Last week, the European Commission published an issue paper to support the work of the High Level group which is currently conducting the Horizon 2020 Interim evaluation. Among the issues addressed is the question if Horizon 2020 supports the best start-up companies? The answer is “kind of, maybe (not)” and it made me wonder: can the European Commission fix Europe’s lagging start up problem – and should it?

The High Level group conducting the interim evaluation of Horizon2020 (H2020) is in full swing, preparing their final report to be published in June 2017. And although it is called a H2020 interim evaluation, it is effectively a preparation of FP9.

As part of this work, the European Commission services has prepared an Issue paper to raise a set of issues that are considered relevant for the High Level Group to reflect on.

The paper was published last week and addresses topics such as:

  • Open Innovation
  • Defence research
  • Mission-oriented vs investigator-driven R&I
  • Simplification

Under the chapter on Open Innovation, I came across the following graph:

Graph from EC Issue paper 3/2-2017 p.16

The issue paper concludes from this that well established companies with large R&D divisions are well established in H2020, but the innovative start-up companies are not.

That conclusion leads to the following three questions:

  1. How to maximise the Open Innovation potential of EU Framework Programmes? How could users be more involved?
  2. How could the EU Framework Programme better support breakthrough market-creating innovation with the potential to scale up support to companies through a European Innovation Council?
  3. How could links with other relevant EU programmes (such as European Structural and Investment Funds and the European Fund for Strategic Investments) and national and regional activities be strengthened in order to support market-creating innovation?
    (p.14 in the issue paper)


Great questions, but I think this is the real question

Those are probably good questions, but I would like to ask a different one:

is the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation really the instrument to fix Europe’s Start-up problem?

A couple of years ago I attended an innovation summit (or something like that) in Brussels, organised by the European Commission. At one of the panel sessions, the founder of Prezi, Peter Arvai, said it nicely : “we don’t want your (Commission) money. Just create the right framework conditions and we will be fine” (quoted from memory). And the other two young panelists – real innovators – agreed.

Another one who agrees is Michael Liebreich, who tweeted this the other day, paraphrasing Ronald Reagan:



I’m no Reaganite, but the point is that the Framework Programme is good for a lot of things, but I’m not convinced that it’s good for fostering start-up innovation. It’s possible that the EU should provide risk financing, but why use the Framework programme for that?

Or let me put it this way:

OK, the Horizon2020 didn’t support European start-up companies, but how many start-up companies are actually built on public funding? I mean, how many of the successes in the US started with federal or state grants?

I haven’t got any data on this, but my guess is that it isn’t many. And if you look at Wired’s list, I think most companies are in the software-app development business where they don’t do a lot of research themselves.
And if start-ups actually do rely on public funding do we then have the numbers for how many of them are supported by national funding schemes? Perhaps that works fine already?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying:

a) That the participation of companies – large and small – is not an important aspect of Horizon2020 projects, or

b) that groundbreaking research does not lead to innovation.

Not at all. But there a difference between collaborative projects with public and private entities working together and a full blown innovation support scheme for start-ups.

Before we want the Framework Programme to fix every problem in the European innovation chain, we should simply ask what kind of tool a research and innovation programme is and how it is best used.


When asked how he got Apple back on track when he returned as CEO to the company in 1997, the 21st century innovator of innovators, Steve Jobs, responded: “Focus”.


Perhaps the same principle should be applied for FP9 when it starts in 2020.


But then again,  I’m really no expert. I’m just wondering, and I might be totally off track here.

What do you think?