SMEs and research programmes: helping small businesses think big, turning knowledge into profit
Getting involved in research projects can help SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises) to develop new products and services and improve existing ones. It also provides a useful network of contacts in business and academia. In an interview with CORDIS News, members of the Research and SMEs unit at the European Commission's Research Directorate General explained how the role of SMEs in the framework programmes has evolved over the years, and how they believe access to all kinds of research funding for SMEs could be facilitated.
The role of SMEs in European research has grown rapidly over the course of successive framework programmes. 'In the Fourth Framework Programme it was just lip service,' commented Barend Verachtert. 'Now in the Sixth and Seventh Framework Programmes (FP6 and FP7) the SMEs are involved in mainstream research projects.'
Under FP7, some 15% of the funds are targeted at SMEs. SMEs also benefit from higher funding and a reduced administrative burden. The success of this new approach will be evaluated in detail over the next two years. Until then, Head of Unit Dr Bernd Reichert pointed out, 'At least we have more than sufficient applications, so we know there is demand out there.'
One programme that has been particularly successful at helping SMEs get involved in EU-funded projects is the 'Stepping up Economic and Technological Intelligence' (ETI) scheme. ETI initiatives were first launched under the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5), with the goal of helping SMEs assess their research capabilities and needs to better prepare for participation in transnational research projects.
SMEs also receive assistance throughout the proposal process, for example help finding partners and advice on legal and financial issues. In total 49 ETI initiatives were launched during FP5 and FP6, and between them they have helped several thousand SMEs across Europe. Many of the initiatives are still running and helping SMEs to access FP7 resources.
Through the ETIs, the Commission has learnt a great deal about how best to approach SMEs and encourage them to get involved in research programmes linking academia and industry.
'One of the findings is that it is not enough to give information to SMEs,' explained Dr Reichert. 'What you have to do is mentor, coach and empower them.'
The ETIs also found that SMEs with experience of regional or national research programmes are generally better suited for transnational research projects than companies with little experience.
The Commission is also talking directly to SMEs to find out what they want and expect from European research programmes. At a recent conference bringing together policy makers and SMEs, the messages were loud and clear.
'They started with the well known messages: make things simpler, reduce bureaucracy,' said Mr Verachtert. But, he added, the key message was that policy makers need to create a framework that allows SMEs to develop their ideas and get support for them in a flexible way that allows them to really focus on their businesses.
The SMEs also asked for more flexibility in the way they build project consortia. Many of them have large companies as suppliers and clients, and the SMEs want to work with these people in their research projects.
The SME team is also keen to make it easier for small businesses to apply for different kinds of research funding. 'Ideally, an SME should not have to learn a separate set of rules for Europe, and a separate set of rules for Belgium and a separate set of rules for Flanders and a separate set of rules for the province of Antwerp!' exclaimed Henrik Dam.
'What we are looking for is a one-door policy,' he added. 'An SME should be able to go to a local agency and the person there should be able to show them all the opportunities and possibilities and help them make a decision as to what to do.'
'We hope we can use some of these experiences and ideas in the mid-term review of FP7,' commented Dr Reichert. 'And sooner or later we will start looking at what will happen in the next framework programmes.'
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Research for the benefit of SMEs under FP7:
Category: General policy
Data Source Provider: CORDIS News interview with Bernd Reichert, Barend Verachtert and Henrik Dam
Document Reference: Based on CORDIS News interview with Bernd Reichert, Barend Verachtert and Henrik Dam
Subject Index: Coordination, Cooperation; Innovation, Technology Transfer; Policies; Scientific Research