6 tips for businesses looking for European R&D funding

12 Mar 2021

Image: © peapod333/Stock.adobe.com

ÉireComposites CEO Tomás Flanagan shares his advice to give projects the best chance at receiving research funding.

The European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme made nearly €80bn available to Irish and other European companies for research and innovation projects over seven years.

The recently announced budget for the next European framework programme, Horizon Europe, is worth €95.5bn. It is now open for applications to fund innovation across several sectors and topics ranging from clean energy and healthcare to smart cities and digital factories.

Horizon Europe presents an unparalleled opportunity for organisations to access research and development funding and to ultimately work on something that can transform the very nature of their industries and sectors.

Irish design, manufacturing and testing company ÉireComposites has secured more than €25m in research funding over the last 15 years and these tips below reflect our key learnings on how to access these funds.

1. Research is crucial

Given the broad range of research topics funded, it can be a bit daunting to write your first proposal. There’s a vast amount of information available on the Horizon Europe website and, while it’s helpful that the European Commission is providing this clarity, it’s difficult to read all of it.

Therefore, if you have a brilliant research idea that you think should be funded, it’s a good idea to talk with Enterprise Ireland.

They will be in the position to point you towards the most appropriate funding calls and they can also introduce you to potential research partners, including universities, nonprofit research organisations, SMEs and international partners.

2. Divide and conquer

ÉireComposites currently has eight live projects relating mainly to renewable energy (wind, wave and tidal) and novel materials (self-healing/recyclable carbon fibre composites). Our strategy has been to target calls that have a higher likelihood of success – although this is often difficult to predict!

We distribute the proposal-writing activity among a small, focused team with the intention of telling a clear, concise story so that a busy reviewer can read your proposal quickly without getting confused or overloaded.

Before you even attempt to write a proposal, take a look at your team and evaluate their strengths. This will help give you an idea of the funding calls where you may end up succeeding.

Additionally, it will present you the opportunity to hand pick members of your team to work on the proposal. Their input will strengthen the proposal and give valuable insight into the work that will be undertaken on your proposed project.

3. Consider partnerships

Depending on the nature of the project, it might require you to bring on a partner or partners to help expand the knowledge base. These partners tend to be separate companies or research organisations that have complementary expertise, for example, in design, manufacturing, testing and commercialisation.

Together, these companies can deliver projects that would not be possible for a single organisation to realise alone. While there may be a desire to go alone on a project, it may just not be possible. But beyond this, it does open up the proposal to a new set of eyes and, importantly, ideas.

If you are new to this process, it’s often worthwhile being a partner in someone else’s project before you try to lead your own as it gives you a great insight into how these funding calls work and what’s involved.

By working as a junior partner in a project, you learn about what makes for a successful proposal in terms of content, clarity, and presentation. You also learn a lot about how to manage and deliver a project efficiently.

Ultimately, it leads to a greater understanding of the whole process and sets you on your way with your own successful proposal and project.

4. Set your own deadlines

It’s good to ensure that a draft of your proposal is ready for review at least one week ahead of the deadline to iron out any issues that may crop up.

Unfortunately, we have experienced writing proposals at 4am on the night before a deadline, but this is not something that we’d recommend, unless you’re really keen.

While success rates for Horizon 2020 can seem low at around 11pc, it’s not a complete lottery as the reviewers are surprisingly consistent and the best proposals are funded.

5. Writing proposals

In terms of writing a funding proposal, the European Commission can be quite explicit in what they are looking for in submissions, which can be very helpful particularly if you are new to this process. They will typically advise on the desired content expected for a proposal submission including formatting, page limit etc.

There are also some open calls where the research topic is proposed by the applicant rather than the commission, which is a positive aspect as it allows applicants to think outside the box and encourages entrepreneurial thinking.

Despite this, it is something one will get used to when writing proposals and ensuring the necessary information that you wish to get across is included. Eventually it will become second nature.

6. The commercial benefits

One of the most significant aspects of winning funding for a project is the commercial benefits a company or organisation will receive.

The development and commercialisation of new products is expensive. Research funding subsidises these costs and allows companies to develop novel technologies and processes that could otherwise be considered too risky.

The research and development projects also help companies attract creative, enthusiastic employees and unlock unlimited potential moving forward.

While preparing applications is time-consuming and requires a lot of energy, the benefits greatly outweigh this. Ultimately, it is worthwhile because a single successful application has the potential to unlock millions of euros and transform a company’s entire future.

By Tomás Flanagan

Tomás Flanagan is the CEO of Galway-based manufacturing company ÉireComposites. He is the principal investigator for the €2.7m Horizon 2020 FTI Powderblade project on wind energy and the €1.65m Seaboat SME Instrument project.