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Exclusive: EU moves toward European Innovation Council pilot plan

Preliminary proposal would base the new council on Horizon 2020’s SME Instrument

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After nearly a year of planning, EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas is moving toward building his European Innovation Council (EIC) around an existing funding programme for small companies, and creating a new business-only policy advisory group. 

According to Science|Business sources, EU officials presented a preliminary plan to a group of Commissioners at a breakfast meeting in Brussels on Wednesday. The EIC topic is also on the agenda at a meeting of member state research ministers Friday.

The development appears to mark a narrowing of options for the EIC. The idea of a Council, to stimulate more market-creating innovations in Europe, was first floated by the Portuguese Commissioner in mid-2015, and a public call for ideas was launched 16 February. The original idea included creating an ambitious new agency analogous to the successful European Research Council that funds frontier science, but political obstacles quickly arose.

At the Commission meeting, sources say, officials indicated that on the back of public feedback they are considering trialing an EIC between 2018 and 2020, the last few years of the Horizon 2020 programme.

Under this proposal – which could be subject to further change – the new council would be created via the gradual morphing of Horizon 2020’s €2.8 billion SME Instrument into a programme with no predefined topics and quicker grant award times. At the Wednesday meeting, the Commissioners involved in research and innovation policy were invited to comment, but the outcome of the meeting was not made public.

Following its launch in 2014, the SME Instrument quickly became very popular among European small businesses and is regularly flooded with applications. The instrument sets broad challenges that entrepreneurs should aim their proposals towards – for example, new ways to manage radioactive waste or novel robots for precision farming. 

But the tweaked SME Instrument, which currently gives grants to SMEs in three phases of development, from business concept to market commercialisation, would do away with this. The instrument would also experiment with a reward scheme which blends grants with financial instruments. 

The Commission is trying to do all this without changing budgetary allocation or rules of participation for Horizon 2020, of which the EIC would be a part. Because of its relatively flexible legal basis, the SME Instrument is considered a good place to base the EIC pilot – a move which could save the Commission from going to the European Parliament for formal approval, though doubtless individual MEPs would express opinions on it. 

The Commission’s preliminary suggestions also include grouping together EU innovation calls for funding proposals in a single part of the Horizon 2020 website. This would include the remodelled SME Instrument, challenge prizes, and potentially the Fast Track to Innovation scheme and Future and Emerging Technologies Open programme. 

The Commission would also create an advisory forum of innovators – meaning serial entrepreneurs, start-ups, business angels and venture capitalists.

The lack of any explicit mention in the plan for a representative from a research institute or university is likely to be controversial, however. From the start of the EIC discussion, leading research universities have been nervous about being excluded from such a body.

The Commission would also like to come up with a more appealing and intuitive design for an EIC website, in a bid to attract more innovators. Moedas has said that start-ups often tell him how confusing the Commission’s online platform is. 

The EIC will also aim to work closely with the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, the European Investment Bank and Eureka. 

The Commission received more than 1,000 replies and 170 position papers in response to its recent public consultation on the EIC.

A spokesperson for the executive said, "Due to the big amount of input received, a full analysis is expected next month."

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Related subjects: EIC

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In October 2016, the Science|Network of universities, companies and innovation organisations gathered in Brussels to debate the future of EU R&D programmes. The result: A profusion of ideas, recommendations and warnings for the future of EU research and innovation.