Opinion: Taking the Pulse of Horizon Europe
Opinion: Taking the Pulse of Horizon Europe

Opinion: Taking the Pulse of Horizon Europe

The plan to revitalize the European innovation landscape is entering a transition.

Marc Baiget Francesch
Feb 17, 2020

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With the arrival of 2020, the decade of the 2010s has come to an end, and with it the most ambitious European research and innovation funding program enters its final year. Horizon 2020, the European Union (EU) seven-year plan kickstarted in 2014, is making way for Horizon Europe. This successor program will cover the EU research and innovation strategy between 2021 and 2027, and is poised for transition after a provisional agreement was reached last April between the Council of the EU and the colegislators.

But within this provisional agreement, the final budget—which the European commission proposed to be around €100 billion (more than $111 billion US), a sizeable increase from the €80 billion (more than $89 billion US) that was previously budgeted for Horizon 2020 and about 1.3 percent of the EU total budget—is still not clear. If Horizon Europe’s budget is finalized in this way, it signals that the EU intends to compete with other powerful economies such as those of the US, Japan, and Korea, which typically set aside 2 percent, 2.6 percent, or 3.3 percent of their total budgets, respectively, for research and development.

In order to understand the changes represented by Horizon Europe and how these are going to affect the global research and development landscape, one needs to first reflect on what Horizon 2020 accomplished. Horizon 2020 was a program that sought to establish the principles of open innovation and open science in the EU. The three core goals of Horizon 2020 were making EU a world-class science performer, removing obstacles to innovation (such as market fragmentation and patenting), and strengthening the link between the public European institutions and the private sector. According to Javier Ferrís-Oñate, who leads the R&D and Innovation Programmes Responsible at the Instituto de Biomecánica in Valencia, Spain, Horizon 2020 has not only influenced the European R&D landscape but also the national R&D landscape of individual member countries. “Nowadays, there is a bigger focus on post-project activities when it comes to designing a new regional, national, or European R&D strategy,” he says. “R&D is not the final objective anymore, but an instrument to eventually generate an impact.”

One of the most interesting funding mechanisms growing from Horizon 2020 is the Enhanced European Innovation Council (EIC) pilot, which funnels financial aid to small and medium-sized technology companies. To attract private capital, the EIC pilot provides grants and blended finance (i.e., combinations of grants and equity) that cover much of the cost of project development, as well as coaching and mentoring services. Ferrís-Oñate describes the EIC pilot as Horizon 2020’s most relevant initiative in terms of enhancing business innovation in the EU. In fact, the high number of submitted applications and low success rates for EIC funding is one of the major indicators of its popularity. With the arrival of Horizon Europe, the EIC pilot is expected to evolve into a fully-fledged program that facilitates the process of going from ideas to products, so companies with ambitious technological developments can revolutionize European and global markets. BluSense Diagnostics, a Danish company that developed a diagnostics platform for dengue fever and other mosquito-borne diseases, and Aqua Abib, a Spanish company that developed a sustainable desalination system, are just two examples of the more than 5,000 companies that received financial aid from the EIC accelerator to develop innovation projects.

Horizon Europe incorporates lessons learned from Horizon 2020, while facing the new global challenges of the coming decade. For instance, there is going to be a major focus on sustainable development, and 35 percent of the program’s budget is expected to address the climate change crisis. One of the key novelties of Horizon Europe, the Research & Innovation Missions, also points in that direction. The European Commission defined these missions as “a portfolio of actions across disciplines intended to achieve a bold and inspirational and measurable goal within a set timeframe.” The five proposed areas for these missions are adaptation to climate change; cancer; soil health and food; healthy oceans, seas, coastal and inland waters; and climate-neutral and smart cities. The Euratom program, which focuses on safe nuclear research and radiation protection, is also undergoing some changes under Horizon Europe, with an increased focus on non-power applications of radiation.

Another important aspect of Europe’s 2021–2027 funding program is the extended openness to international cooperation, so countries outside the EU can also benefit from this framework, as was the case with Horizon 2020. The EU is looking to strengthen existing ties while incentivizing new collaborations. Last October, several Australian universities along with European Australian Business council were lobbying government officials to change the legal status of Australia that of an “associated country,” which means that legal entities from the nation would be treated as EU member states, making them automatically elegible for EU funding. 

There are still some loose ends regarding Horizon Europe’s specific structural elements. In addition to not being finalized, the program’s budget could affect the implementation of some of the newest proposals such as the Research & Innovation Missions. The evolution of the EIC pilot, along with the increased focus on sustainability, called into question how much money would remain for the Missions to be implemented if the budget is not as robust as initially expected. Carlos Moedas, the former European Commissioner of Research, Science and Innovation, pointed out on several occasions that Horizon Europe is more of an evolution of Horizon 2020 than a revolution. So continuing with the currently developed policies and instruments would probably take priority over implementing brand new projects or priorities. With the new year well underway, the upcoming events and challenges for 2020 will shape the final transition to Horizon Europe.

Marc Baiget Francesch is a project manager and freelance grant writer at Alien Technology Transfer. He writes grant proposals and feasibility reports for client companies wishing to secure funding through the Horizon 2020 program.