EIC Accelerator is the new name for what was formerly known as the SME Instrument in Horizon 2020 (H2020). Although the underlying philosophy of the original program remains invariable (it still «supports high-risk, high-potential SMEs and innovators to help them develop and bring onto the market new innovative products, services, and business models that could drive economic growth»), there are, however, key and subtle differences that applicants should know in order to succeed in developing a winning proposal in EU funding.
EU Funding & Evaluation novelties in Horizon 2020 (H2020)
The main novelty in EIC Accelerator is the introduction of a blended finance option, that is, combining grant and equity funding. Grant-only funding of between €0.5 million and €2.5 million is maintained (up to a maximum project funding rate of 70%). Under the new blended finance option, the grant component in EIC Accelerator could be combined with a commercial equity component of up to €15 million. While activities from TRL 6 to TRL 8 will be funded by grants or blended finance options, close to market activities (that is, at TRL 9) will be only financed by equity participation.
Regarding evaluation, grant-only and blended finance proposals in EIC Accelerator under Horizon 2020 are evaluated by experts on the basis of three award criteria: «Excellence», «Impact», and «Quality and efficiency of implementation». Whereas within the SME Instrument they were respectively weighted 25%, 50%, and 25%, they now in EIC Accelerator equally account for one-third of the final score. The evaluation process maintains a face-to-face interview for those proposals achieving all quality thresholds, but for EIC Accelerator the pitch-deck presentation to be used in that interview should be provided in advance, during the initial proposal submission (within «Annex 5»); only this pitch-deck may be used during the interview and updates are not allowed. It is also important to note that, whereas a range of financial checks will be performed to assess the financial viability of the project if the equity option is involved, grant-only beneficiaries in EIC Accelerator are not subject to this Horizon 2020 control.
Proposal documents update in Horizon 2020 (H2020)
The core of Horizon 2020 proposal, that is, the project description, has been also updated in EIC Accelerator with some minor (but key) changes in the main sections, and also with new mandatory documents (annexes) to attach. Based on the analysis of the «EIC Work Programme», the latest official «Proposal template», and the «Self-evaluation form», these novelties are next detailed.
As happened in the SME Instrument in Horizon 2020, participants should demonstrate that they have (or will have in due time) enough operational capacity in EIC Accelerator to successfully perform the planned tasks in the proposed work-plan (that one to include in Section 3 – Implementation). This Horizon 2020 assessment will be based on the competence and experience of the applicant, including their operational resources (technical, human, etc). Then, now in EIC Accelerator experts will particularly judge this operational capacity on the basis of the following information, to be included when submitting a proposal: (1) a brief description of relevant products, services (including widely used software or datasets) or other achievements which may also include previous projects or activities connected to the subject of the proposal. (2) An explanation of any 3rd-party that, although not present as formal project partners, will nonetheless be contributing towards the work (for example, by providing computing resources, access to facilities, etc.). (3) A CV or description of the profile of the persons who will be primarily responsible for carrying out the proposed activities. And, finally, (4) a description of any significant infrastructure and/or any major items of technical equipment relevant to the proposed work.
While this information should be included under Section 2 – Impact and Section 3 – Implementation (as it happened on the previous proposal template, that one for the SME Instrument in Horizon 2020), now, however, further supporting information, traditionally attached in a single annex document, has been restructured. Project participants' CVs in EIC Accelerator are now to be included in a mandatory «Annex 2». Further data supporting the operational capability of the participant (for instance, «letters of intent from key commercial/strategic partners if available, and/or justification of the best value for money for subcontracting») are now to be included under the optional «Annex 3». «Annex 1» (where ethics and ethical issues are now self-assessed), «Annex 2» and «Annex 3» should be provided as a single PDF document.
Detailed financial info and ownership/capital structure
The new template for EIC Accelerator requests including current and expected financial data to ensure the project's success. Then, applicants are now asked to provide financial and corporate information in a spreadsheet under a new «Annex 4». The information provided in tables under this annex will contribute to the assessment of Horizon 2020 financing needs and the role of EIC support. Applicants are invited to complete the form with as much information as possible, bearing in mind that some information might not be available (for instance, depending on legal and incorporation status).
Table 1 of «Annex 4» has to outline, with a brief explanation below, company's plans to ensure the subsequent (post break-even point) financing of the innovation (next rounds, top-up financing, etc.). Table 2 should include the company's up-to-date financial data (with external debt, total cash balance, and cash burn) at application date. Table 3 will include the company's financing history. Table 4 will explain the company's ownership and capital structure, but only if blended finance requested. Finally, remaining financing provided by other sources is to be included in Table 5.
Beyond the financial status of the company that Horizon 2020 evaluators can infer from these tables, participants now have to justify the need for EIC support. This will be done by providing evidence that the applicant company cannot leverage sufficient investments from the market and/or, particularly for applicant companies requesting blended finance support, evidence that the applicant company is deemed «non-bankable» by the market, given the activities to be developed. This justification is to be included in EIC Accelerator under Section 3 – Implementation.
A «Summary» replacing the «Executive Summary» for the first page
A new «Summary» subsection in EIC Accelerator replaces the old «Executive Summary» of the SME Instrument template. This summary under Horizon 2020 has two sections, 200 words each, where the main innovation of the project should be detailed (avoiding jargon or technical language) and also it has to be briefly explained how the proposed innovation relates to the overall strategy of the applicant company. The summary should be consistent with the proposal core when addressing the evaluation criterion «Alignment of the proposal with the overall strategy of applicant SME and commitment of the team behind them», so it may be a good idea to refer to business opportunities, scale-up, satisfying customer needs, market creation, etc.
With the basic highlights above comparing the old SME Instrument call and the novel EIC Accelerator one, I expect you now have a clearer outlook about this EU funding instrument for your SME.
Josué Iglesias, a senior proposal writer with more than 15 years of experience in the ICT industry.