EIC Accelerator Interview Preparation Process: The Importance of the Q&A (Part 2)

This article is the second part of the interview preparation guide for the EIC Accelerator blended financing (formerly SME Instrument Phase 2, grant and equity). It provides a perspective on how an applicant, Small- and Medium-Sized Enterprise (SME) or startup could prepare for the EIC Accelerator pitch interview but it is not a pre-requisite to succeed in front of the jury.

While there is no official guidance or template on the preparation process for the EIC pitch, most professional grant writers or consultancies have developed their own processes to prepare their clients for a successful Step 3. This series of articles provides an example for such a process.

Introduction

Introduced in 2018, the European Innovation Council (EIC) and European Commission (EC) have created a Jury-system for the evaluation of successful written applications which acts as the final step before the grant approval. This illustrates the desire of the European Union (EU) to fund real companies that not only have interesting projects but also have the desire, confidence and motivation necessary to implement said project. In addition, it allows the EIC to supplement their remote evaluator’s pool with experts in the investment field.

Since most startups have rich experience in talking to investors, giving presentations during pitch events or hosting workshops and seminars themselves, it often comes as a surprise that they need to practise for the EIC Accelerator pitch at all. But consultants understand that this is absolutely necessary since the EIC pitch week differs from a normal Venture Capital (VC) or investor interaction in the following ways.

No Specialised Knowledge

The Jury members might not be experts regarding the technology or might not know the industry dynamics. The EIC Jury is a well-balanced collection of business experts including consultants, angel investors, educators (i.e. business schools), VC partners and entrepreneurs but, while the EIC aims to segment the Jury into thematic groups to facilitate the interview process, one must assume that half or more of the audience neither has previous knowledge about the technology or the market that is being targeted. This also extends to the European Investment Bank (EIB) members which are allowed to sit in and ask questions.

Not Investing Themselves

A second consideration to make is that, while the Jury might contain investors, they are not investing their own money. Usually, startups will be in contact with people who are able to make investment decisions and who are directly benefitting or suffering from a good or a bad funding outcome. This is not the case with the EIC Jury since these generally do not invest in the startups they interview and, if the investment turned out to be poor (i.e. bankruptcy, fraud, failure) then the Jury will face no negative repercussions since the EIC is responsible for the funding approval.

This creates an interesting dynamic where the Jury members have no skin in the game but select companies based on the profile outlined by the EIC (i.e. DeepTech, unicorns, non-bankability, high-risk). This does not mean that their assessments will be lesser than in the private market or that they will not be as stringent as they would be if their own financing or career was at stake but it is worth considering since Jury members might pose different questions compared to conventional investors.

Ambiguous Evaluation Criteria

While many investors have a certain focus (i.e. industry, technology, geography), they all have one primary goal in common: To make a return on their investment within a given time frame while minimizing their risk. But the EIC is turning that on its head with ambiguous criteria that most normal investors would not consider prioritizing: Non-bankability and high-risk.

The EIC aims to close the gap between companies that are too risky to finance and those that have been sufficiently de-risked to warrant substantial Series A investments. As a result, it seeks out companies that are:

  • Non-bankable: A company that can’t leverage financing from other public or private sources (i.e. national grants, bank loans, VC’s, angel investors, etc.)
  • High-risk: A project that is too risky and deters investors.

Why these criteria could be viewed as being ambiguous:

  1. Many of the companies that are funded under the EIC have raised substantial financing above €1M prior to receiving the EIC grant. As such, there is no reason why they could not raise similar financing amounts again even if one-time public grants were a major financing source.
  2. Most companies have access to other grants since there are many options available and a majority of companies apply for more than one grant at a time.
  3. The project must be feasible and the risks must be well-mitigated or it will be rejected by the EIC. The remote evaluators heavily screen for feasibility and a product-market-fit (i.e. traction and willingness-to-pay) which excludes many high-risk projects by default.

Note: The three points above can be argued but it is likely that most EIC Accelerator beneficiaries would have raised financing from other sources if they were rejected by the EIC since they are excellent business cases.

Why These Criteria Still Benefit the EIC

High-Risk Projects

The EIC likely understands that it’s nonsensical to select projects with an unreasonable level of risk (i.e. projects with almost no chance of success) but it does not want to attract easy-to-finance projects, specifically. It uses the term high-risk to inform applicants that they should not be afraid to apply even if they have been rejected by many investors or grants prior because of their risk profile.

This way, the EIC creates a space where highly ambitious and cutting-edge projects gather because they are riskier than others when viewed from an investors perspective. Of course, there will also be applicants who are too high risk and lack the expertise, a product-market-fit or the competence to execute the project but these are filtered in Steps 1 and 2 of the EIC Accelerator evaluation.

Non-Bankability

The EIC wants to be an exclusive financing instrument because it has the goal of turning science into innovation as EU Commissioner Mariya Gabriel said during her Keynote in 2021:

The so-called European innovation paradox that Europe is a world leader in science and research but that other regions lead on innovation so the EIC will build on the amazing research base in Europe to support disruptive DeepTech and market creation startups. This will be a priority role for the EIC.

Mariya Gabriel, EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth

In addition, the EIC aims to de-risk such highly technical projects sufficiently to warrant private industry investments which would have been elusive otherwise. This renders the EIC a catalyst for the European DeepTech ecosystem:

We will crowd in private investment. Private investment in European DeepTech. The 10 billion budget of the European Innovation Council aims to crowd in at least €50 billion from the private sector.

Mark Ferguson, Chair of the EIC Advisory Board

This means that the EIC does not aim to be the first choice for all startups in the European ecosystem but seeks to attract a small group of excellent, DeepTech companies that do not have access to capital. The criteria of non-bankability is a way of selecting for this goal.

In reality, the EIC can never know how easy or difficult it is for a company to raise substantial investments since this highly depends on connections, the geography and the ingenuity of the management team. While it can ask for it in a grant proposal template, it is difficult to investigate statements such as “We are unable to raise private financing from VC’s or local grants due to the following rejections…”. In practice, non-bankability often means:

We will invest unless someone else invests before us.

If a company raises €20M right before the Step 3 interview then it will likely be rejected because the EIC would rather spend their budget on companies that have not reached this point yet. If the company describes the difficulty in raising financing to get the EIC funding (i.e. it is non-bankable) and raises €20M only 6 months after the grant has been approved then this will be a great success case for the EIC to announce. Even if the grant did not affect the €20M funding round (i.e. this is extremely difficult to verify).

Introducing the criteria of non-bankability is thus a great way for the EIC to assure that the financing is allocated where it is able to further the goals outlined by Commissioner Gabriel and EIC Chair Ferguson.

Rejecting Over Funding

The EIC Accelerator process is highly selective and, with approval rates of 67% in Step 1 and 16% in Step 2, it can be said that all applicants successfully reaching Step 3 are excellent. With such an in-depth evaluation process that includes video pitches, pitch decks, support documents and, most importantly, a business plan with a length that is greater than most other grant proposals, it would be almost impossible for bad projects to reach the final stage.

As a result, the EIC Jury is faced with the difficult task: Finding the projects with the highest potential among a pool of excellent businesses. And, while this is a reductive perspective, one can view the task of the Jury in a simplified manner: Reject 50% of the applicants.

The EU and the EIC set the budget ahead of time and, even though it should be statistically possible to see 10% or 90% selection rates In the interviews, it is not a realistic outcome.  The Jury will have to meet a quota that, even if it can deviate slightly, should match the set budget. As a result, many great projects will be rejected.

An applicant would be well advised to have the following attitude to the pitch interviews:

Under no circumstances can I give the jury a reason to reject us.

Even if the EIC would disagree with this statement, it is still a useful approach for the applicant since, although the project and business are great, they will fail if the presenters are not aware of all the factors that can be perceived as negative by the jury.

Limited Time & Forced Decisions

No investor wants to make a short-notice funding decision. With very few exceptions (i.e. Masayoshi Son’s gut investment in Jack Ma’s Alibaba), investors will take their time, perform due diligence over many weeks or months and will have multiple in-person conversations with the company.

The EIC is different in this regard since a Jury has to make a decision based on a 45-minute interview without having performed any due diligence up to this point. Since the remote evaluation has been completed ahead of time, it can be viewed as partial due diligence but the selected evaluators are likely neither experts in due diligence proceedings nor do they have access to the applicants for the request of additional data or feedback. And while the jury members have access to the application documents, there is no guarantee that they have studied them.

Still, the EIC has multiple due diligence mechanisms:

Step 1

Step 1 will identify the general suitability of a project for the EIC Accelerator. With funding rates of 67% in 2021, it is not very selective but aims to only peak the evaluator’s interest. Projects can be approved even though 50% of the evaluators reject them which renders Step 1 a very low threshold.

Note: Choosing a minimum of 3 out of 4 GO’s by the evaluators (i.e. 75% consensus) or switching to a 2/3 threshold (i.e. 66%) might be a better choice but the EIC has not published scoring correlations between all three steps. If no project with 2/4 GO’s has succeeded in Step 2 or Step 3, then it might be a good sign to raise the bar of Step 1 and save the applicants months of work.

Step 2

Step 2 is much more in-depth and is a great way of looking at the project from multiple angles but it suffers from the evaluator’s pool which might not provide the level of due diligence found in a VC firm. Still, it is a very useful way of filtering for the EIC-set criteria.

Step 3

There is a high chance that neither the Jury members nor the EIB representatives have read the Step 1 and Step 2 applications in full. This means that they strongly rely on the pitch event and will have to make a funding decision based on a 45-minute pitch alone. While some might have read substantial parts of the application, the due diligence done by the Jury members ahead of the pitch will likely be a fraction of what a VC firm would perform before making a funding decision.

Post-Approval

The EIC will perform detailed technical, commercial and financial due diligence for the equity component of the grant but this is after the public financing announcement. It is very unlikely that a company would be rejected after the EIC has already announced their identity on its website and social media accounts unless there is a strong reason to do so. Still, it is a formal due diligence process with a great level of depth.

Conclusion

This article presents a perspective on the EIC Accelerator pitch and does not represent the opinion of the EIC or the EC. An applicant should be aware of the conditions the jury interviews will be conducted under and should pitch their project as if it was assessed for the first time. They should also consider the following notes on the EIC jury:

  1. They are likely unfamiliar with the project’s details
  2. They are potentially not experts in the technology or industry
  3. They are not investing their own money or face negative repercussions for a misselection
  4. They make a funding decision based on only 45 minutes of pitching and questioning although they have access to all previous documents if they chose to review them post-interview
  5. They must prioritize criteria set out by the EC and EIC (i.e. high-risk, DeepTech and non-bankability)
  6. The due diligence performed pre-interview was limited

Other Articles


These tips are not only useful for European startups, professional writers, consultants and Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SME) but are generally recommended when writing a business plan or investor documents.

Deadlines: Post-Horizon 2020, the EIC Accelerator accepts Step 1 submissions now while the deadlines for the full applications (Step 2) will be on January 12th 2022, April 6th 2022, June 15th 2022 and October 5th 2022 under Horizon Europe. The Step 1 applications must be submitted weeks in advance of Step 2. The next EIC Accelerator cut-off for Step 2 (full proposal) can be found here. After Brexit, UK companies can still apply to the EIC Accelerator under Horizon Europe albeit with non-dilutive grant applications only - thereby excluding equity-financing.

Contact: You can reach out to us via this contact form to work with a professional consultant.

EU, UK & US Startups: Alternative financing options for EU, UK and US innovation startups are the EIC Pathfinder (combining Future and Emerging Technologies - FET Open & FET Proactive) with €4M per project, Thematic Priorities, European Innovation Partnerships (EIP), Innovate UK with £3M (for UK-companies only) as well as the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants with $1M (for US-companies only).

Any more questions? View the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section.

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by Stephan Segler, PhD
Professional Grant Consultant at Segler Consulting

General information on the EIC Accelerator template, professional grant writing and how to prepare a successful application can be found in the following articles: