Thursday 21 September 2017

A resolution for 2017 - explore new horizons via collaboration in research

Dr Imelda Lambkin is Enterprise Ireland national director for Horizon 2020
Dr Imelda Lambkin is Enterprise Ireland national director for Horizon 2020

Imelda Lambkin

After a cranky 2016, a good New Year's resolution would be to work together more to find solutions to our collective problems.

This would be a good resolution in any walk of life - and based on the evidence of recent years, it certainly applies in business.

Late last year, the European Commission announced that Ireland was the number one country in the EU for successful applications to the SME arm of the €80bn Horizon 2020 fund which supports collaborative research.

The SME Instrument - as it is formally called - funds early-stage research with a view to accelerating the exploitation of innovation for social gain. Often, though not always, the social benefit will have a commercial dimension. For instance, new materials, medical treatments, energy-efficient technologies and communications solutions are among the many areas of research that can lead to lucrative outcomes.

The SME Instrument has a funding pot of €2.88bn over the seven years of the Horizon 2020 framework and to date, Irish applications have attracted €40m.

In respect of the overall funding from Horizon 2020 up to last September, Ireland ranks a respectable fifth, with 881 successful applications worth €336m since the new framework started in 2014. And we are targeting a drawdown of €1.25bn by 2020, double the €625m obtained over the seven years of the previous framework.

As the Enterprise Ireland unit which supports applicants, one of the problems we have had is de-stigmatising the application process. It was, in the past, a somewhat onerous procedure but in recent years a lot of red tape has been cut. Applicants now receive decisions within two months and projects for successful applicants generally start within four months - far ahead of comparable US programmes.

Also, the application success rate of the SME Instrument is 6pc-8pc across the EU (16pc for Ireland) which compares very favourably to selection rates for private investment funds and accelerator programmes.

So far, so relatively simple. But what are the benefits of Horizon 2020 funding?

Apart from a hefty grant worth 70pc of costs, project promoters obtain direct and ancillary value. For instance, successful applications are used to indicate proof of excellence and used as leverage for private follow-on funding.

A Horizon 2020 project can help the sustainability of a business. The SME Instrument provides a structured assessment of project needs and sources appropriate mentorship from anywhere in Europe to help with business strategy, understanding technical issues, risk management, marketing, reputation building and more.

This comprehensive yet streamlined approach is working for companies up and down the country.

For instance, when Irish foodtech firm Nuritas made a ground-breaking discovery - a peptide with properties that can aid the management of blood sugar levels - they successfully applied for funding. Now the PeptiEUForce project is exploring this potentially game-changing ingredient that could prevent pre-diabetic conditions developing into full-blown Type 2 diabetes.

Sirius XT is another example. The UCD spin-out has developed a prototype laboratory-scale microscope that produces 3-D images of whole single cells or tissue samples. This allows scientists to understand the effect of drugs and diseases on the internal structure of cells. It is the first of its kind in the world and could make a significant contribution to the treatment of cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.

Horizon 2020 funding is being used to develop the technology that will be trialled by an early adopter in the UK next year.

These are just some of the companies and researchers around Ireland developing technology that marries social and commercial opportunity thanks to the SME Instrument.

Perhaps these examples might encourage others to look to the horizon in 2017.

Dr Imelda Lambkin is Enterprise Ireland national director for Horizon 2020

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