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Partnerships for EU bids need long-term commitment

Collaboration and partnerships are very much the seeds from which the EU’s research and innovation framework programmes have grown. 

Under the current incarnation, Horizon Europe, funding for collaborative projects totals over €50 billion—more than half the entire funding pot from 2021 to 2027—and is channelled through the programme’s pillar two, which provides funding for R&I projects on pre-defined topics.

Most consortia are combinations of academic and non-academic partners, requiring university-based researchers to cast a wider net than they might be accustomed to doing.

Attendees at an event on Horizon Europe held at the University of Birmingham in the UK in March heard tips from successful grant winners on finding partners and working up bids.

Management issues

Alicia El Haj, interdisciplinary chair of cell engineering at the University of Birmingham, has won several European grants. She said that major collaborations could require a change in thinking for many academic applicants and that bringing specialist project managers on board to help tackle some of the challenges is something that should be considered.

“With partnerships come management issues: how do you manage groups of people? How do you get the most out of your communities?”

For one project, El Haj said: “We actually brought in a partner called Efficient Innovation, which was designed essentially to run the management on these programmes… Over the years in European funding, there’s a whole community of managers which has evolved and is there to help you.”

Constructing consortia

Tiffany Jedrecka is research development lead at Naturemetrics, a company spun out from the University of East Anglia in 2013 that uses DNA to monitor biodiversity. Naturemetrics is a partner on two EU-funded projects. Jedrecka urged academics to break out of their home environments, both online and in the real world, if they wanted to find and approach valuable commercial partners.

Jedrecka’s top advice for finding private sector partners: “If you’re an academic, get on LinkedIn. Very simple. That is how we meet each other.”

She said that while conferences are a good way to meet other researchers, they tend not to be attended by companies, “but we’re all on LinkedIn”.

Jedrecka said that Naturemetrics is often approached to be part of consortia—on average once every two weeks. While she thinks this is partly due to having strong academic links, most approaches have been from other companies in Europe, illustrating that university-based researchers could be more proactive.

Partnering with companies can also throw up opportunities to access a much wider network, often enabled via EU grants. Jedrecka said that Naturemetrics’ R&D team is currently working with 44 partners across 12 countries, many of which are well beyond Europe’s borders, including in Côte d’Ivoire, Cambodia and Peru. “It’s opened up huge amounts of data from different parts of the world,” she said.

Like El Haj, Jedrecka spoke about the value of experienced project managers, but added that this doesn’t necessarily mean partnering with a specialist. In fact, small companies often value the management resources offered by academic partners, she said. “Not only are academics really good, usually, at managing grants, but also they have access to things like grant offices at universities, which are incredibly valuable.”

Including members in a consortium with previous experience of EU funding can also be a huge bonus, Jedrecka added. Experience of actually executing an EU grant can be particularly valuable here, she stressed, because such people can provide advice on what should, and shouldn’t, go into a proposal with an eye on delivery. In her words: “You’ve got to think about, in the best-case scenario, if we win, how do we deliver?”

Company considerations

Like Jedrecka, private-sector applicants for EU funding may have come from a background in academic research, while some university-based researchers applying to Horizon may also be in the process of starting a spin-out company.

For such applicants, Jedrecka suggested a serious stock-take before embarking on what can be a drawn-out process. “Absolutely do it, but make sure that what you are trying to get out of this is suited towards Horizon Europe—this is long-term funding,” she said. “It is important to look forward and think about problems that are likely to crop up in three or four years, rather than more immediate ones.

“My other advice is to consider intellectual property from day one, particularly if you’re going to be part of a grant that has multiple companies in it. It will make your life so much harder down the road if you haven’t thought about who’s going to own what and made sure it’s clearly divided.” 

For those new to applying for EU collaborative grants, the process can seem daunting, but successful bids can forge partnerships that last well beyond the lifetime of a grant. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com