EIC Accelerator 2023: Latest updates and potential improvements
Latest news: short proposal submission platform has changed
If you are applying for EIC Accelerator funding, or are thinking about doing so, you should be aware that the EIC has recently made changes to the first two stages of the application process.
For the initial stage (the short proposal), the “smart” AI platform that was in use until recently is no longer available. Instead, the EIC has enabled a new platform for the EIC Accelerator 2023, which applicants can access through the Funding and Tenders portal to upload the content of their short proposals. The EIC will continue to manage the process through this portal, at least for the time being. The new platform has been online since 4 July 2023.
When it comes to submitting the long proposal, applicants upload their PDF document and annexes via the Funding and Tenders portal itself, as they would for any other Horizon Europe programme.
Click on the link below to read the press release issued by the European Innovation Council on the subject: https://eic.ec.europa.eu/news/eic-accelerator-new-platform-submission-short-step-1-proposals-and-running-2023-07-03_en
General characteristics of the EIC Accelerator 2023
The next question might be how did we get to this point?
Firstly, let’s put things in context. The EIC Accelerator 2023 is a type of technological innovation grant aimed at start-ups and SMEs that need funding to finish perfecting their technology, roll it out and bring it to market.
The EIC Accelerator is a programme provided by the European Innovation Council, i.e. an innovation programme that forms part of the Horizon Europe framework programme. Its main characteristics are:
- It is aimed at all technology sectors. The only requirement is that the project in question is at a TRL (technology readiness level) of between 5-6, and that its objective is to reach the market (TRL 9).
- It offers two application schemes. The first is called the EIC Accelerator Open and, as its name suggests, it is open to any scientific or technological field. The second, known as the EIC Accelerator Challenge, is aimed at very specific topics, detailed by the EIC at the start of each Work Programme.
- It includes two forms of funding. The first is a non-repayable grant of up to 2.5 million euros. The second offers investment components of up to 15 million euros. In the first case, namely non-repayable financing from European funds, we are dealing with non-dilutive funding, whereas in the second case the funding takes the form of an investment.
- EIC Accelerator 2023 funding can be awarded in 4 ways:
- Grant only: Offers a non-refundable grant of up to 2.5 million euros. It is aimed at SMEs or start-ups which only need a grant, as they have the means to bring the project to market once they have achieved TRL 8.
- Blended finance: Offers up to 2.5 million euros for innovation activities and up to 15 million euros for commercialisation activities.
- Grant first: A variant of blended finance where, in addition to receiving a grant of up to 2.5 million euros, candidates can apply for up to an additional 15 million euros once they reach a key milestone in the development of their technology. It is primarily aimed at companies that have yet to validate the commercial potential of their technology.
- Equity only: Investment of up to 15 million euros in exchange for shares in the company. This is the only option available to midcaps or companies that have already been awarded previous EIC Accelerator grants for the same project.
- The application process for Horizon Europe calls for proposals is divided into 3 stages. These are the short proposal, the long proposal and the interview. They act as selection filters – in other words, applicants need to pass each stage successfully to be awarded a grant/investment.
Our observations and suggestions for improvement
Now let’s take a look at each stage in turn and identify the improvements that have resulted from the change of platform, as well as potential improvements which have not yet been considered, but which we believe would be beneficial. Let’s hope that they will be addressed soon.
The short proposal
For some time now we have been calling for improvements to critical points of this stage, such as the lack of guidance from evaluators about the information required from applicants on the platform. On several occasions, we have found that evaluators have added comments requesting argumentation that was not required in the application. We would also highlight the dubious results of the “intelligent” analysis previously provided by the AI platform in the middle of the application process.
The EIC has rightly maintained other aspects of the application, such as the evaluation process. We think having four evaluators to review short proposals is appropriate, and that applicants need at least 2 out of the 4 evaluators to back their short proposal if they are to pass successfully to the next stage. However, we believe that it should be more difficult to pass the first stage and that the evaluators should provide better feedback on applicants’ short proposals. This would lead to an improvement in the quality of the long proposals submitted.
The EIC has also maintained its coaching service. If applicants are successful with their short proposal, the EIC offers them the option of choosing a coach to work on their project’s weak points and help them prepare their long proposal. This is a point very much in the EIC’s favour, although we feel that some of the coaches should be better prepared for applicants’ needs at this stage.
Now, the short proposal must now be completed on a new platform (a different one from the long proposal), which includes several changes:
- The number of questions has been reduced and the character limit for each question has been increased. Thanks to the increased character limit, applicants now have more narrative freedom, allowing them to tell a better story and avoid repetition. Most questions on the old platform had a limit of 1,000 characters, whereas now the limit varies between 5,000 and 20,000 characters. If applicants use the full number of characters permitted, their proposals will now be about 15 pages long. In our opinion this is a great improvement, as evaluators often asked for missing information that was not explicitly requested on the old platform.
- No limits to the pitch deck. There is now no limit to the number of slides applicants can include in the pitch deck. In the previous format, the pitch deck for the short proposal was limited to a maximum of 10 slides.
- No changes to the video. The 3-minute video, in which up to 3 team members explain why they have applied for EIC Accelerator funding, remains unchanged. We have no objections to this.
AI is gone. At last: the EIC has removed the AI analysis that was carried out halfway through the proposal. We found this tool confusing and not very useful. It didn’t make sense to us as it was.
As mentioned above, the new format and platform for submitting short proposals has been online since 4 July 2023.
The long proposal
If 2 of the 4 evaluators approve the short proposal, applicants move forward to the next stage, the long proposal. This stage was given a complete overhaul for the EIC Accelerator 2023 deadline on 21 June. The improvements introduced were:
- Format. Previously, the long proposal included up to 300 questions, was 100-150 pages long and included several annexes (pitch deck, a data management plan, a freedom-to-operate analysis, letters of interest and a freeform annex where applicants could include images and additional information). Preparing the long proposal was a tedious and complicated process, where simply copying and pasting information from a Word document into the platform could take 6-8 hours. In our opinion, it was repetitive, unintuitive and difficult to organise. Now, the proposal is submitted in PDF format. Applicants can attach images and graphics to the text, following the guidelines set out in the index. The page limit for the overhauled long proposal remains to be seen, as it was initially set at 50 pages but was removed just days before the deadline.
- Upload order was illogical. The order in which applicants uploaded information to the platform was not the same order in which the evaluators read it. Applicants found this very confusing, as they could only see the final format once they had finished uploading their proposal to the platform. This made life impossible for the evaluators, as they were repeatedly presented with poorly structured proposals. Now evaluators see proposals in the same order as they are prepared by applicants, who can structure and design their proposals to facilitate their evaluation.
We were among several consultants who had called for the implementation of the above-mentioned changes, and we are happy to see them. However, we feel that several potential improvements have been left up in the air. Admittedly, the EIC has made many changes to the proposal submission process, but in our opinion it has not done enough to address this programme’s major drawback, the evaluation process. So now let’s take a look at the improvements that we would like to see in the future format of the EIC Accelerator 2023:
- Improve the skewed evaluation process: At this stage there are three evaluation criteria and three evaluators. In order to proceed to the interview stage, applicants need unanimity across the board, i.e. all three evaluators must approve all three criteria. In our opinion, this system makes applicants too dependent on the decision-making power of a single evaluator. Ideally, we would like to add one more evaluator (as in the short proposal) to broaden the range of opinions, and require applicants to achieve an approval rating of 10 out of 12 (for example). Or, as previously, the EIC should specify a cut-off score which would approve a certain number of projects to move on to the next stage.
- Allow evaluators to compare opinions: The evaluators now complete their evaluations remotely, meaning that each evaluator has no knowledge of what the other two have said. This means that if one evaluator has not understood the proposal, or hasn’t been able to find one of the annexes, an excellent project can be discarded. One way to remedy this would be for all three evaluators to meet after completing their evaluations, as happens in other Horizon Europe projects. This would ensure that all evaluators have a good understanding of the proposal and are able to provide applicants with more useful feedback.
- Improve auditing of evaluations: Despite the European Commission’s best efforts, we have come across clear cases of poor evaluations and/or conflicts of interest. We believe that if one evaluator scores a proposal negatively on all three criteria while the other two score it positively, the evaluation should be reviewed. This should also be the case if one evaluator makes a categorical statement, while the other two make a statement to the opposite effect. In cases like this, we would recommend calling in a fourth evaluator to check if there was some kind of conflict of interest, if evaulators didn’t understand the proposal properly, or if an evaluator was simply unable to find certain information (something that has happened repeatedly). Admittedly, several months ago the EIC added a fourth evaluator for proposals that are resubmitted after obtaining 8 out of 9 positive criteria: this is a step in the right direction, but it only applies in a handful of cases.
Finally, we come to the interview stage. So far the EIC has made no changes to this stage, and we also have suggestions for improvement here.
- Format: The format has not changed since the pandemic. We think that interviews could now be completed face-to-face again, as this gives candidates the best chance to defend their project and demonstrate their worth as a team. We have heard rumours that interviews will soon return to the face-to-face format, but we are still waiting for a date to be confirmed.
- Evaluation requirements: We believe that certain points should not be evaluated in the interview stage, such as the technological and innovative parts of the proposal. The remote evaluators have analysed the long proposal in detail and have had sufficient time to evaluate these aspects. In addition, the interviewers are usually not specialists in the technology in question, as their backgrounds tend to be in investment and business.
- Preparation of interviewers. Interviewers should be obliged to read the entire proposal, as they cannot gain a full understanding of the project in a short 10-minute presentation. We have seen that not all interviewers do so, and this affects the result of the interview. In fact, on many occasions the feedback from interviewers has included inaccurate comments about points of the proposal which, moreover, were not brought up in the question-and answer-session.
- Behaviour of interviewers. Finally, we would like to mention the lack of respect that has occurred on several occasions during the interviews (interviewers eating, wearing pyjamas, ignoring presentations, asking personal questions, making erroneous statements…). It is essential to establish clear rules in this regard as the interviewers are assessing the elite of European innovation.
As we previously mentioned, the European Innovation Council already released a statement proposing important improvements to the EIC programme. Click on the link to read the statement: EIC Board statement: improving the submissions to EIC Accelerator. We invite you to take a look at it.
Somewhat atypically, the EIC has made a clear and welcome effort to simplify and improve the EIC Accelerator 2023 process. For both the short proposal and the long proposal, the new structures are clearer and simpler and have removed significant limitations. In addition, the fact that they have dropped the AI system is a big step forward.
Be that as it may, applying for this type of technological innovation grant or investment is not a simple process. Especially if you don’t have the right experience. If you want to face up to the challenge and maximise your chances of success, the best thing to do is to work with experts who have already prepared several proposals and have learnt from their experience. Experts who know which key points to emphasise, what the evaluators are looking for and what obstacles you are going to encounter along the way.
The team at Aristos has already supported many start-ups and SMEs in their EIC Accelerator 2023 applications, as well as in other funding processes, both at national and European level.
Get in touch with us and we will provide personalised support to ensure that your proposal has the best chance of success.