Industry signs up to eleven research partnerships

24 Jun 2021 | News

The first Horizon Europe partnerships are now up and running – and expectations are high, says EU research chief

Luis Cabra, deputy CEO of the oil company Repsol. Photo: El Español

The first 11 Horizon Europe partnerships are officially up and running after the European Commission and industry associations signed a pact for cooperation at the Commission’s event, the Research & Innovation Days.

The partnerships will pool €22 billion over the next seven years from industry and Horizon Europe, in a bid to accelerate innovation in sectors and technologies such as waterborne transport, batteries, photonics, artificial intelligence and greener steelmaking.

Each partnership sets out their own goals, ranging from creating an open cloud for science data, developing a European ecosystem for batteries, to giving the manufacturing sector a green makeover. “In ten years from now, we aim for at least one major breakthrough innovation from each partnership,” said Mariya Gabriel, research commissioner.

Industry partnerships in one form or another have been part of the EU research programmes since the 1980s. They have always been controversial, as critics are sceptical about the value of pumping public money into industry-steered ventures.

In their latest iteration, partnerships are meant to deliver on the EU’s two key policy goals: decarbonising the economy and achieving technology sovereignty. “With these partnerships, Europe is coming at the forefront of global technological development,” said EU internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton.

Research is the first step, deployment the second. Here, the Commission’s research chief, Jean-Eric Paquet, says partnerships must work with the EU on improving regulations that allow large scale adoption. “They will no doubt have quite a lot of impact on the development of regulation,” he said.

Another new feature is closer links between the different partnerships, which the Commission hopes will boost their impact. Symbolically, the eleven partnership pacts were signed all together. “You heard it from the leaders of these partnerships: they are aware they don’t operate in isolation,” Paquet said at the launch event.

These are the first 11 EU research partnerships to start life under Horizon Europe. Another 38 are expected to launch in the coming months and years. An additional partnership on pandemic preparedness is also slowly taking shape.


One of the biggest partnerships has a brief to put a green twist on energy intensive process industries such as manufacturing petroleum, chemicals, and paper and pulp products.

Processes4Planet has three main goals: cutting down emissions, promoting recycling of resources and achieving global leadership in green technologies, putting the EU ahead of the US and China. The partners have identified a number of routes to achieve these goals.

The industries have debated for years which innovations will lead the way to greener processes and Luis Cabra, deputy CEO of the oil company Repsol hopes the partnership will provide some answers. “The future is not written,” he told Science|Business. “Let’s open the doors to new technology and leave all the entrepreneurs to put forward solutions and see which of them will succeed.”

The Horizon Europe contribution to the process industry partnership will be €1.3 billion. This is “sizeable” money, says Pierre Joris, president of A.SPIRE, the industry association behind the effort. But the bulk of the funding will be provided by industry to reach the 10 billion needed in the next decade to develop new processes and set the process industries on track to achieving carbon neutrality, followed by another 19 billion for scale-up between 2030 and 2050.

“Even the largest company on its own cannot cope with the huge challenges that are being put on us,” said Marco Eikelenboom, CEO of the pulp and paper company, Sappi Europe.

The pulp and paper industry alone will require technologies for improving energy efficiency and on-site renewable energy production and electrification, amongst others. One of Sappi’s mills may be supported by biomass insulation, another by an electrified boiler, while a third one will need a system-level transformation. “The scale of the partnership will need to support all these levels by developing all these innovations,” Eikelenboom said.

Cabra says that the challenge facing Repsol has become much more open in recent years. The first stage was closer cooperation with academia, then the company started working collectively with counterparts in the fuels sector. Processes4Planet is the next step, enabling links with other industries at an EU level to multiply the impact.

Whether or not the process industries can be 100% carbon neutral by 2050 depends on funding. “I call it the one trillion-euro question, because trillions is what the industry will need to roll out the innovations,” said Joris.

Renewable energy and green hydrogen will have to be rolled out at a massive scale to enable these innovations. “In practice, there is a huge challenge in building these infrastructures on time, first because of pragmatic reasons linked to the pace of construction, but also because green energy will be needed in many different sectors,” said Joris.

Not going to space

There were meant to be 12 partnerships in this first Horizon Europe batch of industrial projects, but the space partnership has been grounded by the member states, with talks about its final shape expected to go on until October, when the Commission and the member states are expected to give their final verdict.

The exact reason why the partnership is stalled is unclear but Germany is the main country trying to block to it.

The space industry does not have a seat at the negotiations table and is not happy with the crumbs of information coming out of the discussions. The proposal currently being discussed is to cut the Commission’s contribution to the partnership to €300 million, much less than the €1.4 billion discussed initially.

“On the industry side, the more we advance, the more time goes by, the more we feel it is going to be complicated to launch the partnership,” said Jérémy Hallakoun, technology strategy manager at Eurospace, one of the industry bodies pushing for the partnership.

After missing initial lift off, the earliest launch date would be the beginning of 2022. By then it will be too late to contribute to the next Horizon Europe work programmes outlining the calls, budget and scope for 2023-2024, leaving the space partnership waiting until 2025 to be at full strength.

At the same time, many space calls in the main Horizon Europe work programme have been postponed until 28 October due to the row over third country participation in Horizon Europe quantum and space research. This is creating massive delays in space research all around Europe.

The future remains uncertain, as member states and the Commission continue talks and cannot settle on a joint position. From the Commission perspective, “it’s a very hard discussion because they don’t have a consensual point of view from the member states,” said Hallakoun.

“We are in waiting mode to see what the Commission is going to propose. But we are absolutely not in a position where we can accept anything. We don’t want a partnership just to have a partnership. We want it to be effective and have an impact on competitiveness,” he said.

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