Horizon 2020 proposal writing guide

Writing a Horizon 2020 proposal is an intense process, which requires time and dedication to the goal: deliver high quality documents, in alignment with the EC templates, and thus, increase the possibilities for an EU funded project. Here we have put together advice and tips to facilitate the writing process, trying to cover both single partner (e.g. EIC Accelerator) and collaborative (e.g. Fast Track-to-Innovation, Thematic Priorities) projects.

How much time is needed to write such a proposal?

Although it depends on each programme (EIC Accelerator and FTI require a 30-page document, while Thematic Priorities and the new Green Deal a 70-page one), 6 weeks could be considered a minimum for such a writing process (8 weeks for the larger projects). Apparently, experienced writers could deliver a quite complete first draft in 3-4 weeks, but it is common sense that the more time you dedicate for EU research to strengthen specific aspects (like State-of-the-art, market analysis / trends, geographical segmentation) the closer you are to receive the EU Grant. A key point, especially in collaborative projects, is that the progress is not fully depending on the writer but also in external parameters, such as material to be provided from one partner or feedback on the drafts from the partner(s).

How to start writing a Horizon 2020 project?

A well-organized preparation is crucial before you actually start filling pages. Below we present 3 key steps that will enhance the writing efficiency of a H2020 proposal.

  1. Study well the writing criteria of the respective programme and ensure that you keep yourself updated with the latest EC templates.
  2. Create a template of the document, where you will insert all the sections and the sub-sections required by the EC.
  3. Study well the materials the partner(s) have shared to fully understand the a) concept; b) project objectives; and c) business model/plan.

It is common (especially in collaborative projects) not having much information for points 3.b) and especially 3.c); try to extract the maximum information from the applicant company (or companies) with specific and clear questions. Another way to gather more information and better understand the project is to create a Kick-off meeting (KOM) document with bullet point questions based on the EC template that you can share with the partner(s). Sections that could be included are company description, description of the innovative product or model for which they apply for, state-of-the art, current stage of development and next steps, relevant potential customers and stakeholders, business model and pricing strategy. This could be shared with the applicant(s) either before the KOM or after, where you can also insert and confirm the accuracy of all the information exchanged during the first meeting.

How important are the first pages and the wow effect?

The evaluators are usually professionals outside the EC organization. This means that they have their own jobs, and evaluation is an additional income source and something to add in their CVS (evaluation of EU projects is always a prestigious addition). As such, there is not guarantee that they will dedicate the necessary time to evaluate in depth a H2020 proposal. Therefore, catching their attention (wow effect) from the beginning is crucial. Two simple ways to achieve that are:

  • Insert a small text box (max. 15-20 lines) in the first page after the list of participant(s) and the table of contents, introducing the innovation and its Unique Selling Points (USPs) against the SoA and its market impact (EU Grant requested, projection of revenues / profit, as well as the return on investment).
  • Present the main aspects of the proposal in the first couple of pages (like an executive summary). These could be: a) current situation of the respective market and the challenges that it faces; b) the existing solutions trying to solve these issues and their limitations; c) the market opportunity that it is created as a result of the above; and d) introduce the scope of the proposal and key novelties (in case of a collaborative project, a small paragraph with the introduction of the consortium partners and the role they will have in the project can be added).

As such, the evaluator will have a quite clear perception of what is the innovation and its potential impact in the market from the beginning. Supporting this text with qualitative data and some catchy images always add value

General tips

  • Aesthetics are important. Leave enough spacing between the text and try to use maximum 2-3 colours, including black (and their colour tones).
  • Do not focus so much on the technology. The technological concept is important, but it is not only that. Covering three or four pages just about the technology with complicated technical terminology will not help the proposal (remember that the evaluators are not necessarily experts in the very specific segment of your project)
  • Keep a page balance between the various sections of the proposal
  • Overpassing the size limit of the document is quite often an issue among writers. There are various tricks to decrease the document size (e.g. convert tables into images), but a general rule is to take advantage of Annex 1-3 (in Accelerator) or Sections 4-5 (in collaborative projects) to add extended technical description and images
  • Do not underestimate the Letters of Intent (LoI). Press your customer(s) to get as many as possible

Be sure that your EU project proposal covers all aspects

Overall, proposals for EU projects need to be like a supermarket; have it all and cover all the aspects EC requires: innovative idea, a satisfactory TRL, clear and quantifiable objectives, a high market potential and solid go-to-market strategy. We have seen projects with a medium level of novelty, but with a high market potential and clear strategy to thrive, whilst high innovative products or models keep trying and trying to get the EU funding because they not have the full package.

Recorded webinar: H2020 Proposal Writing – How to draft a coherent budget

Since drafting project budget in Horizon 2020 raises many questions, the Webinar aims to explain what are the expectations of the evaluators and how to master the budget categories in EU funded projects. Also, it shows how to get ready with a strategy to submit the most suited provisional project budget and what tools can assist in this process.

As it is underlined during the webinar mentioned above, to build a good and suitable project budget one should consider common budgetary principles of Horizon 2020. One of the main principles is the eligibility, that can differ from programme to programme.

Therefore, Jeanne Collin gives a detailed overview of the eligibility criteria during the webinar. She also highlights some additional usual principles of working with project budget, like analytical approach and applying beneficiary’s methodology and practices.

During the webinar Jeanne introduces cost breakdown and cost category as well. She differentiates several types of costs in Horizon 2020, such as actual costs, unit costs, lump sum, and flat rate. Further, she provides us with the key information and practical tips on how to draft the provisional project budget, how to evaluate necessary resources for a project, and how to optimize the provisional project budget of an application. Notable, she emphasizes that you should start from the needs of your project and not the maximum amount of the grant.

How to write an outstanding Impact Section

Writing a great Horizon 2020 Impact Section is actually one of the key success factors for developing a winning proposal in Horizon 2020. However, many organizations struggle to understand its inner insights.

First of all, it is important to clarify what "impact" is, as it is typically mistaken with "result". While project results are the tangible outputs directly arisen from the execution of a project (research conclusions, scientific articles, new or enhanced products, etc.), project impacts can be conceptualised as the longer-term effects of those results (e.g. if your result is an enhanced functionality for a product, then, the fact that 25% of the population could benefit from that functionality is an impact). So, whereas identifying the expected results for a H2020 project is, in general, straightforward, foreseeing its project impacts demands, however, a broader outlook.

How to address gender dimension

Gender in Horizon 2020 is a cross-cutting issue, flagged as a priority in each of the different parts of the Work Programme, thus ensuring a more integrated approach to research and innovation. In many topics across Work Programmes, it is explicitly requested that "applicants take into account women as well as men's needs and behaviors". Besides, "grant beneficiaries commit to promoting equal opportunities and a balanced participation of women and men at all levels in research and innovation teams and in management structures".

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