The origins of the EIC

Silvia Bandelloni

The European Innovation Council officially began with the first 2021-2022 EIC Work Programme.

Fraunhofer, the German public non-profit organisation whose network comprises 75 research institutes, is now a European-wide model. It is like a pirate ship whose manoeuvrability enables it to contribute to economic growth by offering scientific innovation to companies. Not surprisingly, one of the most important new developments in Europe is the European Innovation Council (EIC), which was launched on 18 March. This is the current plan as part of Horizon Europe, the European framework programme for research and innovation, which will cover the period from 2021 to 2027. Unlike the previous framework programme (Horizon 2020), as well as envisaging the European Research Council (ERC) basic research scheme, the new programme also comprises the EIC innovation scheme, whose funding budget is 10 billion for the entire 2021-2027 period, and it will enable the most deserving and visionary applied research groups, start-ups and SMEs to develop revolutionary high-risk, high-impact innovations, contributing to the objectives of the Green Deal and the European Recovery Plan. The themes, as in programmes funding ERC’s basic research, are climate change, the fight against cancer, environment, energy, society… all potentially of shared interest. Funding has been designed for two types of innovators: researchers with ideas on new forms of innovative technology (Pathfinders); and entrepreneurs, start-ups and SMEs who wish to develop high-risk innovations (Accelerators). In other words, the EIC wants to develop a synergy between the worlds of applied research and start-ups in order to enable innovation to produce new market solutions as quickly as possible. It also includes some special prizes, aimed at supporting particularly meritorious aspects of innovation at a European level.

The EU Prize for Women Innovators is for female entrepreneurs who bring revolutionary innovations to the market. It is an effort to increase awareness of the need for more female innovators, leading to the creation of feminine role models. The award is assigned to the most talented female entrepreneurs from across the European Union and Horizon Europe partner countries, women who have founded successful and innovative companies.

The European Capital of Innovation Awards (iCapital) is an annual award allocated to European cities – more specifically, those whose population is from 50,000 to 250,000 inhabitants – that best promote innovation in their communities. In particular, it recognises their contribution to the development of local innovation ecosystems. By creating a network of people, places, public and private stakeholders, urban areas can make a substantial contribution to innovation in Europe, improving citizens’ quality of life.

The European Social Innovation Competition (EUSIC) aims at supporting and encouraging innovations creating solutions to the problems afflicting our society.

Lastly, the European Innovation Procurement Awards are prizes for tender contracts in the area of European innovation, in other words, public and private purchasers who promote innovation and innovative solutions at the various stages of the tender competition processes.

All the prizes in the EIC Awards programme (presented on the official website https://eic.ec.europa.eu/eic-funding-opportunities/eic-prizes_en) are coordinated by the European Innovation Council and the SME Executive Agency, and the winners are chosen by a jury of independent experts.

In order to provide advice and assistance on the development and management of all EIC activities, the Commission has set up a diversified group of experts (https://eic.ec.europa.eu/eic-communities/eic-board_en), key players in this new management approach that aims at ensuring that innovators are constantly at the centre of attention. In fact, they come from different backgrounds, such as companies, universities, national laboratories and research centres, and have the task of developing a shared vision and strategic approach, by means of their expertise in combining solid technological knowledge with a practical approach involving business development and their aptitude for communications.

This is the overall framework that will take shape and become operational from now on. On 18 March, the launch day, the EIC’s first annual work programme was published, opening up funding opportunities worth over €1.5 billion in 2021, and the prizes for female innovators and for the European Capital of Innovation were launched.

As Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice-President of the Digital Agenda for Europe, said, “We now have a fund to support small and medium-sized enterprises working on pioneering innovations, offering access to its own capital and giving a boost to innovative start-ups. It is a way of converting futuristic technological research into corporate innovation”.