EIC: challenges for the governance and opportunities for innovation

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by Giuliana Miglierini

The European Innovation Council (EIC) was launched in March 2021 by the EU Commission to support the growth of highly innovative startup companies. Since then, the programme experienced some difficulties to become fully operative, as delays occurred with companies requesting grant-only or grant-first support and with the decision-making procedures for companies requesting blended finance or equity-only investments.

According to the Commission, this situation is a result of the restructuring of the EIC Fund to better reflect Horizon Europe legislation and the outcomes of the pilot phase. Negotiations are also ongoing with an external fund manager of the EIC Fund and are expected to close by the end of June. Internal discussions in the European Commission and IT problems are among the possible causes of the delays, reported Politico. A situation that is highly impacting on the selected companies, that are hampered from proceeding with the timely development of their business.

The difficult governance of the EIC prompted the European Parliament to start an investigation, led by Horizon Europe’s rapporteur Christian Ehler, to better clarify the issues undermining the EIC functioning (see more on ScienceBusiness). Mr. Ehler asked the stakeholders to provide inputs by 14 June; the final outcomes of the investigation will be summarised in a non-legislative report on the implementation of the EIC.

The idea behind the report is to get the debate about the future of the EIC out in the open and provide the Parliament’s perspective on it. As co-legislator we have a duty to ensure the Commission implements the legislation we approved,” said Christian Ehler.

The EIC Accelerator

Available investments for startups and SMEs under the EIC Accelerator programme total €2.5 million for grants and €0.5 to €15 million equity investments through the EIC Fund. Higher investments are possible to support the development of technologies of strategic European interest.

A fast assessment procedure was introduced in 2021 to submit new projects at any time. A tailored business coaching support is available to successful candidates to draft the full applications, which are then evaluated at regular cut-off dates approximately every three months. The Commission announced it is finalising its decision-making procedure for the grant and equity components to companies selected for blended finance during the 2021 cut-offs. This is expected to allow the signature of contracts for the grant component of blended finance in a couple of days after the closure of the decision-making procedure, followed by the payment of a pre-financing of the grant one week later. A due diligence is needed to support the investment decision by the EIC Fund for the equity component, that will thus occur few weeks or months later.

The current status of the EIC Accelerator

According to the European Commission, 65 companies were selected for funding under the EIC Accelerator programme for the June 2021 cut-off, following the evaluation of their full application. Of these, 29 companies requested grant-only or grant-first support and 31 requested blended finance, including a grant component and equity investment. Contracts for six grant-only or grant-first companies were still to be signed as of 13 May 2022. The grant component is expected to close by early June 2022, while for the equity investment component and equity-only closure of the investment agreement is expected after June.

Some other 99 companies were selected for support in the October 2021 cut-off. Only one contract of the overall 34 companies that requested grant-only or grant-first support has been signed. Signature of the grant component for companies that selected blended finance is planned in July 2022, followed by the equity component and equity-only projects from the summer up to the end of the year.

The third cut-off round of March 2022 saw the selection of some other 74 companies, over a total of more than 1000 applications. Selected companies will each receive grants and/or equity investments up to €17.5 million. The next cut-offs for full applications is 15 June and 7 October.

Deep-tech training needed

A report published in April 2022 by the EIC Pilot Expert Group suggests the creation of two new deep-tech training programmes to better support the development of human entrepreneurial talent while fostering technological solutions. “We argue that EIC can’t succeed without including in its mandate the objective of proactively realising the entrepreneurial talent of Europe’s brilliant scientists”, write the members of the Expert Group in the foreword of the document.

The EIC Trailblazer Programme and the Pioneer Programme are the tools identified to reach this challenging goal. Both of the programmes should be implemented in a phased manner using pilot projects to allow for experimentation and learning, according to the recommendations set forth in the report. A main expected outcome is the creation of a new generation of deep-tech entrepreneurs, the EIC Innovators, able to better evaluate how their technologies are fitting into the world for commercialisation and impact.

The EIC Trailblazer Programme is targeted to support talented PhD candidates and postdocs that are part of projects funded by the EIC Pathfinder and EIC Transition. These EIC Trailblazer Fellows may receive a deep tech training programme, aimed to work as an internal accelerator and an elite programme targeting proto-entrepreneurs. A special prize and/or grant may also be considered to recognise scientific and entrepreneurial talents.

The Pioneer programme would allow for deep-tech add-on modules sponsored by the EIC to complement existing programmes delivered at the local level, in member states and potentially EU associated countries. Beneficiaries would include talented scientists that one day may apply for EIC funding, the “proto-EIC Innovators”.

Comments from research-intensive universities

The Guild of European research-intensive universities published a statement to contribute to MEP Christian Ehler’s initiative of a report on the implementation of the EIC. A better recognition of the role of universities’ Technology transfer offices (TTOs) as key actors in enabling researchers to develop their results for commercial and societal purposes is the key message of the Guild. To this instance, duplication of activities of the TTOs in terms of project management and support services should be avoided. Concerns are also highlighted with reference to the standard Intellectual Property (IP) provisions in the EIC Pathfinder and Transition schemes, as they might negatively affect the functioning of already well-performing TTOs without strengthening the capacities of weaker TTOs.

A positive experience is also acknowledged as for the EIC Transition scheme, that supports universities and their spin-offs with appropriate financial support for proof-of-concept projects. The Guild asks for the extension of this funding scheme to support an higher number of innovative projects.

An example of funded project

Swedish company Bico (formerly Cellink) is an example of EIC-funded project which saw a very rapid growth of its business, achieving $ 1 billion in market valuation in the first five years of activity. Founded in 2016, the company is now leader in the bioink sector and is developing new bio-printing technologies to be used for 3D printing of organs and tissues, so to overcome the lack of donors, reduce shortages and improve drug development.

Bioprinting is only one of the technologies included in Bico’s portfolio; gene therapy, gene editing, CRISPR, diagnostics are also investigated. The company built up from the first universal bioink created by Professor Paul Gatenholm (Chalmers University), a special biomaterial that enables human cells to grow outside the body and perform all the vital functions.