A long-serving evaluator gives the lowdown
Wanting to bolster Europe’s ability to translate research findings into new products and services, the EU established the European Innovation Council under its Horizon Europe programme in 2021. Since then, the EIC’s three main schemes—pathfinder, transition and accelerator (the latter aimed at startups and small businesses)—have rapidly established themselves as among the most prestigious in innovation. This year, those three schemes will have €1.2 billion to share between them.
As you might expect, the qualities that should be put on display by applicants to EIC schemes are not always identical to those that would be showcased in bids to more classically research-oriented instruments like the European Research Council.
Risto Ilmoniemi, a leading expert on brain scanning techniques and senior adviser in neuroscience and biomedical engineering at Aalto University in Finland, knows very well what those qualities are. He has been an evaluator for more than 20 years across a range of EU funding bodies, including the ERC, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and the EIC.
Late last year, he gave some pointers to potential EIC applicants at an event in Austria organised by the FFG, the Austrian funding agency for industrial research and development.
Intended as the first rung on the ladder to commercialisation, the EIC’s pathfinder programme supports teams to research or develop emerging breakthrough technologies. In 2024 the programme will have €256 million available, with individual grants worth up to €4m.
For pathfinder proposals, Ilmoniemi said, demonstrating the suitability of the team to assessors is paramount: “The team must have all the necessary skills for the planned work. Sometimes there can be a collaborator who has other skills, but the skills must be there in a credible way and explained in the application.”
But competence, even excellence, will not suffice, Ilmoniemi continued. The team needs passion and [must] show it in the bid, and later at interview. In his words: “You really need people who just want to do it, whatever the problems are.”
From the point of view of an evaluator, Ilmoniemi said “one good sign is if I feel I would like to work with that team”.
‘Ambition of a project’
The EIC says it welcomes “high-risk, high-gain” ideas, but Ilmoniemi said it is better to refrain from such language and focus instead on the ambition of a project, making sure it is as high as possible. “For example, we can have ‘10 times goal-setting’, meaning [a technology] will become 10 times better than it used to be.” Nonetheless, the risk in a project can be high but should be associated with its novelty. “If you’re going into uncharted territory and trying to find a path, there are unknowns—that’s where the risk should be,” he said.
“A great proposal will induce a wow effect in the evaluator—you should aim at that,” he added. “The evaluator could think, for example, ‘Why didn’t I invent it?’”
An easy transition
The next stage up from pathfinder grants at the EIC is the transition programme, which funds innovation activities that go beyond the experimental proof of principle to mature a technology and develop a business case for it.
Transition grants are worth up to €2.5m, with €94m available overall via the scheme in 2024. “Whereas in the pathfinder, you emphasise the technology development…in the transition phase, you already have to pay a lot of attention to the business aspects,” Ilmoniemi said.
These aspects include considerations outside the wheelhouse of many researchers, such as intellectual property rights, attractiveness to private investors and customer readiness. “You have to look at the whole picture,” Ilmoniemi said.
Ilmoniemi said the most important thing is to “first think about the intended outcome of the project, the objective. Describe the objective clearly to the evaluators at the beginning of the proposal. After reading a few lines, the evaluators should know what your objective is. Then describe clearly the long-term impact. How will the world be better if you succeed?”
Ilmoniemi also advised quantifying the return on investment for transition grants. “Taxpayers are paying a lot of money, millions of euros, for your project. As a rule of thumb, I would say that for every euro invested by the taxpayers, the benefit of a successful project must be at least €10, preferably €100.”
Ilmoniemi said evaluators should be able to get the gist of the project from some well-chosen graphics. “There should be not just one or two but several clear illustrations, photographs, charts.”
Clear and concise
Clarity and simplicity are also essential for success at the interview stage, Ilmoniemi added, and that applies for other Horizon programmes too, he said.
“Make very simple slides, use clear and concise language, and speak slowly,” he advised. “Predict questions and develop concise, clear answers, and don’t spend too much time on little details”.
He also stressed the importance of presenting yourself honestly and showing respect to your collaborators and panel members. And as a former reviewer himself, he sought to reassure applicants: “The reviewers are on your side; they are not against you.”
This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact email@example.com