Surf for gold

Europe’s lucrative research funds are now within reach, with a little help from the Internet, reports Anthony Gould

The European Union’s pot of gold available to firms for research and technology development can look a tempting prize. Dipping into it though, can be a daunting task for the average engineering company.

First there is the need to identify the relevant programme from a myriad of obscure acronyms, then firms need to find appropriate partners from other countries – and all in time to meet strict deadlines.

This is partly why many firms have not made the most of the £11bn available under the EU’s Fourth Framework Programme (1994-98), even though it is more than twice as much as was on offer under the previous programme.

Engineering firms are being encouraged to tender by Cordis, the Luxembourg-based Community Research and Development Information Service. Cordis’s job – to provide access to information on EU research and exploitation possibilities to the widest possible audience – has been made easier since it joined the Internet last May.

The Cordis RTD-News service on the World Wide Web provides free and simple access to all the information on Cordis’s vast databases. This includes data on past and present programmes, the participants, and the companies seeking partners.

Although Cordis has been operating since 1990, Peter Finch, project head at the European Commission, says the real breakthrough is that its databases are available on the Web. `Previously the information was available through the likes of ISDN and X400. These are quite technical ways to access information which many businessmen simply do not have the time for.’

Another Cordis spokesman says many of the people it most wanted to contact – such as small and medium-sized engineering firms – did not bother using these systems.

After only five weeks on the Web, enquiries across Europe rocketed from 2,000 a month to 1,000 a day.

Finch points out that the service is not just a one-way route. `One of the most important aspects of the Web site is the marriage broking service. Firms which are looking for European partners to either help them develop an idea they have, or to take on the marketing and further development of their technology, can enter their details and preferred partner particulars on the Cordis database. Some companies may even just register on the system in the hope that someone will approach them,’ he says.

Finch says the commission has several research and technology programmes through the different directorates. All have broad themes such as energy, transport, conservation and education. Within these programmes there are regular calls for people to put forward ideas and bid for funding.

The aim is to improve the competitiveness of European industry, and for most programmes the basic requirement is that tendering groups must be from more than one country, or include a mixture of government or private research institutions, a university, a business, and a local association. `The theme is very much one of multinational and multitype,’ he says.

The Web site is designed to give small and medium-sized firms an easy way of accessing information.

Peter Fraenkel, director of Hampshire-based IT Power, was shown the Cordis Web site at the On-Line exhibition in London last December. His company specialises in renewable energy and has been involved in many successful Joule and Thermie programmes since 1990.

Fraenkel says it is not surprising his firm has been involved in EU funding, as the renewables industry is used to having to look outside Britain for funds. `The UK Government makes so little available compared to other countries.’

In his experience, the more targeted a bid is to the needs of the programme, and the more knowledge the bidder has of work going on in the same area, the more chance there is of success. Yet he also says that many of the commission’s decisions do not always make sense. `We now tender for anything that is going in the hope of getting something.’

The commission, through Cordis, is clearly trying to attract more small businesses to the Framework Programme tender process, in particular engineering firms. And this focus is expected to become even sharper in the next round, or Fifth Framework Programme.