Strategies for securing EU Horizon 2020 support for SME innovation



The European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme includes opportunities specifically to provide funding to small and medium-sized enterprises. Keith Hayward asked Borut Del Fabbro, who authors guidebooks on securing funding, for insights and advice for start-up businesses and those new to the process.

Borut Del Fabbro
Borut Del Fabbro

‘Companies are usually very strong at sales and R&D, so these are the types of companies that usually apply for EU funding, but they often lack the set of skills needed to prepare a very good proposal,’ says Borut Del Fabbro.

His company, Replika PRO, is focused on EU project procurement. One of its activities is to publish manuals on how to obtain funding under Horizon 2020, the European Union’s Framework Programme for Research and Innovation.

Horizon 2020 offers tempting support for innovative and start-up companies. In particular, its SME Instrument is providing some €3 billion in funding specifically to small and medium-sized enterprises over the period 2014-2020. Funds are released against multi-year work programmes, with the current one running 2016-2017 and including water-related opportunities. The SME Instrument includes ‘Phase I’ grants of €50,000 for feasibility assessment and ‘Phase II’ grants of €0.5-2.5 million for development and demonstration, as well as ‘Phase III’ support and facilitated access to risk finance for commercial exploitation.

One of the biggest challenges start-ups face when seeking grants is simply the level of resources that are likely to be needed in order to make a successful bid. ‘A very good proposal is something that you have to put a lot of effort into,’ says Del Fabbro. ‘You have to prepare a very coherent, very well thought-out document.’ Well-established SMEs can afford to engage external consultants to help them prepare their submissions. ‘Usually there is a clear difference between the proposals prepared by start-ups and the proposals prepared by the experienced SMEs with the help of external consultants,’ he adds.

SME Instrument Phase I bids are relatively straightforward. The work programme includes the topics under which funding is available, and it is then open for the SME to pitch for funding for any type of innovation as long as it fits one of the topics. The main part of the application that is evaluated is limited to ten pages. ‘In order to prepare it well, it’s at least 500 hours of work,’ says Del Fabbro. ‘It is a lot of work for a very short document.’ Competitors will be putting in this amount of effort, possibly with the help of a consultant. On top of this, SMEs are faced with the fact that it may take more than one attempt before they are successful. ‘You won’t succeed the first time,’ continues Del Fabbro. ‘You will succeed the second or the third or the fourth time. So the hours put into the winning evaluation keep on accumulating. Those who win usually put at least about 500 to 1000 hours into their proposal.’


What to do, and what not to do

Del Fabbro highlights a number of key ways that companies can improve their chances of success – based not only on experience of writing proposals and bidding for projects, but also on his insights as an evaluator of Horizon 2020 bids.

‘First of all, keep in mind that this is a business proposal and not a technological proposal. This is a really crucial point,’ says Del Fabbro. ‘For the SME Instrument, the core proposal is a business one – how will you make money out of the innovation. So focus on the market, business and competition.’

The root cause of this failing with submissions is an understandable one, given that innovative ventures tend to be driven by the person or people behind the innovation. ‘Most proposals are largely writtten by innovators, scientists or technical people, because they believe that they should write it and because they know the innovation,’ says Del Fabbro. ‘Usually they focus too much on the technical aspects of the project and not enough on the business or the market.’

His other main pieces of advice all link to a further key message: to keep the evaluator and the evaluation process in mind.

‘Evaluators have only one hour and a half to two hours to read the proposal, verify some facts about it, evaluate it and write the comments,’ says Del Fabbro. In the case of SME Instrument Phase 2 evaluations, this means reading around 50 pages for a single submission. ‘This is quite a challenge,’ he adds.

Language is clearly key. Submissions do not need to be made in English, but all are evaluated in English. This means is makes sense to take control of the translation process and submit the bid in English. Even then, companies should not simply rely on what their translator produces, and it is also important to keep the end reader in mind. ‘Not all evaluators are experts in the field, and mostly they do not speak English as their native language,’ says Del Fabbro. ‘You should find a balance between very good English and very understandable English.’

Del Fabbro explains that when evaluating a bid, the evaluator may well seek to verify information on the internet, looking for example at competition, what appears in scientific journals, and at patents. It makes sense therefore to make this task more straightforward for the evaluator. ‘You should support your claims with credible sources, since this makes the evaluation process much easier,’ he says.

One further point relates to the possibility of making a submission jointly with other companies. Some other parts of the Horizon 2020 programme are focused on the creation of consortia and the participation of end users. The SME Instrument does not have this focus on end users, explains Del Fabbro. ‘It is designed especially for innovative companies with innovative products,’ he says, adding: ‘The SME Instrument is predominately intended for a single applicant.’ It is possible for companies to make a bid as a consortium, in which case Del Fabbro says the partners should complement each other, and have a shared business interest with some kind of revenue share or business deal at the end. ‘They should not just be subcontractors. If they are partners, they should have some business interest which is beyond just carrying out the activities in the project,’ he adds.


Water-related opportunities

Armed with this advice, there are number of water-related topics in the 2016-2017 work programme of Horizon 2020 that start-ups and innovative companies can target, covering in particular ‘blue growth’, climate and energy efficiency (see box).


Advice on making successful bids under Horizon 2020’s SME Instrument

Take time to understand the requirements of the call. Your proposal must address the identified challenge(s) and correspond to other requirements such as scope and impact.

Make it easy for the evaluators. Use simple language, good visual presentation, and highlight the most important information.

Support you claims with credible sources. Evaluators will look for credible, trustworthy information in your proposal. Include verifiable information, and realistic and objective facts, backed up by credible sources.

Show your commitment and credibility to execute the proposed project. Explain clearly who you are and why you have applied in order to increase trustworthiness of your company. Demonstrate past achievements, and show your ambition and passion.

Explain why each of the partners is important for the project. Present the complementary nature of the partners. Show what skills and resources each project partner will contribute to the project.

For more information, visit:


Opportunities in the Horizon 2020 SME Instrument for 2016-2017

SMEInst-07: Stimulating the innovation potential of SMEs for sustainable and competitive agriculture, forestry, agri-food and bio-based sectors

SMEInst-08: Supporting SMEs efforts for the development – deployment and market replication of innovative solutions for blue growth

SMEInst-09: Stimulating the innovation potential of SMEs for a low carbon and efficient energy system

SMEInst-11: Boosting the potential of small businesses in the areas of climate action, environment, resource efficiency and raw materials


For more information on the topics, search for the topic codes at the European Commission Research & Innovation participant portal at:


Related article: European support for water innovation


  • Europe, innovation, Horizon 2020, water research