Small and medium-sized enterprises are the backbone of the European economy. They account for 99.8% of all businesses and two-thirds of the workforce. Innovative SMEs will play an increasingly important role in the future, provided they can tackle main obstacles to their growth: lack of skills, difficult access to finance, administrative burden. European Innovation Ecosystems (EIE) is the EU programme – for which the first two years of funding have already been outlined – that will address these critical issues. The European manufacturing sector, characterised by high internal differences in terms of digital and green transformation, is now called upon to find its role in an increasingly globalised and competitive market. Connection, inclusiveness and sustainability have therefore become keywords for the SMEs of the old continent that want to compete internationally. In this landscape the European Commission has launched the EIE program with a fund of 520 million euros. The institutions of the European Union have identified the creation of ecosystems of innovation as the main solution to support the scalability of companies, an essential factor to increase efficiency and inclusiveness in the challenge for social and economic recovery. The first calls already launched include, for 2021 alone, funding of almost €57 million aimed at implementing three main actions:
WHAT IS THE EUROPEAN INNOVATION ECOSYSTEMS
The issue of better communication among companies, public bodies and research institutes, which is key to unabated investment in innovation, has been repeatedly addressed by European institutions. In this context, startups and, in general, innovative SMEs, which are the most scalable and therefore best able to adapt to the emergence of new challenges and to constantly changing market, are particularly important. But a small company, no matter how innovative, cannot do anything alone. Therefore, it is essential to create a fertile ground that favors the arrival of new technologies, increasing communication between all the actors involved. European Innovation Ecosystems is the EU’s programme to stimulate ecosystems conducive to technological innovation, identifying companies with the highest potential to conceive and implement breakthrough technologies. The European Innovation Ecosystems that the EU wants to encourage through the dedicated programme must be stable networks and, therefore, sustainable over time. The actions of the European Innovation Ecosystems programme fall into three “destinations”: CONNECT, SCALEUP and INNOVSMES. The actions of the CONNECT destination aim to build inclusive and interconnected innovation ecosystems by drawing on existing national and local ecosystems, through a greater involvement of actors towards collective ends from which the whole society can benefit. SCALEUP actions focus towards strengthening connectivity within and across ecosystems for sustainable high corporate value business growth. INNOVSMES actions aim at supporting the European partnership to help small and medium-sized enterprises increase their R&I (research and innovation) capacity.
HORIZON EUROPE: THE PILLARS OF THE FRAMEWORK PROGRAMME
As has been repeatedly stressed by Brussels, the main objective of the Next Generation EU is to relaunch the European economy, hard hit by the health crisis, towards a sustainable future. The 750 billion Recovery Fund will be used to lay the foundations for greater integration at continental level, promotion of virtuous supply chains and implementation of digital transformation, with the ambitious goal of zero emissions as a backdrop. Horizon Europe is the European Union’s framework programme for research and innovation for the years 2021-2027 and, with its 95.5 billion euros budget, can boast of being “the largest transnational research and innovation programme in the world”. Horizon Europe is structured around three pillars – themselves composed of several specific programmes – and a transversal programme. The first three are “Excellent Science”, “Global Challenges & European Industrial Competitiveness” and “Innovative Europe”. The transversal one, which underlies the previous ones, is “Widening Participation And Strenghtening The European Research Area”, aimed at widening participation in research in the European area and strengthening its role at global level. Innovative Europe is in turn divided into three different programmes: the European Innovation Council, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology and, of course, European Innovation Ecosystems. The latter, as we were saying, during the summer of 2021 has launched the first fundings.
EUROPEAN INNOVATION ECOSYSTEMS: THE CALLS
According to the Agency for the Promotion of European Research (APRE) website, the EIE programme stems from the conviction that the most pressing challenges are inherently complex and systemic, and therefore not solvable by a single company in isolation, but by joint, extensive, multi-level action. Therefore, much more than in other sectors, cooperation in technologies is regarded as the key to take Europe beyond the pandemic crisis. In today’s competitive landscape, innovative businesses flourish with the support of an ecosystem that can provide knowledge, skills, data and customers. This is why European Innovation Ecosystems funding focuses on strengthening and expanding cooperation among innovation agents. The aim is to create a fertile ground that supports the next generation of innovative companies whose solutions will drive the transition to “a more competitive EU and a more sustainable, inclusive and resilient world”. With a total of six calls for 2021, the European Innovation Ecosystems has three main objectives:
Let’s see in detail what these calls consist of, who can participate and what are the results that the European Commission intends to pursue.
Strengthening connections between innovation ecosystems
The first two calls of the European Innovation Ecosystems programme, HORIZON-EIE-2021-CONNECT-01-01 and HORIZON-EIE-2021-CONNECT-01-02, are dedicated to strengthening the connections between innovation ecosystems in a vertical perspective. Communication between national, regional and/or local authorities and private actors is promoted with the aim of laying the foundations for increased cooperation between the private sector and research and innovation institutions. Applicants are invited to identify areas and activities of cooperation that can improve the performance of European innovation ecosystems. Particularly favoured here are projects that commit to addressing NGEU priorities such as climate action, green deal and digital transformation, with a focus on gender equality goals.
Sustainable business growth
Another three calls for proposals are dedicated to supporting sustainable business growth from a horizontal perspective, to encourage network connectivity within and between innovation ecosystems. In this case, projects with a high social value are particularly important. These calls are mainly aimed at business accelerators, innovation agencies, business networks and educational institutions. HORIZON-EIE-2021-SCALEUP-01-01 is therefore aimed at business acceleration incubators, accelerators, company builders, innovation agencies, business networks, regional public authorities and training providers. The aim is to enhance the competitiveness of innovation ecosystems, with a focus on local job creation, to balance business activity across Europe and to improve the quality and breadth of business acceleration services. HORIZON-EIE-2021-SCALEUP-01-02 is addressed to pan-European research and technology infrastructures, clusters of small and medium-sized enterprises, universities, business schools, national or regional innovation funding agencies. The specific objective is to increase the involvement of the industry, SMEs included, in the development of technologies and infrastructures that foster the generation of market opportunities. HORIZON-EIE-2021-SCALEUP-01-03 Women TechEU is targeting European women-lead deep tech start-ups in their early stages, to scout them for possible participation in future calls of the European Innovation Council. The lack of executive-level diversity in the deep tech sector is a concern for the EU, which wants to fund the building of more equitable and inclusive ecosystems.
Support for European Partnership for Innovative SMEs
The value of a start-up today is also measured by its ability to invest in research and innovation, in order to increase productivity and thus enter global chains and new markets. This is one of the first challenges that companies face when they want to go beyond national borders. In general, the EU notes that SMEs often struggle to find support in their internationalisation efforts. Nearly €35 million for 2021 and a further €37.89 million for 2022 are therefore earmarked by the third and final call of the European Innovation Ecosystem to support European (and other) partnerships for innovative SMEs. By fostering collaboration between small and medium-sized enterprises, research partners and academia, the aim is to improve knowledge transfer within the SMEs ecosystem. The expected impact of this action is to ensure better access of SMEs to international markets, strengthening the resilience of the European innovation ecosystem by creating value chains and thus bridging the gap between large companies and innovative SMEs.