Steering the EIC Accelerator: Lessons Learned from the Pilot Program

The EIC Accelerator funding (with blended financing option) by the European Innovation Council (EIC) and European Commission (EC) is providing startups and Small- and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SME) with up to €2.5 million in grants and €15 million in equity financing per project (€17.5 million total).

The program is often supported by professional writers, freelancers or consultants to navigate the complex proposal template and EIC requirements.

This article presents a summary of the 2022 EIC Accelerator report and is discussing insights regarding the success of the pilot program leading up to 2020.

Note: An explanation of the EIC Accelerator terminology can be found here: Explaining the EIC Accelerator.

1. The EIC Fund

1.1 Delays

“It needs to considerably speed up the process leading to the signature of the financing agreement. In the pilot phase, delays were due to the novelty of the instrument, both for the EC and the beneficiaries, whereas in the current programming period there were legal difficulties in transitioning the Fund under Horizon Europe.”

The current status of the EIC Fund, with all its troubles and delays, is on display in a recent 2022 impact report on the EIC Accelerator (see How Deep Is Your Tech?), the EC website (here) and in a recent media article (here). While over 90 investment decisions have been made, the funding has not reached the bank accounts of beneficiaries in most cases.

While grant payments have been made effectively, albeit with some delays, the equity investments have been hampered, likely due to a combination of structural difficulties and the inexperience encountered by the EU operatives.

Of course, including the beneficiaries as a reason for the delays is not entirely accurate since the delays were caused by the EIC, primarily.

1.2 Communication

“Stakeholders’ expectations about the benefits and implications of receiving the Fund’s support could be managed by further communication through national contact points, SME and start-up associations.”

The EIC has historically struggled with properly communicating what the EIC Accelerator is seeking and what applicants should expect. This is likely due to the nature of public institutions that often prioritize political agendas and communications over clear and pragmatic advice.

As an example, it is in the interest of the EIC to communicate how it funds disruptive innovations that the private market is ignoring but it is not in their interest to admit that the evaluation process often prioritizes low-risk investments, even going as far as giving grants to companies that received €20M+ from private markets just days before (see Breaking the Rules).

The EIC has even listed a portfolio company as an example of a supported centaur (i.e. €100M+ valuation) even though the company likely had this status before the EIC funding was obtained, according to public data.

Since the EIC has encountered difficulties in clearly communicating with future applicants, likely due to potential conflicts with political appearances, it is increasing its reliance on National Contact Points (NCP). The EIC has already made data sharing on the platform mandatory for all applicants and NCP’s often have access to beneficiary lists before results are officially published.

To communicate more clearly, the EIC should publish detailed but anonymous information regarding the rejection reasons of applicants especially in the interview stage. If the evaluation process is in fact consistent, then it should be possible to give superior guidance directly.

As an example, if companies are rejected because of their small teams, then there should be a clear cut-off that applies to all companies. If a company is rejected because they have raised €15 million just before the interview, then this should be consistent among applicants as well.

1.3 Conflicting Agendas

“A contentious point on the Fund structure pivots around the interpretation of two eligibility rules: non-bankability and co-investment. The two criteria respond to the need to identify investment-worthy projects with traction from private investment, but that cannot be financed through traditional debt instruments. The first criterion addresses the lack of additionality observed in the SMEI and reflects the need to ensure that the Fund is not competing with the market by supporting projects that financial intermediaries could have financed. The second criterion ensures that market players do not see the recipient companies as publicly subsidised entities. It also guarantees that the European Commission remains a dormant investor in the company, till it may exit, due to the entrance of new investors.”

In the previous EIC Accelerator pilot phase, the non-bankability criterion was still present but it has now been removed from both the official EIC Work Programme and from the evaluation criteria. The term was used to refer to companies that cannot receive funding from private sources such as banks or institutional investors since they are too high risk.

Regardless, the current proposal template is still asking all applicants to explain why they need funding from the EIC which is consistent with the removed non-bankability rule.

The independent report points out that forcing companies to obtain co-investments for the EIC Fund on their own opposes the narrative of being solely dependent on the EIC. Upon closer investigation, there is a narrow role for the EIC to play even if a company is non-bankable since the grant and equity components can de-risk the project for outside investors.

In reality, the EIC has not honored that role and, by diluting the non-bankability criterion, has allowed itself to provide grants for companies that have easy access to private capital (see Investing in Well-Funded Companies).

It is interesting to see that the independent investigators were able to predict such an outcome based on 2020 data. The EIC had to decide between risk (non-bankability) and success (co-financing, private investor interest) and it chose the latter.

2. Gender

2.1 Changing the Goal to Reach the Goal

“The EIC Pilot has made commendable efforts in trying to achieve more balanced participation, especially for women.”

The EIC has set mandatory targets for female participation in the EIC Accelerator even during its pilot period but it is unclear to which degree they have increased the number of female-led applicants as opposed to the number of female-led winners.

In 2020 and prior, the EIC used different thresholds for male and female participants which effectively increased the difficulty for male while reducing the difficulty for female CEO’s. The EIC has further loosened its criteria on what a female-led company means and expanded the definition to also include CTO and CSO positions instead of just the CEO position.

This is an interesting development since changing the definition of the goal is not the same as reaching the goal.

It is also unclear if such outcome-driven goals will benefit future female founders or if they create the wrong incentives and hurt the long-term diversity of the ecosystem.

Increasing the number of applicants from widening countries and the number of applying female CEO’s could be a more sustainable option rather than changing the definition of the goal or forcing certain outcomes. Additionally, the EIC could subsidize consulting fee’s for female CEO’s or implement similar programs to encourage an increase in applicants instead of distorting evaluation criteria.

2.2 Eroding DeepTech

“Nevertheless, identifying attraction and inclusiveness as the programme’s KPIs creates possible conflicts with the award criteria for project selection and in particular with excellence in science and innovation.”

Interestingly, the above quote from the independent report was given twice in the document, verbatim. It highlights the general conflict of impact investments or Environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) policies since they can erode investment decisions.

Investors generally have to prioritize profits and shareholder value but introducing an additional target can jeopardize such priorities. This is true for both the focus on DeepTech and gender targets since they present impacts outside of financial success.

For the EIC, it is unavoidable to have such conflicts since it is not a typical investor but focuses on difficult-to-finance and high-impact DeepTech projects. As such, profits are already being jeopardized.

Introducing gender targets to this equation is further eroding potential profits since it presents additional restrictions on investment decisions.

In the end, something will have to give since the EIC must now:

  1. Maximize success for political appearances (i.e. unicorns, centaurs, follow-up funding)
  2. Focus on high-risk DeepTech
  3. Increase female participation

Of these three targets, the second goal of high-risk DeepTech investments is the most endangered since it is very easy to sweep inconsistencies under the rug (i.e. Breaking the Rules) while advertising success and diversity.

This has already been predicted by the independent report based on 2020 data from the EIC Accelerator Pilot.

Ironically, the incentives created by the EIC might hurt the DeepTech ecosystem in the long term because it is unlikely that any institutional investor will take more risks than the EIC. If the EIC Fund avoids high-risk projects to prioritize diversity and fast success then it might send the wrong signals to private markets.

This would render the advertised €2.6 of private capital for every €1 invested by the EIC a crowding-out of innovation funds into regular investments rather than a crowding-in of private capital into high-risk DeepTech.

3. Industries

The projects funded under the EIC Accelerator Pilot are aligned with the general focus on technology-driven projects with strong representations of optics, robotics, energy, health and climate tech.

4. Evaluation

4.1 Luck and Randomness

“The outcomes of the evaluation process were often unpredictable, especially for the Accelerator. In interviews, participants reported a sense of randomness in project selection. Some beneficiaries reported that it was possible to succeed with a resubmitted proposal including minimal or no changes at all. This fact has somehow undermined the credibility of the evaluation process and created a sense of haphazardness in project selection where the “luck factor” determined the difference between a selected and a non-selected high-quality proposal. Feedback provided by the evaluators was not considered sufficient to improve rejected proposals. At the same time, case study feedback on the jury panel was mixed. Whereas in some instances, the selected teams were impressed by the competence of the jury members, in other cases, they were left disappointed by the insufficient understanding of the more technical aspects.”

Unfortunately, the luck factor and randomness in the evaluation process have remained intact throughout the entire EIC Accelerator program. It is still a reality that companies are rejected or funded with inconsistent feedback. A company can be rejected because it raised €10 million in funding while a company can be funded even though it just raised €30 million.

Since there is no accountability for the EIC regarding the consistency of the process and the rejected applicants are generally not incentivized to make their rejections public, it is often only consultancies and professional writers who collect such case studies.

Still, the feedback from evaluators has greatly improved after 2020 and it is a positive sign that the EIC is rising to the ambitious challenge of reinventing itself.

4.2 Third Time’s a Charm

“In the case studies, 9 of the 15 projects analysed required 3 to 5 attempts before being funded. Similar feedback was also collected through the survey and the interview programme.”

The current evaluation process is restricting re-submissions but, back in 2020, it was still possible to re-submit proposals indefinitely. Even though the evaluation process has changed dramatically since 2021, it is still a reality that funded projects will encounter rejections along the way.

Considering that the majority of projects required 3 to 5 submissions means that the process is too random to deliver consistent and desirable results. Unfortunately, this likewise means that there are many projects that are eligible for funding but were unlucky in the evaluator or jury selections.

The EIC could aim to mitigate such issues if they were to assess which evaluators and jury members provided wrong assessments.

As an example, a NO GO grading by an evaluator in Step 1 or Step 2 for a project that would succeed in Step 3 can be represented as a strike for that evaluator. In the same way, a GO grading for a project that would be rejected twice in the interview can likewise be represented as a strike.

The same can be implemented for individual jury members who reject a project in the first interview which is then funded in the second interview with no meaningful changes.

This would allow a degree of communication between the Step 1 and 2 remote evaluators and the Step 3 jury members who have very different backgrounds and funding criteria.

There should likewise be a degree of consistency among all evaluation steps regarding rejection reasons. If a company is rejected for a specific factor then the evaluators and jury cannot fund projects that exhibit the same factor (i.e. team size, amount of funding, etc.).

This would reduce the luck factor.

4.3 High-Risk, Low-Reward

“Low success rates were not commensurate with the efforts required by the application process. Oversubscription was driven by the programme’s success and popularity, but also by a large number of re-submissions, with more than one out of 10 applicants applying more than five times between 2018 and 2020. Two-thirds of the Accelerator participants were successful at their first, second or third submission.”

Figure: Funded applicants that had to submit multiple times.

Since resubmissions have now been restricted, this graphic is generally cut after the first two attempts which shows that there are likely a variety of eligible applicants that are being rejected. This is aggravated by the tendency of most companies to lose interest over time which leads to an even higher number of companies that could have been funded with more persistence.

4.4 A Fair Lottery

“The fully-fledged EIC has significantly improved the EIC application process. According to [consultants], the new application system saves considerable time and effort for both the implementing agency and the applicants. Moreover, the new system is likely to favour the best applicants by reducing the “noise” of unsuitable applications that also contributed to reducing the programme attractiveness by keeping unnecessarily low success rates.”

The confirmation by consultants that the application process saves time is quite odd since the system established in 2021 is significantly longer and requires more effort than the 2020 system. It has increased the reliance of applicants on consultants greatly since the time to prepare an application now takes multiple months instead of weeks.

While success rates started out higher than in 2020, they are gradually falling and have recently fallen below 5%, thereby reaching similarly low levels compared to the old system. Over time, the success rates might become as competitive as the previous EIC Accelerator Pilot.

4.5 The Pitch

“Finally, success in the interview requires personal skills (e.g., English fluency, presentation and communication skills) that are difficult to acquire in a short time.”

There is likewise a strong likeability factor in the interviews where the interviewers will be more inclined to fund a project if they like the team. Agreeable and friendly speakers are often favored over disagreeable speakers which is rather unfortunate since many of the great entrepreneurs of our era, if not all, were highly disagreeable (see EIC Accelerator Interview Preparation).

5. Pay-to-Play

“More than 70% of survey respondents stated that they hired a consultant to prepare an application for the EIC.”

The EIC Accelerator is time-consuming, complex and obscure. Applicants generally start by reading the official EIC communications but, due to their focus on promotional materials, this often leads prospective applicants to have more questions than answers.

Unfortunately, this fact can also be exploited by consultancies since many applicants are greatly overestimating their chances of success based on their review of the EIC guidelines regarding innovation, high risk, a lack of funding and DeepTech definitions.

6. The Reality

6.1 Does the EIC Accelerator Work At All?

“The majority of Accelerator projects included in the case studies showed progress with their core technology assets but with no evidence yet of scaling up. At the time this evaluation was carried out, almost all projects achieved a TRL between 8 and 9. Two projects were expected to licence production and four to achieve production on a larger scale.”

The EIC Accelerator is designed for the purpose of scaling up disruptive innovations. The guidelines are clear in that TRL8 has to be reached after a grant project and an equity injection should propel the project to TRL9 (see Technology Readiness Levels).

Defining the TRL’s is often very subjective but if, after 2 years, no evidence of scaling has been observed then this could be a negative sign.

“Case study analysis showed that projects progressed in upgrading and improving their core technology assets, but there is no evidence yet on commercialisation, although some companies reported that they were ready to scale up production and staff or to licence production.”

In contrast, this lack of scaling is likely a positive as opposed to a negative result since it shows that these projects are, in fact, difficult to execute and require extensive development times. If the EIC Accelerator funds high-risk and disruptive innovations then this is exactly the result one would expect. Most DeepTech projects cannot be completed in 2 years which is why they are called DeepTech.

DeepTech will require more time than a SaaS business that can scale vertically in a matter of months. What is ironic is that this lack of scaling is seen as negative while it should be viewed as a good first step since the TRL8 levels were effectively reached.

The EIC generally expects 2-year projects but this should not be the norm. It should be aware that DeepTech projects can take 5 years to reach TRL9 and should inform the jury and remote evaluators that the length of the project should have no impact on the evaluation, especially in the final interview.

Now, the EIC has 2 general options:

(1) Improve their support for commercialization such as custom business coaches who are industry authorities, helping companies to gain more customers at TRL6-7 and adjusting the EIC communication to focus on commercial/scaling strategies and not on vague concepts such as disruption, innovation and diversity which are not helping companies to succeed.

(2) Abandon DeepTech investments and fund companies that are already scaling to gain success cases quickly.

Unfortunately, it seems like the EIC is gradually moving toward the second option.

6.2 Do EIC Portfolio Companies Grow?

“Based on Dealroom data, in July 2021, 27 Accelerator beneficiaries reached a valuation of more than €100M. They represent 7% of the sample on which data are available in Dealroom (N=410) and 4% of all Accelerator beneficiaries (N=768).”

Such a result should not be negatively assessed. EIC Accelerator beneficiaries can have valuations as low as €1 million at TRL6 since there are few restrictions regarding the project maturity, company age and team size.

“Around 30% of the companies receiving a grant in 2018 saw their employees grow, on average, at a rate above 20% in the three following years”

The problem with any KPI introduced by the EIC is that it will become the focus irrespective of the EIC’s mission. Diversity, gender ratios, valuations, global scaling and similar metrics are all used by the EIC to assess companies but this will, in the long term, only encourage the evaluators to select companies that already score high in these areas instead of helping SME’s to reach that target or to foster innovation.

KPI’s are important but they need to be part of the project execution (i.e. actively supporting business growth) rather than the application process since it will otherwise exclude many startup companies that are genuinely at TRL6 rather than TRL8-9 companies pretending to be.

6.3 Are the EIC Accelerator and the EIC Fund Actually Supporting DeepTech?

“Literature shows that deep tech VCs need to work with a 10-15-year lifetime investment. The profitability of equity investments also tends to be negative in the first years (generally up to five) because the investee company is not able to yield a positive return.”

The romance of DeepTech is well presented by the EIC through unicorns (€1 billion valuation), centaurs (€100 million valuation), disruption and events where much is said about innovation but the reality looks different.

Disruption starts at a point where very few, if anyone at all, can see the vision or wants to invest. If they do recognize a superstar in the making and want to invest, they usually do so with smaller amounts since the risk remains too high.

Peter Thiel saw the immense potential of Facebook in 2004 but only invested $500,000 into the company regardless. He understood that success will take more validation and he can always invest more later.

Negative profits for 5 years are to be expected in DeepTech but the EIC’s selection criteria seem to favor commercial success more and more after every submission cycle. Even the mandatory financial template that the EIC uses only accounts for 5 years of predictions.

According to DeepTech literature, no company should break even during this time but the EIC Jury would not fund such companies.

It would be beneficial for applicants if the EIC would publish statistics regarding the financials submitted by EIC beneficiaries and provide information regarding break-even-points, annual growth rates, start-end-revenues and margins to assess what the EIC is looking for and how much DeepTech they are comfortable with.

6.4 What Happens To Rejectees?

“Around 60% of high-scoring declined Accelerator proposals were implemented at a smaller scale, with less substantial results and benefits, resorting to private financing (business angels, friends or family, or venture capital investors) or a combination of private and public funds. The absence of alternative forms of funding is the most common reason why declined proposals were not implemented.”

This is quite interesting since it demonstrates that there is a role to play for the EIC and that even the high-scoring companies (i.e. above the funding threshold but rejected) will struggle to attract financing and are therefore truly non-bankable.

Through the EIC Fund and its pressure on companies to demonstrate extensive traction (i.e. customers, signed contracts, LOI’s) as well as source co-investors for the EIC Fund even before the project is granted, the EIC is clearly starting to align with private markets rather than the other way around.

One statistic that would be an interesting and insightful addition to this report would be to identify which companies have raised financing right before obtaining the EIC Accelerator grant or those who have been part of a due diligence process leading up to the funding.

Such statistics would reveal the dark number of how many companies could have succeeded without the EIC and can be contrasted to the number of projects that are not implemented without EIC support.

This article was last modified on Apr 17, 2023 @ 19:57

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)