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Research Executive Agency - good news for SMEs?

Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) small to medium-sized enterprise (SME) projects should eventually get to contract faster and be paid in less time. These are the main benefits expected from the Research Executive Agency (REA), a new body which will soon become responsible for SME management. As of June 2009, the REA will receive the proposals, organise their evaluation, validate project partners and support the whole project lifecycle. Corinna Amting, Head of the REA SME Unit (S1), shares what she thinks SMEs can expect from the REA.

Created in December 2007, the REA is due to gain its autonomy from the Commission on 15 June. The pressure is on for the new Brussels-based REA to perform. And its team - which currently stands currently at 250 members and is expected to grow to 558 members - is raring to go.

'My colleagues are highly motivated to work in this new, challenging environment. We all want to make the REA a success,' says Ms Amting.

Managing a budget of around EUR 1 billion each year (rising to EUR 1.6 billion in 2013) from its new, purpose-built facilities in the heart of Brussels, the REA is expected to continue managing FP7-funded projects until 2017.

Despite being supervised and controlled by the European Commission, the REA has no responsibility for research policy. This means it can develop genuine expertise in project management, becoming more effective and efficient in the way it responds to the needs of the research community.

Liberated from the political decision cycle, the REA should be able to devote more energy to efficient management of projects and proposals. For example, it is setting up its own business processes as it begins to incorporate work that was previously carried out by two units into one unit.

'There will be one team with complimentary expertise taking responsibility for all aspects of an SME project. With this, we have simplified our internal communication channels,' says Ms Amting. 'Getting prepared for the autonomy, our priority is to minimise the impact of the changeover on our beneficiaries. We are working in full cooperation with Commission services on a smooth transfer of activities. This includes best practice exchanges on the whole lifecycle of project management to the benefit of our clients.'

SMEs must be more proactive

SMEs are recognised as key clients in FP7. The Commission is therefore encouraging their increased participation. However, SMEs should identify their research needs early on. 'We'd advise applicants to make sure their proposal addresses all aspects of the call. Think about the quality of the proposal and how the SME is going to manage the project. Identify what you are good at and then choose a suitable call. Perhaps most importantly - get networking. Hunt out partners with a good knowledge of the research area,' says Ms Amting.

Moreover, the quality of a project proposal also takes into account how it will be managed and the consortium's composition. SMEs themselves can take steps now to help to speed up the application process. Instead of providing their legal and financial information each time they submit a proposal or negotiate a contract, SMEs now only need to register online once in a Unique Registration Facility.

'SMEs shouldn't wait until after they've linked up with their project partners. They must be pro-active. In fact, I would recommend you do as much in advance as possible. This will help avoid delays in processing applications later,' says Ms Amting.