Two years ago the European Commission launched the SME Instrument to address a notorious funding gap in small early-stage companies that is a major barrier to innovation. Here’s the key steps your start-ups should follow to enjoy this funding opportunity.
The European Commission has fully recognised the key role of ICT in improving the business landscape in Europe and many efforts are being made to foster digital entrepreneurship.
Firmly embedded in Europe 2020 – the European Union’s ten-year growth strategy – the Digital Single Market strategy (formerly known as Digital Agenda) recognises the revolutionary potential that information and communication technology (ICT) offers to boost growth, increase productivity and improve the welfare of citizens and consumers.
The Digital Agenda has set goals with 101 actions, spread over 7 pillars, which will help to reboot the EU economy and enable Europe’s citizens and businesses to get the most out of digital technologies. ‘Pillar V: Research and innovation’ hopes to attract Europe’s best minds to research, acknowledging that world class infrastructures and adequate funding are crucial.
From an economic perspective, the importance of SMEs for economic growth and jobs creation is increasingly obvious: Start-ups create the majority of new jobs. However, Europe is clearly lagging behind other geographical areas in terms of global leadership in this sector.
Therefore, EU level action is essential, as a complement to existing initiatives at local, or national level. The issues identified, such as the need for a stronger culture of entrepreneurship and innovation, or insufficient access to financial resources and human capital, extend well beyond the borders of individual EU member states.
In an effort to maintain Europe’s competitive edge through increased coordination and its attempt to go beyond national fragmented efforts, the European Commission has taken action to help entrepreneurs and SMEs fully exploit the potential of technologies, both in terms of supply of new digital products and services and in terms of demand and smart use of these technologies.
In this spirit, Start-up Europe and the Entrepreneurship 2020 Action Plan were designed to unleash Europe’s entrepreneurial potential, to remove existing obstacles and to foster the culture of entrepreneurship in Europe.
The challenges ahead
Yet, efforts to remove obstacles alone are not enough; turning research/science based innovation into new services and products is a challenging endeavour, as commercialising new forms of innovations is inherently high-risk and requires significant investments and follow-up funding.
It is worth noting that private investments in ICT research in Europe continue to lagging behind (less than half of investments compared with the US).
As such, the EU is currently losing the race on scaling-up disruptive, market-creating innovation with the US leading the pack (101 Unicorns) and China following (36 Unicorns). By contrast, the EU only counts 19 Unicorns.
The lack of sufficient public information for potential investors about technologies developed by small firms or the leakage of new knowledge that escapes the boundaries of firms and intellectual property protection, are amongst the many different challenges young entrepreneurs face.
The challenges of incomplete and leaky information pose substantial obstacles for new firms seeking capital. The difficulty of attracting investors to support an imperfectly understood, as yet-to-be-developed innovation is especially daunting.
Indeed, the term, “Valley of Death”, has come to describe this challenging transition when a developing technology is deemed promising, but too new to validate its commercial potential and thereby to attract the capital necessary for its development.
Lacking the capital to develop an idea sufficiently to attract investors, many promising ideas and firms perish.
Despite these challenges, many firms attempt to make their way across this Valley of Death by seeking financing from the wealthy individual investors (business “angels”) and, later in the development cycle, from Venture Capital firms.
But because the angel market is dispersed and relatively unstructured, with a wide variation in investor sophistication, few industry standards and tools, and limited data on performance and VC funding typically oriented towards much later stages of development, capital remains very difficult to obtain for many high-technology start-ups.
The SME Instrument
In this spirit, the European Commission launched the SME Instrument within Horizon 2020 in the purpose to address a key funding gap in financing for small early-stage companies that is well recognised as a major barrier to innovation.
The instrument addresses the financing needs of internationally oriented SMEs, in implementing high-risk and high-potential innovation ideas. It aims at supporting projects with a European dimension that lead to major changes in how business (product, processes, services, marketing etc.) is done.
The purpose is to launch the company into (new) markets, promote growth, and create high return on investment. The SME instrument addresses all types of innovative SMEs so as to be able to promote growth champions in all sectors.
Unlike private risk capital which flows relatively freely during good times but plummets during economic downturns, this programme provides stable support for high-risk ventures throughout the ups-and-downs of the volatile business cycle. It cushions economic shocks that might otherwise lead to major extinction events for the industry.
To achieve these goals, the SME Instrument project has been bolstered with an €3 billion budget until 2020.
A piece of Advice: 3 steps you should follow
Define the reasons for application
Are you an entrepreneur who has established your own startup/SME? Is your startup/SME based on an innovative IT concept, product or service harnessing the potential to disrupt existing markets? Moreover, don’t hesitate to use the SME instrument basic eligibility check which can tell you if your project is eligible or not.
Build up your business strategy
You are an entrepreneur, planning to start your Startup / SME or have already started and are in the early stages. Your startup / SME is an innovative ICT based concept, product or service which has the potential to ultimately disrupt existing markets.
Bear in mind that a professionally written business strategy is the first thing that will help you grow and sell. Whatever your capital source, you will need to demonstrate to potential investors and lenders that you have taken the time to research the market and competition, identified your target customers, developed a business model and have a marketing plan in place to accomplish your goals and achieve success.
In short, you will need a well polished and compelling business plan that will satisfy lenders and get you in front of potential investors.
Check the application process and start implementing
Make sure that:
– you know the deadline for the phase you apply for. There are three phases: phase 1, phase 2, phase 3, each of them having a different deadline in each semester of the year. All proposals are submitted online;
– the written proposal has met all the requirements proposed by the European Commission;
The Commission has an online register of the organisations participating in the EU research and innovation or education, audiovisual and cultural programmes. This allows consistent handling of the organisations’ official data and avoids multiple requests for the same information.
Interested in learning more about EU funding opportunities for your startup?
The EU Startup Services Team can provide you the useful information you need for every phase of your application process. The services include consulting, evaluation, proposal writing and workshops.
The EU Startup Services Team worked with more than 1300 startups, operates in 21 countries and has held 33 workshops on EU Funding so far, with 9 successful proposals in the last year. The representatives can provide expertise on who should apply, when and which are the steps, but also help you choose the instrument which best fits your stage and your current needs.
Planning to attend the upcoming workshop? Here you can find all the details you need.
 Source: Fortune, ‘The Unicorn list 2016’; ‘Unicorns’ are start-ups with a market value > $1 billion
Picture credits: Susanne Feldt
Despite what many people may think, there is no real lack in capital supply for Europeans interested in launching their own start-ups in the digital domain.
The rise of (digital) technology start-ups is a global phenomenon, with extensive start-up ecosystems – such as the one in Silicon Valley – being replicated all over the world. Like any other region, Europe is highly interested in reaping the economic and societal benefits of a flourishing start-up economy.
In a recent speech, Neelie Kroes (the former Commissioner for Europe’s Digital Agenda) stated for instance that two out of three (!) new jobs in Ireland are created by start-ups in the first five years of existence.
Not all is rosy, though. Critics often say that it remains hard for European start-ups to get access to the proper financial means to kickstart their businesses.
But is that really the case?
It’s definitely not their biggest problem. Despite what many people may think, there is no real lack in capital supply for Europeans interested in launching their own start-ups in the digital domain.
Virtually each region has done a good job in developing the appropriate funding mechanisms to support start-ups’ launch activities. In other words: it’s not (all) about the money. As a matter of fact, three bigger threats to European start-ups’ longer-term growth can be discerned – culture, regulation and mindset.
A first issue is Europe’s fragmented market – not so much from a geographical perspective, but rather from a cultural one. Indeed, in spite of all good intentions, it remains difficult for European start-ups to sell their products across ‘cultural’ borders. The use of different languages is one obstacle, of course, but divergent social aspirations and cultural values are equally important barriers.
For example, selling a solution for personalized online advertising might be perfectly acceptable in one region because of the advantages it brings (instead of being spammed, one only gets to see those ads that are in line with his/her interests), but it may fail completely in cultures where this is perceived as a direct assault on people’s privacy.
Intra-European legal and regulatory barriers present additional obstacles. A concrete example is the burden that accompanies the launch of pan-European digital health solutions, with each European country having issued its own regulations related to the development, sale, usage and reimbursement of products and services in the digital health realm.
And finally, there’s mindset. Contrary to the US, where everything is big and aimed towards rapid international expansion, European start-ups typically have a more ‘provincial’ mindset. In today’s global, digital economy, though, that’s a major shortcoming. In order to really succeed, start-ups should have international ambitions right from the start.
As we observed already, none of those barriers exist in the US – making this geographical and cultural region a single, big ‘unified’ market with more than 320 million consumers.
Both its scale and transparency make it an easier target to introduce products and grow. A bit ironically perhaps, even conquering the rest of the European market is typically easier if done from the US…
So, how can we address those challenges? I see three important lines of action, in which European policy makers have a major role to play:
– From a regulatory perspective, measures should be taken to further unify the European market – so that its full potential of more than 500 million consumers and potential investors can be tapped.
Streamlining regulation in domains such as digital health, for instance, would already open up a wide range of growth opportunities for potentially hundreds of European start-ups.
Obviously, this would not help us overcome the cultural boundaries overnight; but to that end, instruments are already in place, such as the European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL), to help companies investigate how people will respond to new products and features – before the actual market launch.
– To foster the pan-European growth of start-ups and overcome the provincial mindset, a number of good initiatives have already been taken as well.
One concrete example is the creation of EIT Digital, which helps European start-ups accelerate their growth – o.a. by finding European and worldwide customers for their products and solutions, or by helping them raise funds.
– And finally, when it boils down to securing first customers, Europe should investigate the concept of ‘innovative procurement’– a best practice that has already been widely adopted by the UK and US administrations. It requires government bodies and local branches of big multinationals to allocate a certain percentage of their public procurement activities to innovative start-ups.
As such, start-ups can more easily get the necessary credentials and references to continue growing their businesses. According to certain estimates, public procurement is worth €2,000 billion to the EU economy – so dedicating even 1% of that amount to innovative procurement still equals €20 billion per year to support the European start-up ecosystem.
But also for that, a cultural and regulatory shift is required…