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ERC ‘top-up’ grants help turn science into products, says report

21 Mar 2018

An independent review has found that European Research Council Proof-of-Concept grants have helped scientists set up companies, file patents and attract venture capital

By Gary Finnegan

Spinal cord researcher Grégoire Courtine has a noble goal: To help paralysed people walk again. And his research so far has made big progress, teaching  paralysed rats to walk – by combining drugs, electrical stimulation and robotics.

However, the European Research Council (ERC) funding that had helped his team at EPFL in Switzerland to explore the fundamentals of paralysis, movement and technology was coming to an end. Courtine applied for top-up funding, known as a Proof of Concept (PoC) grant, to help translate his scientific discoveries into a product with a profound societal and commercial impact.

This allowed him to develop and validate a prototype device, while exploring the market and finding an industry partner, Motek Medical. As a result, he co-founded a new start-up company – GTX medical – which has attracted €37 million from venture capital investors.

Courtine is one of around 800 ERC researchers to avail of PoC grants since the funding scheme was launched in 2011. Capped at €150,000 – and representing a tiny fraction of the ERC’s €13 billion total funding (2014-2020) – the scheme was designed to help scientists turn their blue-sky thinking into marketable applications.

Independent review

The first ever independent evaluation of the top-up grants has found the initiative to be “sound in concept and effective in practice”. In a report launched 21 March 2018, external experts say PoC funding has helped ERC-based scientists to set up new companies, file patent applications and attract the investment required for commercialisation.

A survey compared the performance of PoC grantees to a control group of ERC grantees who commercialised their ideas without the top-up funding. Twenty percent of the reviewed PoC grants led to the creation of new companies, compared to around 6 per cent in the control group. More than 42 per cent of projects reported at least one patent application (17per cent in the control group) and the PoC projects were more likely to generate technology licensing agreements.

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of the ERC, said the report is a “seal of approval” for the PoC initiative, and pledged to implement its recommendations on how to further refine the scheme.

“This funding, which represents a limited investment, has already served Europe well by capitalising on the daring research and wonderful ideas of ERC grantees,” he said. “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.”

Bourguignon said the ERC’s Scientific Council is convinced that bottom-up, frontier research lays the foundation for the industries of the future, but that the PoC grants can help to make the impact of research more immediate. “That is why the Scientific Council decided to launch this scheme to help bridge the gap between research and market.”

Wanted: matching funding

Around 20 per cent of ERC grantees apply for a PoC top-up but only half are successful. The number of applications has been rising year on year – from 140 per year at the outset to more than 500 per year in 2017 – prompting the Council to explore ways of expanding the scheme and tapping other sources of funding.

In a detailed response to the review, the ERC said it would consider creating a funding stream that provided a second round of grants to PoC recipients to help continue their work. The Council also wants PoC grantees to seek matching funds from the private sector and to draw on national funding programmes to boost the impact of their ERC support.

The Council will look at making it easier for suitable ERC grantees to secure a funding extension without losing time and momentum while reapplying for fresh support. Outreach to investors, entrepreneurship training and support from a network of mentors is also under consideration, it said.

The ERC Scientific Council has promised to explore deeper cooperation with other EU funding streams such as the European SME Instrument, Fast Track for Innovation, the European Investment Bank, and the pilot European Innovation Council.

European Research Council Proof of Concept grantees

  • 42% filed at least one patent application
  • >17% achieved a licensing agreement
  • >25% obtained an R&D agreement with external partners
  • 20% created a company
  • 68% feel more capable of taking an idea to market

In addition to the measurable outputs such as patents and spin-off companies, the ERC says the top-up scheme is helping funding recipients to explore how their work might be commercialised. Sixty-eight percent of Proof of Concept grantees feel more capable of taking an idea to market thanks to the experience, according to the report.

“The PoC programme’s positive impact in terms of mind-set and confidence among the researchers is potentially one of the more enduring impacts of the awards, contributing to a cultural change among the research teams,” the ERC Scientific Council said.

New Technologies from the ERC - Best of the 2014 event, Proof of Concept, Science Business event from European Research Council on Vimeo.

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