Giving a push to good ideas

Senior reporter

The stereotype of an entrepreneur is that of a highly motivated individual driven by a desire to create something of their own, to make a mark in their field and to generate ever-increasing amounts of money. The reality, of course, can be very different.

At a debate I chaired at the Royal Academy of Engineering this week, the suggestion was put to me that only one in four small businesses have any interest in growing and that government efforts to expand the economy by supporting new technology firms would always be limited by the calibre of the people involved.

I’ve no idea if it’s an accurate assessment but it’s certainly true there are plenty of businesses out there content with continuing in their own little world. Then you have the serial entrepreneurs who love starting companies but rarely stick around long enough to see them grow.

Equally, however, it’s never hard to find someone with great ideas and dreams who just can’t get the financial support to make them happen. When this time last year I wrote about the need for greater aspiration among Britain’s startup firms, we received numerous comments from readers stuck in this exact situation.

From today there’s a new funding opportunity for small businesses, as well as large firms and academic researchers. Horizon 2020 is the EU’s latest research funding programme, an €80bn (£65bn) pot of money up for grabs over six years for those who put forward the best proposals for international collaborations addressing the biggest problems in science and industry.

The UK tends to do pretty well from European research grants, receiving around 15 per cent of funding in the last three programmes, more than any other country except Germany. A huge number of the projects we cover on The Engineer tend to have some money from FP7 (the most recent programme) involved.

It’s far from a perfect system, as anyone who has grappled with the EU bureaucracy could tell you. I‘ve encountered some fascinating and wildly impressive projects from FP7, but also some that left me thinking: ‘You spent three years and half a million pounds on that?!’. Some telehealth and robotic projects that I’ve encountered, in particular, have produced results that I struggled to believe anyone would ever use, especially when compared to the products created by the private sector in the same time frame.

Still, for some companies, Horizon 2020, which the EU claims comes with a much simplified application and review process, could provide a fantastic opportunity to expand their business.

The organisers of the programme are keen to stress that it’s not for those who are only looking for money. The aim of Horizon 2020 is to enable research and development with commercial potential, but it should be seen as an investment, a way to de-risk good ideas, create access to international partners and improve the skills base, not just as a cash pot to help take a product to market.

There are bound to be problems that will emerge as more and more people apply to Horizon 2020. The organisers have already indicated they are worried about a flood of unsuitable applications from European academics who’ve had their national funding slashed. And some companies, especially more established ones, will still struggle to justify joining a project that doesn’t provide a clear way for it to make a profit.  

But for anyone with a good idea that needs some help, some extra expertise or a way to make investment less risky, Horizon 2020 could be the tool that starts a new era for their business. And we need as many of those as we can get if we really want to grow the economy through technology.