Why you should or shouldn’t be involved in EU Horizon 2020 projects

I was asked today to meet some companies and give my thoughts on the benefits and pitfalls of applying for European funding under Horizon 2020. It was a lively discussion and one attendee had been converted to the cause of Europe. Alas, this was before I gave my talk – but I would like to think that it removed the last bit of doubt in his mind.

Anyway, here are my thoughts repeated below for your benefit. I’ll start with the pitfalls first to make sure we end on a positive note.

It isn’t about the money

Well, yes of course that is a big part of being involved, but if that is your only reason for applying, then perhaps you need to look elsewhere. People are always surprised when I say this, but your chances of winning – even with a good bid writer – are around 10% at best. Anyone that tells you otherwise isn’t telling you the whole truth. If your only measurement of success is winning then prepare to be disappointed.

It’s going to cost you money

No matter which way you cut it, being involved is going to cost you money. That might be real cash – paying for equipment – or indirectly paying your staff. Before you even win you have to develop the proposal, this is real time and effort. And you are either paying a consultant or paying your staff, good bids don’t write themselves.

If you win, even at a 100% funding, you need to cash flow the project. While staff are working on the project they aren’t working on generating revenue. Also, a 25% flat rate overhead isn’t going to cover all those costs you incur running your business. Lastly, you’re not allowed to make money on government funded projects which pretty much rules out any final hope you had.

You need to play the long game

You’ll get the most benefit out of Horizon 2020 projects by staying involved over a number of years. Getting involved has to be a strategic decision that you make for your company or organisation. And like many strategic decisions it will take time to pay off – you may have to take a few losses before you see a return.

The upside – is there one?

Yes there is, and the main benefit is the exposure and collaboration with other companies and enterprises. Research agencies gain access to a wider body of knowledge and expertise while private companies should view Horizon 2020 as paid business development. You’ll have the chance to build business trust with potential customers and suppliers.

It’s the economy

Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn (Research, Innovation and Science) points out that the US, South Korea, Japan and Singapore all have more intense spending than the EU bloc. People sometimes question the link between R&D spending and economic growth but it isn’t easy to spot which ideas will turn into future economic success.

Inventions such as GPS, magnetic resonance imaging and the internet all grew out of basic research ideas. And some inventions like the laser weren’t seen as useful when first conceived but without it we wouldn’t have fast fibre optic broadband internet.

It’s not the winning but the taking part that counts

The opening day of the Horizon 2020 grants in December 2013 saw 70,000 forms being downloaded every hour. That is a lot of people interested in funding. Even if you don’t win your first attempt, the proposal development process can be as beneficial as the outputs of the final project.

The companies that make the most from being involved in Horizon 2020 are the ones that commit the time and effort to develop good proposals. This means getting around a table and examining in detail your idea or project. A process which alone allows you to build new business partners and generate new opportunities for revenue.

Human technical advancement never has been as exciting as it is now. I think it is exciting and I am looking forward to seeing the results of European collaboration.

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