEO, Dr Barbara Gimeno. “The in vitro and clinical studies allowed us to enter the Food Additive Market with a scientific dossier that covered the product and its benefits.”

Inter-Euro Technology (Ireland)

Provides a specialised environmental service to electroplating and other surface treatment companies. “Our involvement in EU projects has opened up new markets and opportunities for us. The process of submitting proposals, even those not funded, has opened up additional networks of expertise with many organisations and third level institutions in a large number of countries,” says Managing Director, Dr Jimmie Parkes.

Nanocyl SA (Belgium)

Produces nano materials. FP6 funding has paid for half the company’s project costs (regional funds often offer an extra 25 per cent). “This means that we can fend off the competition from large international companies, including those from low-wage countries such as China,” says Research and Development Director, Dr Frederic Luizi. “European programmes are particularly interesting for our company as they allow us to build up wide-ranging business and research networks. Thanks to project consortia that bring together partners, ranging from manufacturers to end users, we can gain a perspective across the entire value chain. This allows us to develop products at a much faster pace,” he adds.

Lifa IAQ (Finland)

Produces ventilation products. “Our (Airsecure) project has not yet increased sales for the companies involved. But together with our partners, we are certain that it will do so in the near future,” says CEO, Vesa Mäkipää. “Involvement in the project has opened up new markets and improved the market positioning of the SMEs involved.”

Net7 (Italy)

Innovative software publisher. “EC support is especially valuable for smaller companies like us which would not otherwise be able to make the high-risk investments in research needed to stay up to date with the latest technological trends and innovations,” says Technical Director, Michele Barbera. “Private consulting and acting as a National Contact Point has also played a major role in providing us with access to support.”

Plásticos Dúrex SA (Spain)

Produces parts for the automotive sector. According to CEO, Sergio Deike, access to European scale networks in FP6 opened up a new world of knowledge and commercial possibilities for the company. “Our ISSEA project generated a five per cent increase in sales. It has also opened up new markets and generally improved our corporate image,” says Deike.

RWP GmbH (Germany)

Develops and produces simulation software for the manufacturing industry. Its FP6 IDEA project has accounted for 20 per cent of company sales. “It was as a result of this project that we started to develop internationally,” says CEO, Konrad Weiss. “Due to the new technologies developed, we were able to achieve our existing position as one of the leaders in a niche market.”

Salliwell (Israel)

Produces medical devices for the mouth. Received FP5 and FP6 funding. “This support was vital for our innovation strategy and for developing our research projects,” says President, Andy Wolff. “Networks are of course very important as well. We have managed to gather a consortium of first-class partners in the fields of electronics, chemistry, micro-mechanics and patient care.”

  • Contact:
    The complete catalogue of SMEs which have received funding under the Sixth Framework Programme is available on the Europa website. This document can be used to identify SMEs in your country who have participated in EU projects and provides the necessary contact details.


Helpdesk provides free IPR services to SMEs

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Part of the EU-funded IP-BASE project, the IPR-Helpdesk (Intellectual Property Rights Helpdesk) is helping SMEs to manage their knowledge and intellectual property (IP) effectively when they join a research project, negotiate a licence agreement or define their innovation strategy.

Currently, European small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) benefit from a wide range of actions and initiatives both at European and national levels. The European Commission provides active support for SME innovation through numerous schemes, amongst which the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) and the Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme (CIP) stand out.

Nevertheless, if they are to take full advantage of these opportunities, SMEs must also be informed in several areas: how to manage the knowledge they acquire and generate effectively; how to protect the results of their research efforts or the results transferred to them by research-performing organisations; and how to share and exploit their IP resources in research collaborations through technology transfer agreements.

Over the last year, the IPR-Helpdesk has become a point of reference for SMEs that wish to protect their innovations. The IPR-Helpdesk SME Gateway contains various informative documents which focus on how to manage IP within EU-funded projects. Part of this material is dedicated to FP7, providing advice on what to do about IP during the proposal preparation process, as the project progresses and then after it has finished.

Specific attention has been paid to SME actions and the two funding schemes in the programme 'Research for the benefit of SMEs' — IP-related issues for SMEs in FP7 projects explains the basics, while a small guide devoted to the SME funding schemes goes into more detail.

However, no document can provide all the answers, at least not when it is kept short and intelligible for the inexperienced user. So the IPR-Helpdesk Helpline remains vigilant at all times, ready to solve any additional questions SMEs might have and to provide case-specific advice. Clear, jargon-free responses, including links to additional sources of information, will be provided within three working days.

The IPR-Helpdesk’s legal experts also attend European seminars and workshops dedicated to SMEs, where experts and users will have an opportunity to meet, explain and discuss, teach and learn.

Points of View:

Regional partner networks shape the future

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Women who own or manage small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and women scientists and technologists have a key role to play in the future of Europe’s regional economies. However, it is vital that these female innovators gain access to international networks and other like-minded people in Europe. WomEn2FP6 broke new ground by helping to create transnational clusters of women entrepreneurs. Now WE-Mentor is taking it even further.

Female entrepreneurs account for 30% of all SMEs in Europe, yet there are disproportionately fewer women than men working in collaborative research within Europe. Why?

'Once they realise the potential of a framework programme, experience shows that they are just as likely as men to succeed. But many of them lack the self-confidence to grow their businesses through international collaboration,' says WomEn2FP6’s Project Coordinator, Dr Petra Püchner, Managing Director of Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum der Steinbeis Stiftung für Wirtschaftsförderung.

'Once they realise the potential of a framework programme, experience shows that they are just as likely as men to succeed. But many of them lack the self-confidence to grow their businesses through international collaboration,' says WomEn2FP6’s Project Coordinator, Dr Petra Püchner, Managing Director of Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum der Steinbeis Stiftung für Wirtschaftsförderung.

Perhaps establishing more gender-specific role models may be one answer for attracting more women-led SMEs into European research. 'Those who ran SMEs and had EU project experience played an important part as role models, and in providing valuable feedback. However, there were too few of them,' adds Dr Püchner.

WomEn2FP6 also pointed out that although networking comes naturally to women, they often approach it in a different way to men. Women are more likely to form women-only networks based around family life, self-employment or career development. Maybe it’s also regional partner networks which hold the key to the future for women researchers.

Over 100 regional partners supported WomEn2FP6’s activities by disseminating information, hosting training sessions, or signposting women entrepreneurs to project partners. Over 800 women entrepreneurs from 10 countries were involved in the project’s European research training activities, which ran over 18 months. This number of participants far exceeded the expected number (of 450). Ultimately, over 5 500 women were identified and invited to training and events during the project’s duration. 'This demonstrates the effectiveness of such networks as a way of accessing women entrepreneurs,' says Dr Püchner.

So, in summary, if European research wishes to benefit from female entrepreneurs, the following should be kept in mind.

  • Examples speak louder than words.
  • EU research must be presented simply and in a way that highlights the economic benefits.
  • Provide enough time for risk evaluation and planning.
  • Don’t expect quick decisions.
  • Implement regional networks


The experience gleaned from WomEn2FP6 has now been transferred into a secondary project, WE-Mentor which is twinning four experienced regions as mentors with four regions less experienced in women entrepreneur support issues.

The mentee regions are one member state (Romania), one candidate country (Turkey), one associated (Israel) and one third country (India). The mentor regions are Belgium, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom.

Working in pairs, the mentors will analyse the existing mentees' infrastructures and environments to develop an implementation plan for training and support. The mentee regions will be trained on good practices gained in WomEn2FP6 in how to approach, motivate and facilitate women entrepreneurs' participation in European Research and Technological Development (EU RTD).

In a second step the mentees will implement the good practices in their regions and start a set of activities to promote women participation in EU RTD. Mentors will support the implementation process and involve role models from their own regions.

A database of women entrepreneurs' expertise for the initiation of trans-national project partnerships, developed under WomEn2FP6, will be expanded to the new mentee regions.

Women innovators and entrepreneurship study

On January 2008 the Commission decided to undertake a study on women inventors/innovators and entrepreneurship. The aim is to perform a literature review to collect, analyse, and evaluate data regarding the profile and the particular problems that women inventors/innovators are facing when they try to become successful entrepreneurs.

The study will also collect and analyse information on policy solutions from selected countries at a national level to promote entrepreneurship for women innovators. The final report will be published this month (September 2008) and we’ll be featuring the findings in Issue 4 of SME Update.

The Commission is working with Member States to find ways to overcome the factors which particularly discourage women from taking up the option of entrepreneurship. For further information visit the following web sites:

Encouraging women entrepreneurs

European network to Promote Women’s Entrepreneurship (WES)

Women’s Entrepreneurship Portal

Success Story:

Manufacturing SMEs help develop innovative robotics family

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A world-class research consortium is working with small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) in the manufacturing sector to create a radically new type of flexible yet affordable innovative robot technology that European SMEs can use to compete against larger companies.

European robot experts have joined forces with component manufacturers, research institutes and universities in a consortium that will create a new generation of robotic systems for SMEs. SMErobot is a prestigious and challenging project, and marks the first time that Europe’s leading robotics players have worked together in a joint research and development (R&D) initiative.

Traditionally, the cost and scale of modern robot technology has been out of reach of the average manufacturing SME operating, for example, a small foundry or fabrication business. Without the luxury of dedicated robotics expertise, SMEs have found standard, commercially available robots too inflexible, too big or quite simply too expensive.

SMErobot has not only developed a new breed of robot that SMEs can use to their own advantage — SMEs have also played a vital role in the technology’s development. Says Martin Hägele, SMErobot’s Coordinator and Head of Department for Robot Systems at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA) in Stuttgart, Germany:

'Right from the start, we knew it was important that SMEs should be operating at the heart of the project and shaping its strategy. So we established a European Economic Interest Group (SMEEIG), where SMEs would be supported to operate as end-users, or as a member of the SMEpool. Here, they’d fulfil the equally vital role of demonstrating to interested parties the fruits of our research and development working in a real SME environment,' he says. 'SMEpool provides a low-entry platform for linking SMEs to the project, and serves as a waiting room for a possible future entry into SMEEIG.'

A number of demonstrator sessions acted as the focal point of the consortium’s recent appearance at Munich’s AUTOMATICA 2008, the world’s leading robotics and automation trade fair, where SMErobot received a huge amount of interest from the general public and media. 'These demonstrations had to be fully operational and professionally presented. Our appearance at the fair represented an important step for the project’s implementation and evaluation phase,' says Hägele.

SMEproject is now in its fourth and final year (ending in February 2009). 'We certainly can state that our very ambitious goals — to perform extensive R&D towards a new family of robots and to exploit its potential for competitive SME manufacturing — have mostly been reached,' Hägele notes.

First results show that the robot solutions have been very well accepted. Well known SME-organisations (such as Cetim in France) have expressed strong interest in and support for the project’s work and results. 'The entertaining video we produced to communicate the project’s vision and research has been phenomenally successful, and it’s now playing a role in industrial engineering and vocational training,' adds Hägele.

SMErobot development

As project coordinator, Fraunhofer IPA was already experienced in guiding large project teams through proposal preparation and joint project work at national level. Most of the consortium's partners are used to working collaboratively.

The funding framework behind the project provided a unique chance for European robotics companies, industrial IT organisations, and partners from research and consulting to team up in a large European effort. 'The challenging goal towards creating a new family of industrial robots required a comprehensive approach in technology and component research and development, systems integration, teaching and education and socioeconomics,' notes Hägele. 'New for FP6, Integrated Projects (where research delivers new knowledge) turned out to be the right instrument to accommodate such large efforts, despite the challenges of managing projects of this size.'

Certainly SMErobot is moving in the right direction. But to explore the full potential of robotics, particularly for more flexible and cost-effective manufacturing which is typical for SMEs, further research needs to be undertaken. 'All the SMErobot project members and potential partners would like to see these issues addressed also in FP7,' he says.

Robotics is strategic for Europe's future competitiveness. About one third of all industrial robots are produced in Europe. The robotics market's growth rate will form an important part of the world economy within the next two decades. To reflect this, the European Union is doubling its European robotics research funding to EUR 400 million throughout FP7, so as to counteract competition from Asia and create new markets. Indeed, robotics systems and technologies are poised to make major market breakthroughs and SMEs are at the forefront of developing these new markets.

Hägele concludes: 'I am convinced that every partner would like to be part of an SMErobot II. Robotics industries form the core of the consortium. There is no doubt that the partners are extremely motivated to transfer the results into future products and services'.

Automatica: for a detailed description of some of the project’s current results.

SMErobot video

SMEEIG: with an example workshop

Policy Update:

Training and support for SMEs

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DG Research’s small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) unit recently organised a conference which shared the lessons learned by participants and coordinators of previous Economic and Technological Intelligence (ETI) projects, to identify how SMEs could benefit from a best practice view of European research.

How should SMEs approach European research so they can get the most of what it has to offer? Inspired by presentations from the Bureau of European Policy Advisers (BEPA) and two SMEs — Amaxa AG from Germany and Critical Software SA from Portugal — a main message from the conference participants was that SMEs need a variety of training and support measures.

These should be tailored to the needs of the SMEs yet take into account their research strategy, their experience with transnational research, and their market and competitive situation. Clearly, expertise and knowledge of the SME community should be a key quality of any SME service provider. However, that service should focus on improving an SME’s negotiating skills throughout the entire life cycle of a project.

Regional and national research projects play a very important role in the innovation process. Those SMEs that had participated in such projects were better motivated and suited for transnational research projects. Working on national/regional support projects raised an SME’s transnational profile.

A large number of SMEs were most interested in those phases of a project which brought them closest to the market. Research projects which contained a strong demonstration element were of higher interest than the more basic research project which concentrated on theory.

The SME unit plans to publish the full findings from the conference and the ETI scheme soon.


Worthwhile briefings for the SME community

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Various sessions explore knowledge-transfer opportunities in biotechnology and food research. The role computer modelling plays in improving human health is also being evaluated.

1-2 October, Milan (Italy)

Bioforum’s conference and exhibition is aimed at increasing knowledge transfer internationally by promoting collaboration between academia and industry in biotechnology research. Sessions will be dedicated to biotechnology in health, bioinformatics, agriculture and food, industry and environment and services. CORDIS will also be holding a presentation at the conference and can be contacted at their own stand.

8 October, Brussels (Belgium)

This workshop will discuss the objectives, development and potential outcomes of setting up European research clusters in the food sector. The EU’s Food Cluster Initiative was established at the beginning of the year to boost cooperation between European regions. In order to create a more complete EU network of regions involved in the food sector, the initiative builds on and incorporates the work of the Food Innovation Network Europe (FINE) which was supported under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).

9 October, Brussels (Belgium)

Regions of Knowledge is an initiative funded under the European Commission's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). It is aimed at helping turn Europe into a dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy. Special attention will be given to synergies between the EU's research, innovation and cohesion policies for the period 2007 through 2013.

23-24 October, Brussels (Belgium)

Jointly organised by the European Commission's Directorate-General for the Information Society and Media and the Directorate-General for Research, in cooperation with the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), the conference addresses 'computer modelling and simulation for improving human health'. The event aims to provide an insight into existing and future prospects in integrative research for complex human diseases at European and international levels. It will run alongside the newly-funded Virtual Physiological Human Network of Excellence and a transatlantic workshop on multiscale cancer modelling.

Facts & Figures:

Second Research for SME call puts RTD performers in the frame

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First call funding analyses showed that SMEs are enjoying increased access to FP7 research programmes. The latest overview of the second stage of the Research for SMEs programme shows just how effective the scheme has been.

Confirmation that the Research for SMEs programme is appropriately tailored to the needs of SMEs has come from the increasing number of submitted proposals to the second call compared with the first, and by the large number of participating SMEs, most of which were industrial organisations, applying for funding,.

Research for SMEs supports small groups of innovative SMEs in solving technological problems and acquiring technological know-how. Projects must fit into the overall business and innovation needs of the SMEs, which are given the opportunity to subcontract research to RTD (Research and Technology Development) performers (public or private institutions able to carry out original research).

The second call commanded a budget of EUR 100 million and received 673 applications for funding. The increasing value of RTD activities outsourced to RTD performers (82 per cent) compared with the previous call (78 per cent) shows how well the outsourcing approach of the scheme has been understood and taken up.

Type of participant

The Commission was assisted by 320 independent experts who evaluated proposals against three main criteria:

Scientific and/or technological excellence;

Quality and efficiency of the implementation and management;

Potential impact through the development, dissemination and use of project results.

Each criterion was scored between zero and five. In the first call all criteria had a threshold of three. For the second, the threshold for the third evaluation criterion (Impact) was raised from three to four and the overall threshold from 10 to 11. As a result of the evaluation 98 proposals (14.8 per cent) were considered for funding.

Type of activity