The European Innovation Council (EIC) represents a fantastic opportunity for innovative SMEs, start-ups or research spin-offs working to develop high-risk and path-breaking innovations at different stages of development. The EIC is also a great resource for women innovators because of its commitment to address gender imbalances in the entrepreneurial world. The EIC Accelerator program, for example, aims to have 40% of the companies invited to the interview stage to be lead by women.
Part of the Innovative Europe component of Horizon Europe, the European Innovation Council was successfully piloted in 2018. Some of the projects supported by this early iteration of the programme include: FLIPT – How to replace plastic with the creation of sustainable and resistant fibre (EU contribution: € 3.741.870), Neurotwin – Technological breakthrough improving the lives of people suffering with epilepsy (EU contribution: € 17.5 million), and VIROFIGHT – How nanotechnology fights viruses (EU contribution: €3.880.940).
In the 2021-2027 financial framework, the EIC becomes the European Union’s most important programme for innovation in the private sector, bringing together funding instruments previously aimed at SMEs, such as the FET programme (Future & Emerging Technology) and the SME Instrument. The European Innovation Council’s budget for the 2021-2027 period is 10.1 billion euros.
EIC FUNDING INSTRUMENTS
The EIC is articulated into three main funding schemes: the EIC Pathfinder, EIC Transition and EIC Accelerator. The Pathfinder and Accelerator programmes support ground-breaking innovations, but at different stages of development and Technology Readiness Levels (TRL): the Pathfinder funds research up to proof-of-principle and the Accelerator takes it all the way to market and scale-up.
The European Innovation Council Transition, at least for the 2021-2022 period, only funds projects that have already been supported by other EU programs with the aim of furthering their commercial development and uptake. The high-risk nature of the innovation is a key characteristic of EIC funded projects, especially the Accelerator, because it is precisely the difficulty of securing private investors that justifies the need for EU funding.
Each instrument includes “Open Calls”, which as the name suggests are open to a broad range of research-based innovations, and “Challenges”, which hone in on particular themes. All of these instruments are highly competitive, which makes it critical for applicants to understand what is fundable and to prepare an excellent application that highlights both the game-changing nature of their proposed innovation and the team’s competencies.
Understanding the aims and requirements of each of the three EIC instruments is the first step for anyone approaching the programme with an eye on seeking funding.
The European Innovation Council Pathfinder supports the development of emerging, cutting-edge and high-risk breakthrough technologies at a TRL between 1-3, in other words, between the formulation of the principle and the experimental proof of concept phase. Similarly to other Horizon funding schemes, the Pathfinder instrument foresees applications from a consortium of three different Member States, although in some cases teams from an individual country or a consortium of two countries can also be eligible to apply. As with all other EIC funding instruments, the EIC Pathfinder includes
Open Calls and Challenge-driven calls. The themes of the EIC Pathfinder challenges for 2021 are: Awareness Inside, Emerging Technologies in Cell and Gene Therapy, Novel Routes to Green Hydrogen Production and Engineered Living Material. The average grant award for the EIC Pathfinder instrument is around €3 million and finances 100% of eligible expenses.
The European Innovation Council Transition picks up where the Pathfinder leaves off by funding innovations beyond the proof of principle stage, such as the demonstration of a real-world application of an innovation or the development of a business case with an eye to commercialization. Eligible applicants include individual SMEs, spin-offs and start-ups, research organizations and universities or small consortia of a maximum of five partners.
However, the European Innovation Council Transition has a very specific aim: to further support innovations that have emerged from projects previously funded by the EIC Pathfinder, Horizon 2020 FET-Open, FET Proactive, FET Flagships, FET ERAnet Cofund and the European Research Council Proof of Concept grants. This limitation means that the EIC Transition is only open to a limited pool of applicants. It is quite possible that the EIC Transition programme will broaden its eligibility going forward so it is worth keeping an eye out on this instrument as well.
Funding for the European Innovation Council Transition is mostly available via open calls rather than challenge-driven calls. EIC Transition awards are in the range of € 2,5 million and cover 100% of eligible expenses.
The European Innovation Council Accelerator funds the final stage of the development of pioneering innovations and their scale-up (TRL 5/6 – 9), from validation in a relevant environment to proven operation in an operational environment. Like the other instruments, SMEs and start-ups and spin-offs are eligible, but under certain circumstances it is also possible for small mid-caps (up to 500 employees) to apply. Like the Transition instrument, the Accelerator doesn’t require consortia, which means SMEs/start-ups or spin-offs need not construct a consortium.
Funding-wise, the European Innovation Council Accelerator offers a blended financing scheme that includes a mix of grants and equity investments ranging from € 500.000 to € 17,5 million. Depending on the level of development of the innovation for which funding is sought, it is possible to request grant-only or grant-first funding (up to € 2,5 million) or the investment-only funding component (from € 0,5 to € 15 million).
Note, however, that the grant and investment components are targeted to different activities: grants are available to support innovation activities between TRL 5/6 and 8, covering 70% of eligible expenses. The investment component, on the other hand, supports activities related to TRL 9 (deployment and scale-up). Applicants requesting grant-only funding must show that they can support the scale-up phase of development without undermining their case that the innovation is too risky to secure private investors.
HOW TO APPLY FOR THE EUROPEAN INNOVATION COUNCIL PROGRAM?
The application process varies by funding instrument. European Innovation Council Pathfinder and Transition applications have single, fixed deadlines while the Accelerator accepts short applications on a rolling basis, with fixed deadlines three times a year for the final application. The EIC Pathfinder 2021 deadlines have closed for 2021. The EIC Transition deadline is September 22, while the EIC Accelerator full application deadline is October 6. More calls will open in 2022. Applications can be accessed through the European Commission’s Funding & Tender Portal.
As with other Horizon funding, applications will be assessed according to the evaluation criteria of Excellence and Impact. EIC Pathfinder and Transition applications are also evaluated in terms of Quality and Efficiency of Implementation. The EIC Accelerator is evaluated in terms of Excellence and Impact as well as Level of risk, implementation and need for EU support.
Short & Long Applications
The EIC Accelerator application process starts with a “short” application. The short application first requires an assessment (Diagnostic Module) of the originality of the innovation, which is conducted by an AI platform. The platform compares the applicant’s proposed idea with the scientific literature, existing patents as well as other criteria and returns an assessment in the form of a rating on the innovativeness of the proposal and its market-readiness. This rating will be made available to evaluators. The platform will also direct applicants to other potential sources of funding, some of which may be more appropriate to their project than the Accelerator.
The short application requires the completion of a 5-page form, a 10-slide pitch-deck and a 3-minute video pitching the team. This application is evaluated relatively quickly, in around 4 weeks. Applications receiving a GO from at least 2 out of the 4 evaluators are eligible to submit a full application to one of the Accelerator application deadlines within a 12 month period. If they receive a “GO” by the evaluators of the short application, applicants are eligible to submit the long application.
Unsurprisingly, this second round application is more involved, requiring also the development of a full business plan—a process that is guided by the AI-based platform—a more detailed pitch-deck and the filling out of a Financial Annex. Long applications that are
positively evaluated move on to the interview stage.
This application process is mapped out in very accessible terms in the EIC Accelerator Guide for Applicants.
The EIC also provides applicants at the long application stage with three days of business acceleration coaching. Another important source of support in the application development stage are the National Contact Points. In addition to providing practical information and insightful interpretations of the guidelines, they can review both short and long application proposals.
The 2021 deadlines for the various European Innovation Council instruments have passed or will soon close (EIC Pathfinder: 27 October; EIC Transition: 22 September; EIC Accelerator: Short applications can be submitted at any time, long applications: 6 October).
However, the EIC Programme is just getting started and more calls will open in 2022. Applicants can expect the Open Calls to be quite similar to the calls issued in 2021 while Challenge-Driven calls will likely vary though we can expect the themes to remain related to the European Union’s priorities for 2021-2027, namely innovations in the area of health, technology and the environment. This means that there is no better time for highly innovative European SMEs to become acquainted with the EIC, identify the appropriate instrument for their project and begin to develop their application.
For further information, check out out FUNDED magazine V1-I2.