Smack My Pitch Up: Changing The Evaluation Focus Of The EIC Accelerator

The EIC Accelerator funding (grant and equity, with blended financing option) has undergone substantial changes over the past years, especially during the transition from the Horizon 2020 (2014-2020) to the Horizon Europe (2021-2027) framework program.

As part of the European Commissions (EC) and European Innovation Councils (EIC) portfolio of funding instruments (see EIC Programs), it supports startups and Small- and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SME) with up to €2.5 million in grant and €15 million in equity financing per project (€17.5 million total).

Keeping Up With The EIC

In contrast to many other public grant opportunities for businesses, the EIC Accelerator remains in constant flux due to varying influencing factors such as increasing marketing by the EIC, conflicts between the European Parliament and Commission as well as changes in the proposal templates, evaluation process and budgets (see Work Programme 2023).

To advise prospective applicants accurately, it is often the responsibility of professional writers, freelancers or consultants to keep track of the newest changes, trends and potential disruptions that could occur in the EIC programs.

This can include changes in the proposal submission process, potential budget alterations, disruptions through AI (see ChatGPT) or subtle changes in the success rates of the program (see Success Cases).

The Eroding Evaluation Process

The EIC Accelerator follows a simple but lengthy 3-step evaluation process that uses a short application (Step 1), a long application (Step 2) and a remote interview (Step 3) as its base (see What is the EIC Accelerator?).

For the first two steps, the EIC uses thousands of remote evaluators to account for the high number of submitted applications while the last step uses a small number of commercially-oriented jury members. Ideally, this process allows the EIC to vet good technologies in the first two steps and then select the best business cases in the last stage to ensure that the long-term success of the program remains high.

Since the inception of the new EIC Accelerator in 2021, the evaluation process has remained the same but the outcomes of the process have changed dramatically.

The graphic shows the selection rates for the EIC Accelerator’s full proposal (Step 2, white), the interview (Step 3, green) and the combined rates for both stages (Step 2×3, yellow).

It is evident that, while the overall success rates (yellow) have trended slightly downwards, there has been a strong trend for the increase of Step 2 and a decrease of Step 3 selection rates.

This means that the EIC is starting to rely more and more on the EIC Jury in the interview rather than the remote evaluators to assess the quality of the projects.

It likewise means that the quality of the EIC Jury is naturally being eroded since more interviews require more interviewers with a venture background but these are harder to come by than the remote evaluators.

Jury Jeopardy

The goal of the EIC Accelerator interviews is to use a small number of highly qualified experts who make the final funding decisions which increases the quality and ideally reduces the randomness of the selection process.

But, by increasing the number of jury members, the entire process will likely become even more random.

Written Step 1 and Step 2 EIC Accelerator applications present a certain degree of control and predictability whereas applicants can rely on expert proposal writers to support them. For the interview, even the most elaborate pitch coaching will still present a significantly higher luck factor and is subject to the influence of interpersonal skills that are difficult to assess and train within just a few weeks.

Even the EIC’s report on the EIC Accelerator program has revealed that the interviews are presenting a high degree of randomness when it comes to rejections and approvals (see 2020 Report). This is aggravated by the fact that applicants cannot rebut the comments of the jury members outside of being invited to an interview.

What Happened?

In 2021, everything seemed perfect: The EIC Accelerator budget was at an all-time high, Horizon Europe had just launched, the EIC had completely reinvented the submission process and global financial markets were on the good side of the economic bubble when money was available and interest rates were low.

The first EIC Accelerator deadline in June was concluded with unprecedented funding rates that were incomparable to the less than 1% observed just a few months before:

Rates in % Step 2 Step 3 Step 2×3
June 2021 16 50 8
October 2021 19 47 9
March 2022 24 28 7
June 2022 24 32 8
October 2022 22 33 7
January 2023 33 20 7

Note: The January 2023 cut-off did not include the EIC Accelerator Strategic Challenges which might have impacted the selection rates.

16% of all Step 2 applicants were selected and a total of 50% were selected in the Step 3 interviews (see June 2021 Success). This means that one out of every two applicants was selected in the interview which is a very promising rate for interviewees.

Step 2 was still quite selective with a rate of only 16% but, over the following years, the selection rates for Step 2 gradually increased while the interview rates decreased.

Don’t Turn on the Light

There are a variety of potential explanations for this but the most obvious answer lies in the Step 2 evaluation process itself. Every company applying to the EIC Accelerator is able to see the comments and reasoning for the rejection of their proposal with great detail (see Developing the Rebuttal).

This means that the rejectee has a transparent view of what is needed to succeed in this step according to the first evaluators that have read the application. This is in contrast to the previous submission process where no comments were obtained and applicants that were rejected had to take a shot in the dark in their resubmission.

Today, a resubmission is much easier since the applicant only needs to address the evaluator’s criticisms in a logical manner to succeed while the new evaluators will likely not re-read the entire application and only rely on the conversation between the first evaluators and the applicant.

Innovation All the Way Down

But there is a second reason why this trend most likely occurred and it is directly related to the new system the EIC has created in its hunger for innovation. The previous system relied on numerical scorings to rank companies but the new system does not provide any possibility to rank the applicants.

Instead of handing out numerical scores from 1.00 to 15.00 per company, the EIC replaced this process with a binary grading (GO or NO GO). This has removed the resolution of the process since the EIC cannot introduce rankings and thresholds to account for the limited budgets.

If the current EIC Accelerator produces 500 companies for the interview but cannot differentiate between them then all companies have to attend the interview, thereby reducing the selection rates. In the previous EIC Accelerator, all projects selected for the interview could be ranked so it was possible to only allow the top 50 companies to attend the interview, thereby retaining a high selection rate.

Where Are We Going?

With the current process, there is a chance that success rates in the interview could drop into the single digits even if the EIC schedules longer interview weeks for Step 3. It is also jeopardizing the integrity of the interview sessions since the quality of jury members will be reduced by increasing their numbers and the randomness encountered in the interview can present long-term reputational damage to the EIC.

While there is no obvious solution to this problem, it is essential for the EIC to rank the applicants in some manner since it will otherwise erode the quality of the evaluation process in the long-term (see Application Process).

The best short-term approach would be to gather statistics on the rejection reasons in Step 3 and enforce them in Step 1 so that the number of applicants can be reduced early.

If teams are too small, their last funding round was too big, their industry is not attractive or other common rejection reasons are encountered then the EIC should disqualify them in Step 1 and not allow them to reach Step 3 just to be disappointed later on (see Who Should Not Apply).

The goal of the EIC should not be to market the EIC Accelerator broadly and have as many applicants as possible but to only attract the applicants that the Step 3 jury will be willing to fund. This should be reflected by the evaluation process whereas Step 1 should filter out companies based on the current criteria but also based on additional numerical criteria such as Full-Time Employees (FTE), current fund-raising, burn rate, customer traction, revenues and other simple parameters.

This article was last modified on May 11, 2023 @ 14:19

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) under Horizon Europe are:

  • Step 1 (short proposal)
    • open now
  • Step 2 (business plan)
    • 1st cut-off: (early 2024)
    • 2nd cut-off: -
    • 3rd cut-off: -
    • 4th cut-off: -
  • Step 3 (interview)
    • 1st cut-off: -
    • 2nd cut-off: -
    • 3rd cut-off: -
    • 4th cut-off: January 29th to February 9th 2024 (extended again)

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:

A Quick FTO Guide for EIC Accelerator Applicants in a Rush

2023 Budget Allocations for EIC Pathfinder, Transition and Accelerator

Developing the Unique Selling Points (USP) for the EIC Accelerator

Explaining the Resubmission Process for the EIC Accelerator

A Short but Comprehensive Explanation of the EIC Accelerator

EIC Accelerator Success Cases

Deciding Between EIC Pathfinder, Transition and Accelerator

A Winning Candidate for the EIC Accelerator

EIC Accelerator Interview Preparation Process: Scripting the Pitch (Part 1)