From blue-sky research to market: new independent review praises ERC innovation initiative
The first ever review of the ERC's innovation scheme – the Proof of Concept Grants - shows that the initiative is "sound in concept and effective in practice", helping ERC-funded scientists set up new companies, file patent applications and attract capital to make their research marketable. It also found that the scheme has brought about a significant cultural change within the research community. The assessment, carried out by independent experts, comes seven years after the ERC first introduced this top-up funding to encourage its grantees to explore the commercial and societal potential of their breakthroughs.
On the whole, ERC-funded projects prompt innovation, but the study found that those backed by Proof of Concept grants are even more effective in this respect. A survey compared the performance of Proof of Concept grantees to a control group of ERC grantees who commercialised their ideas without the top-up funding. Twenty percent of the reviewed Proof of Concept grants led to the creation of new companies, compared to around 6% in the control group. More than 42% of projects reported at least one patent application (17% in the control group) and the Proof of Concept projects were more likely to generate technology licensing agreements. More broadly, four out of five beneficiaries of the scheme achieved the objectives of their projects. The report confirms the underlying quality of the ERC-funded research and its potential for commercial and societal impact.
Read memo and full report.
The President of the ERC, Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, commented: "The review’s conclusions are an endorsement of the ERC Proof of Concept initiative. They also come with a set of recommendations for the future that we can build upon. This funding, which represents a limited investment, has already served Europe well by capitalising on the daring research and wonderful ideas of ERC grantees. It has not only brought about greater openness to exploring the innovation potential of blue sky science, but also already triggered tangible results on the basis of which the economy can be invigorated and quality of life improved.”
He added: "The Scientific Council, and many others, are convinced that frontier research lays the foundations for the industries of the future and thus proves its value as a long-term investment. Such bottom-up science generates many breakthroughs in due course. The impact of ERC-funded research can also be more immediate; a reason why, back in 2011, the Scientific Council decided to launch this scheme to help bridge the gap between research and market."
One of the potentially most enduring impacts of the Proof of Concept Grants is the change in the mind-set and a confidence boost of ERC grantees, even leading to a shift in culture. Sixty-eight percent of Proof of Concept grantees feel more capable of taking an idea to market thanks to the experience. The survey also showed that in many cases the results of the funded projects served as a source of inspiration in policy decision-making.
The Scientific Council, the ERC's governing body, decided to take stock of the scheme in 2017. The report provides recommendations on how to further improve the quality of the ERC operations for the benefit of ERC grantees. Read the Scientific Council's response to these suggestions.
The ERC Scientific Council conceived the Proof of Concept scheme in 2011 to help ERC grantees bridge the gap between their pioneering research and early phases of its commercialisation. Since 2011, it has backed nearly 800 projects. Worth up to €150,000 per grant and open only to ERC grantees, the funding can be used, for example, to establish intellectual property rights, investigate business opportunities or conduct technical validation.
The ERC, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the first European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. Every year, it selects and funds the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based in Europe. The ERC has three core grant schemes: Starting Grants, Consolidator Grants and Advanced Grants. An additional funding scheme, Synergy Grants, was re-introduced in 2017.
To date, the ERC has funded over 8,000 top researchers at various stages of their careers, and at least 50,000 postdocs, PhD students and other staff working in their research teams. ERC funding overall has so far led to more than 800 patent applications and to the creation of over 100 companies.
The ERC is led by an independent governing body, the Scientific Council, chaired by the ERC President, Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, since January 2014. With a budget of over €13 billion for the years 2014 to 2020, the ERC is part of the EU research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020, for which European Commissioner Carlos Moedas is responsible.