Opportunity knocks for Irish researchers and companies in €80bn Horizon 2020

3 Jan 2014

Dr Imelda Lambkin, national director of Horizon 2020 at Enterprise Ireland; Research and Innovation Minister Seán Sherlock, TD; and EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Maire Geoghegan-Quinn

Horizon 2020 is the new European framework for research and innovation. Dr Imelda Lambkin talks to Claire O’Connell about the opportunities for Ireland.

How were the New Year celebrations? For Dr Imelda Lambkin, this one held a special resonance, because the start of 2014 heralded the official beginning of Horizon 2020, the new research and innovation framework programme for Europe.

It will make around €80bn available for researchers over the next seven years, and as Ireland’s national director for Horizon 2020, Lambkin wants more companies and researchers to get involved. “It is a very exciting time, and it offers huge opportunities for Ireland,” she says.

(Almost) out with the old

Horizon 2020 takes over from Framework Programme 7 (FP7), which was a successful one for Ireland, according to Lambkin. “Our researchers used the FP7 programme extremely well and also our companies got more involved. We had a target to draw down €600m and we fully expect to hit the target, but that won’t happen until next year.”

In with the new

Horizon 2020 is taking some new approaches between now and 2020, and Lambkin believes there are more incentives for Irish researchers and companies to get involved.

Firstly, there’s more money on the table. “The European opportunity is bigger than ever before – there’s now around €80bn there,” says Lambkin, who adds that the funds are now more accessible, too.

Horizon 2020 is also more broadly outcome-based – it targets grand societal challenges in areas such as health, food security, clean energy and climate action, and asks groups of collaborating researchers and companies across Europe (or in some cases individual labs or companies) to address them.

There’s a stronger emphasis on getting companies more involved, adds Lambkin. “The European Commission has stated that more than 20pc of the overall budget is going to be allocated to SMEs, which is huge,” she says. “And Horizon 2020 will deal with everything from research through to commercialisation and close-to-market activities. For a lot of SMEs you have the ‘valley of death’, how do you get from that first stage right through to your product development and stay in business – Horizon 2020 is designed to try and help address that.”

There’s also a greater emphasis on encouraging women to take part in Horizon 2020, she notes: “The Commission works very strongly to that agenda, and here in Ireland we are working to make sure that we do our very best to promote women, all the way from the earlier stage research through to the more applied, company-based research and development.”

Changing landscape of research

Lambkin, who is based at Enterprise Ireland, has long been familiar with the research landscape. She initially studied medical laboratory science at Dublin Institute of Technology before a master’s and PhD in medical microbiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Guys Hospital.

Then she moved to Irish company Élan, where she worked on drug delivery mechanisms before turning her attention to research policy with Forfás.

“I moved into the world of R&D policy because that was my interest, it was my background,” she recalls. “And one element was looking at the European Framework Programme 6 and seeing how Ireland’s research communities and companies were using the programme and could we use it better?”

From there Lambkin moved to Enterprise Ireland, where she encourages involvement from Ireland at a European level, and she believes that the research infrastructure Ireland has built up over the last decade or so now puts the country in a good position. “We have built the capability, now we can go out and use the European programme at a much more significant level,” she says.

Target €1.25bn

The talked-about target for Ireland in Horizon 2020 is a draw-down of €1.25bn – a considerable step up from the €600m under FP7. So what will Ireland have to do to hit it?

Researchers and companies who have participated in European research before should aim for bigger projects, and more ‘new’ people need to start getting involved, too, according to Lambkin. “We want more involvement across the board and where possible a larger slice of the pie on projects,” she says.

The first step for those new to European funding programmes is to talk to those in the know: people who have taken part before and also the network of European Advisors (formerly known as National Contact Points) in Ireland, which Lambkin heads up.

“There might be talking to a person who has used the Framework programme in your own university – go have a coffee with them,” she says. “And the European Advisor is the person who will help you right through the application process from day one.”

Look to the horizon

We’re at the start of Horizon 2020 now, so what would Lambkin like to see in seven years’ time, when the programme comes to an end? “I’d like to see that Ireland has used the European programme in a much more strategic manner – that our research centres have used it as part of their core and that our companies have used the programme in bigger and better ways like never before,” she says. “The opportunity is there, it’s huge and we would like to see use of the programme and results coming out the other end and ultimately to have had impacts on our economy, whether that’s growing jobs, developing new companies or developing existing companies further through research.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication