Quite recently, the Executive Agency for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (EASME) published a highly interesting report on the first two years of implementation of the SME Instrument (2014-2015). The report can be accessed here (link). Time flies fast and, as pointed out by the authors, the vast amount of the proposals submitted and evaluated allows for the identification of several interesting patterns in the behaviour of European SMEs applying to SME Instrument.
“Resubmissions count for about 40 % of all submissions”
The part of the report I find especially interesting is the one on resubmission of the proposals, both Phase 1 and Phase 2. As highlighted in the report, SME Instrument applicants are generally persistent and not discouraged by the first “NO” from the panel of assessors. The statistics are clear. Resubmissions count for about 40 % of all submissions. The large majority of resubmissions are resubmitted once or twice. However, only approx. half of the resubmitted proposals (around 55 %) get a higher score compared to previous submissions. This means that almost half of the resubmitted proposals are scored the same or lower.
This is in line with the messages communicated by EASME whose experts have pointed out on several occasions that resubmission never guarantees a higher scoring of the proposal. However, the question worth asking is what differentiates a successful re-submission from the failed one? Is there a pattern that can be used in the effort to improve the proposal?
Evaluation Summary Report (ESR) – your guide book
The results of the assessment of the application are communicated in the form of ESR, summarising the scope of the project and assessing its Excellence, Impact and Implementation components. This is where the problems start. ESR presents the assessment of the application using standardised assessment criteria (e.g. "It is described in a realistic and relevant way how the innovation has the potential to boost the growth of the applying company") and the scoring of the proposal against those criteria (e.g. “Good to Very Good (3.5 – 4.49)”). Apart from that, no justification for the scoring is provided. This often causes frustration among the applicants. Those SMEs with experience in applying to e.g. Eurostars programme miss the detailed explanations of the reasoning of the assessors which could be used to improve the proposal. As such, resubmitting and improving a proposal in the SME Instrument becomes the art of understanding and figuring out "what the poet had in mind".
“The technology and innovation activities of the project always go hand in hand with business (impact)”
The key to unlocking the hidden message in ESR
Despite the scarce amount of information motivating the scoring, ESR still provides a useful guidance for improving your proposal. To understand its value, you need to understand that the proposal constitutes an integral whole and not three distinct sections describing the technology, your market and what will happen in the project. In the SME Instrument, the technology and innovation activities of the project always go hand in hand with business (impact). All technological steps taken in the project should therefore increase the business value of the product. This is the key to unlocking the hidden message in ESR.
Do not treat your application as a lottery ticket
As such, look for patterns in the scoring of your proposal across the Excellence, Impact and Implementation sections. Try to first address those areas that were scored poorest: Fair to Good (2.5 – 3.49), Insufficient to Fair (1.5 – 2.49) or Insufficient (0-1.49). Those areas require your immediate attention. Look at your proposal as a complete investor business case.
Do not treat the application as a lottery ticket. Do not send it in one more time without proper analysis and improvements across the key sections. In EU grants, as in life, 1 in 100 may be lucky and get the higher score and maybe funding without major effort, but, as pointed out by the EASME report, “Resubmissions allow us to confirm the consistency of the evaluation system. Extreme score fluctuations are rare (4,7% in Phase 1 and 2,5% in Phase 2)".
If you are unsure, ask for external advice. It is always good to have a different pair of eyes to take a look at your proposal and ESR. In the end, this is a competition. Only the best proposals win, and, as shown by the 2014 and 2015 experience, only those that listen to the assessors and take the ESR document seriously.
Tomasz Wąsik, head of GAEU Consulting Horizon 2020 Centre of Excellence