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Research connections

Huge opportunities for SMEs

Organised by the Commission's Directorate-General for Research, over 2 000 EU scientists, policy makers and representatives from industry and research organisations gathered at the recent Research Connections event held in Prague. Following the theme of 'Networking our way to a research future', the conference provided invaluable advice on how to take advantage of the various research schemes, and an exciting exhibition showcased a selection of 50 EU-funded projects.

The point where entrepreneurs meet scientists always provides a heady mix of business opportunity, politics and networking. This was especially the case at this month's major event in the EU research calendar, the Research Connections conference and exhibition.

Two SME workshops were organised as part of the event covering three European programmes and supporting the SME offer from lab to market. Moderator for Friday's Research and Innovation for SMEs 2 workshop was Ms Anna Maria Darmanin, a member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC - a consultative body that gives representatives of Europe's socio-occupational interest groups, and others, a formal platform to express their points of views on EU issues). Ms Darmanin is also rapporteur for the Exploratory Opinion on Research and development: in support of competitiveness:

"SMEs do not have enough resources to invest in research and exploit innovative ideas and opportunities for research. This is why their participation in our programmes is so important, especially in terms of new job creation, and why we have to create a favourable environment for them," says Ms Darmanin.

Held inside Prague's vast conference arena, scientists from Europe and the new Member States were able to discuss their research priorities in the wake of the Commission's latest progress report for the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

SME support

There is no doubt that FP7 is off to a good start In the first two years, SMEs from all over Europe participated more than 6 000 times and received more than EUR 1 billion in funding – a figure which is set to rise.

The flexibility of SMEs means they can quickly implement research results into new products on the market. Therefore the European Commission’s aim is to reach at least 15% of SME participation in the Cooperation programme, representing EUR 6.2 billion in funding during the lifetime of FP7.

But even though FP7 has simplified participation for SMEs, also offering more opportunities and a higher level of funding than previous Framework Programmes, progress in reaching the 15% target for SME participation has so far not been reached.

For further details, see the latest progress report on SME participation in the FP7 Cooperation programme in our Facts & Figures section.

New Member States

There is below-average participation in FP7 for most new Member States. The average success rate of EU-12 participation in terms of applicants is slightly lower than the overall EU-27 average – 17.9% compared to 21.8% respectively.

The potential of the EU-12 has not been fully tapped. Simplifying access to grants and increasing the availability of finance for SMEs should accelerate investment at national and regional level. This is good news for the newer Member States, because the EU offers their SMEs what are perhaps the only real opportunities for developing innovation in their own countries, where public institutions are the main recipients of research and development funding.

Private funding is difficult to procure. Obtaining further financial investment can also be a problem as the process often needs more time than a small business has to spare.

Looking ahead

However, the main message from Research Connections came through loud and clear: The Commission is wholly committed to improving its support for SME research development from lab to market and encouraging further participation of researchers from the new Member States.

In his opening remarks at the conference, the European Commissioner for Science and Research, Janez Potočnik, declared: 'We will continue to help less performing Member States integrate better into the Framework Programmes. We will support capacity building through the creation of better synergies between different Community instruments, such as the Framework Programme, the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme and the Structural Funds ... a sign that at all levels, more connection is better than less.'

These research programmes provide an enormous amount of financial help for SME development when they operate individually. 'Taking part in dynamic partnerships and open networks also makes a dramatic difference,' Potocnik underlines.

However, when the programmes work together they can provide true value to an SME working hard to take a technology all the way to market.

Two sessions at the conference were dedicated entirely to SMEs: Thursday's Research and Innovation for SMEs 1 (funding under the three main programmes), and Friday's Research and Innovation for SMEs 2 (SME panel).

Videos of the two sessions will soon be available via the session links above.

How the individual schemes support SMEs

How they can work together

SMEs talk about their scheme experiences