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Keys to successfully navigating Horizon Europe: practical guide to opportunities

Horizon Europe, the European Union's framework program for investment in research and innovation for the period 2021-2027 has now entered into force. We take a closer look at the structure of the program and detail where there are funding opportunities for entities in the life sciences and health sector.

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27.05.2021

The European Union Framework Research and Innovation Programs are a very powerful instrument of the European Commission’s science and innovation policy, aiming to invest 3% of the GDP, especially since the beginning of the past decade: 

  • FP6 promoted the European Research Area (ERA)
  • FP7 significantly increased the R&I budget
  • H2020 launched the “Innovation Union” 
  • HE is accelerating the twin green and digital transformation 

Since the 1958 Treaty of Rome (establishing the European Economic Community), supporting R&I on a European level to compete with other regions of the world has been a strategic priority. 

As such, EU budgets from 1984 (first framework program FP1) through 2021 (ninth framework program, Horizon Europe) have progressively increased from €3,750 million to €95,500 million. 

Source: Compiled internally based on data from the European Parliament (doi:10.2861/60724)

By the way, we could say that Catalan organizations have been more efficient at attracting funds than the EU at funding. Between FP3 and H2020, Catalonia has seen funds attracted increase x46 (from €34M to €1,548M at the end of the program), while Europe has increased its budget x12.

And is that all?

No, there’s another great challenge facing Europe: strategic dependencies and capacities compared to other global regions. There is the inevitable mention of Covid-19 and Horizon Europe (HE), as part of the Next Generation EU package through which the EC strives to bring about the twin transformation, will promote areas where local capacities must be improved. 

Don’t miss the report “Strategic dependencies and capacities” published in May 2021. The sectors where dependencies can be the most strategic logically include Health. And, specifically, in the healthcare ecosystem, the report highlights active pharmaceutical ingredients and other health-related products among the 137 products where Europe should reinforce its value chain.

The evolution of the Framework Programs has led the EC to reduce the percentage of the budget earmarked for specific topics (such as health), although the amount earmarked for each of them has grown in absolute value due to the overall budget increase. The figure below shows the budget for each topic, including health and biotech (arrow). The budget for ICT has seen the biggest growth of all. 

In Catalonia, attracting European funds for health is good for us. If we take the past period, only H2020, Pillar 3 (Health) gets more than any other of the seven social challenges the framework program addresses: €191M and 3.3% of everything that went to the ERA in the societal challenge “Health” (Catalonia’s main partners are Belgium and Sweden - see “Anàlisi de la col·laboració de Catalunya en projectes d’Horizon2020”, AGAUR April 2021). 

Where can we find opportunities in Horizon Europe? 

The first large package of HE calls already has lots of opportunities for organizations in the life sciences and healthcare sector. Unfortunately, the launch originally scheduled for April has been pushed back. They’re talking about mid-June and speculation is rife as to the causes of the delay (for the latest, read Science Business). 

Now let’s look at the structure of the program in more detail and get some clues about where to apply. Just like H2020, HE is organized in 3 pillars: 

Pillar I - Excellent Science

This pillar of the European research and innovation program has the fewest changes for 2021-2027 compared to the previous period. Above all, it focuses on academic research and companies can find their funding niche in the Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions (MSCA). This subprogram, which was also part of H2020, provides funding to hire research personnel through doc and postdoc fellowships, as well as international mobility exchanges between companies. 

Pillar II - Global Challenges and European Industrial Competitiveness

This pillar, which merges pillars 2 and 3 of the H2020 program, is structured in 6 themed clusters, clearly marked by the twin transition (green and digital) and Covid-19. 

Organizations in the BioRegion will find the bulk of the opportunities in the Health cluster (mainly) and the Digital, Industry and Space cluster (above all regarding industrial automation and digitalization). 

There may also be some opportunities to be had in the Food, Bioeconomy, Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment cluster, for example in animal health. 

As we said, cancer has a specific mission area under this program, so it is important to find synergies between this mission and the proposals we want to submit.

Pillar III -Innovative Europe

The program also has a whole pillar devoted to innovation, with €10,000M. This third pillar has the most new elements and surely the most interesting opportunities for innovative companies with disruptive technology. 

Of the three blocks (EIC, EIE and EIT), which will probably become the “crown jewel” of HE, is the EIC (European Innovation Council), which we already know from the pilot program under H2020. 

EIC

With over €1,000M earmarked in the budget, this will be the umbrella encompassing all the measures, initiatives and instruments associated with commercializing the most disruptive innovations and technologies. And note: apart from the MSCA it will be the only chance companies have to submit individual proposals, without having to be part of a consortium.

The first EIC calls have already been launched, some targeting the health sector. The EIC calls will serve to scale-up companies’ TRL and BRL. All the innovative ones will go to the EIC. But where?

  • Pathfinder, for high-risk, cutting-edge projects in innovative technology with high potential for creating new markets and/or addressing global challenges.
  • Transition for Innovation, if you want to validate technology/develop business plans for specific applications based on results from H2020 European projects (FET Open and FET Proactive programs) or ERC Proof of Concept, or HE itself (projects that have done Pathfinder).
  • Accelerator, to help scale-up SMEs, startups and spinoffs (and, in exceptional cases, mid-caps or investors).

Important

The program includes other instruments and awards:
  • Women TechEU (new program) to fund 50 women each year who want to create their own startup. 
  • EU Women Innovators Prize
  • European Capital of Innovation Awards (iCapital)
  • European Social Innovation Competition 
  • European Innovation Procurement Awards

Downside

The EIC has unexpectedly frozen submission of new proposals due to the avalanche of applications already received. Anyone who had planned to submit a brief proposal before the June 16 deadline can no longer do so. They will have to wait until October 6 and send in complete proposals to get funding. The EIC clarified that applications received before May 7 will be assessed in late May, and selected companies will be invited to submit their full proposals for the June 16 deadline. 

EIE

The European Innovation Ecosystems (EIE) subprogram has several interesting calls for companies and highlights the opportunity of European Innovative SMEs Partnership (“Eurostars 3”). Europe wants to help connect innovative ecosystems to scale-up companies and accelerate industrial growth.

 

EIT

The EIT (European Institute of Innovation and Technology) is also in this third pillar. It is expected to have greater synergy with the other subprograms, even though it has a separate procedure for requesting funding. By the way, the EIT is launching the HEI Initiative (Innovation Capacity Building for Higher Education) to drive the innovation potential of universities.

How is HE different from H2020?

  • More calls with a two-phase procedure: to limit the initial effort and increase the chances of being awarded funding if you do write a longer proposal.
  • Less prescriptive actions: more calls with goals that are specific but can be addressed freely.
  • Less text: the technical reports for RIA (Research and Innovation Actions) and IA (Innovation Actions) have been unified and are now only 45 pages long, and for CSA (Coordination and Support Actions), 30 pages. 
  • Obligatory data management plan: must be included in work plans. There must be a balance between what can and can’t be published.
  • From 2022, a declaration regarding gender equality plans will be compulsory.
  • There will be a right-to-react (rebuttal) between the individual evaluation and the meeting of the consensus group, which will be taken into account in finalizing the assessment.
  • In the two-phase calls, the first will be “blind”. The quality of the consortium will be assessed in the second phase.
  • Management structure will not be part of the assessment.

Transversal priorities for Horizon Europe, and other programs

  • Digitalization and the green economy. These are two of the main, if not the highest, priorities of the European Commission for this program. 
  • Open science, open innovation, open knowledge. The EC promotes opening up knowledge generated through the programs it funds, while also seeking ways to make open science an economically sustainable option. 
  • Synergies with other programs and the missions. Horizon Europe will seek out synergies with the results, infrastructures and projects that came out of previous framework programs, as well as with projects and programs active now. 
  • Any synergies with the missions the EC has identified as priorities in the European context can help maximize the impact of a proposal.
  • Gender equality: one of the goals of sustainable development that the European Union is aligned with and is present in many calls.
  • HE Cluster 1 (Health) has been criticized for its focus on applied research. One of the causes can be the ties between HE and the new EU health program, EU4Health. The EC strives to maximize synergies between the two programs, with HE generating the knowledge and EU4Health transferring it to market

Final notes

I. 5 keys for HE
  • Europe will fund projects that fit with its strategy (keywords: #RRI, #digitalization, #green_deal, #gender, #social #skills)
  • Europe will preferentially promote projects that reinforce capacities and decrease dependencies.
  • Europe has to take risks to boost the impact of its innovation, and so it has devoted a whole pillar to this.
  • Europe wants to boost participation of organizations from member states or associated countries with scientific production below the European average to help close the R&I gap between countries and reinforce the ERA.
  • Last but not least: what Europe wants doesn’t always coincide with what the applicant needs. Success depends on how well these two elements fit together. 
II. You’ve received funding, managed your project and seen good results. Now what?

Europe doesn’t want all that hard work to go to waste and has launched 3 services 

  1. Horizon Results Platform: those awarded projects under FP7, H2020 and now HE can take advantage of this platform to raise awareness of the results, find solutions to their post-project needs, get collaborators or investment, and define their future plans. 
  2. EU Innovation Radar Platform: howcase for innovations generated through projects funded by the H2020 and HE programs, to highlight disruptive innovations and make them relevant to facilitate scalability. This platform has associated services (Dealflow) to get investment and reach the market.
  3. EIC Business Acceleration Services: services to help organizations that receive EIC funding get access to training, experts, global collaborators, and other innovators.

 

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