At UIIN, our work is underpinned by research. With 15 large-scale research initiatives currently running across various topics in the field of university-industry collaboration, we are excited to share our insights with you in our research projects blog series. Today, we are pleased to introduce the Unite for Horizon Europe project, an Erasmus+ Strategic Partnership project, aimed at enhancing the strategic engagement capacity between Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) for Horizon Europe funding initiatives.
Even though there has been an increase in collaboration activities in the Horizon 2020 (H2020) European funding programme in comparison with its predecessor FP7, the involvement of SMEs in innovation partnerships is still reported to be considerably low. Many SMEs struggle to adopt the right strategy, business processes, skills, or other resources to get involved in European funding partnerships. To respond to the request of the European Commission to support and enhance SME involvement, the Unite for Horizon Europe project has been brought to life with the goal of facilitating the capacity building between European academics/researchers in HEIs and SME representatives to develop, apply and implement projects within the Horizon Europe Framework.
To assess the status quo for the project, we had the pleasure of interviewing several experts, including Gabriella Lovasz. Gabriella is the Managing Director of Europa Media and has great experience in project management within the H2020, Erasmus+, FPs and other EU funded programmes. She has delivered training on EU proposal development and project management since 2004, and one of her specialties is SME development. We are therefore delighted to share Gabriella’s perspective on the main motivators, challenges, supporting mechanisms, resources, skills, and capabilities needed when applying for European funding as an HEI-SME consortium.
What drives HEI-SME consortia to apply for European funding?
The main motivator is the prerequisite to have both universities and SMEs involved in the projects. Apart from that, SMEs are slowly becoming more aware of what collaboration with HEIs and involvement in the framework can bring them – such as access to know-how, IP, and the infrastructure of the HEIs – whilst HEIs are also getting more experienced in approaching SMEs for collaboration. Over the past years, throughout the FP7 and Horizon 2020 funding programmes, this has led to an increase in SMEs involved, not only as participants, but also as coordinators of the programmes.
What are the main challenges?
There are two main challenges. Firstly, the prerequisite to have both universities and SMEs involved often leads to universities asking SMEs to join without informing them sufficiently on what participation in an EU-funded project exactly entails. This often leads to SMEs not being fully aware of obligations concerning Intellectual Property Rights, legal conditions, administration, reporting requirements, and the obligations beyond the lifetime of the project, amongst others. And secondly, both parties have different expectations, ways of working and ways of communication. Ideally, HEI-SME consortia would therefore have an intermediary (either a person or organisation) to support in the communication between the partners and finding compromises where necessary.
What skills and capabilities are required for universities and businesses to collaborate?
SMEs must follow the open data and open science principles in EU-funded projects. Furthermore, universities should be aware that when inviting SMEs to collaborate, they may not want to participate if the collaboration does not generate direct income. The internal communication about these principles should thus be enhanced. Besides this, SMEs also need to have a commercial plan, be aware of what the collaboration can bring them, be proficient in English, have management skills, and understand the EU agenda.
Universities could enhance the capabilities of their researchers by setting up different support structures to provide them with information on what steps to take to create a win-win situation from the collaboration. The TTO or innovation department could be of help and join forces with the Research Grant Office to put information together for researchers.
In conclusion, what are some successful strategies for HEI-SME consortia?
Firstly, there should be a certain level of trust between the different partners. Secondly, HEI-SME collaboration often works better when having the SME as the project initiator, since universities are in general happy to be managed. And third, SMEs should only consider applying for Horizon Europe (and similar funding) if they have a good strategic scope and commercial plan. Without such a clear strategic plan, SMEs could better consider local, smaller scale funds, as the EU funded projects require large investments in time and effort to create impact on European scale – also after the project has ended.
Interested in learning more about SME-HEI collaboration and how to develop enduring strategic partnerships? Take a look at the UIIN Strategic Partnerships Accelerator Program, which has been specially designed for universities looking to enhance their partnership approach and activities with industry.
Authored by Fleur Schellekens, Junior Research Officer at UIIN.
 The Horizon Europe Funding Framework is the key funding programme for research and innovation of the European Commission (EC). Succeeding the Horizon 2020 program, Horizon Europe is the 9th funding programme of the EC that will run from 2021-2027 with a total budget of €95.5 billion.