Technology Readiness Levels and the EIC Accelerator (SME Instrument)

Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) are a useful way of classifying the current stage of an innovation or technology. They have originally been developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) many decades ago but have persisted as a popular tool used by institutions such as the European Commission (EC) to structure technologies with strong research and development components.

The technical TRL descriptions are rather vague since technologies can differ greatly in their underlying principles (i.e. a B2C fashion platform vs. a rocket) but must adhere to a single TRL hierarchy. They are generally numbered from 1 to 9 (i.e. both the NASA and the EC versions) and have a distinct description for each individual level.

The EC is defining TRL’s as follows:

  1. Basic principles observed
  2. Technology concept formulated
  3. Experimental proof of concept
  4. Technology validated in lab
  5. Technology validated in relevant environment (industrially relevant environment in the case of key enabling technologies)
  6. Technology demonstrated in relevant environment (industrially relevant environment in the case of key enabling technologies)
  7. System prototype demonstration in operational environment
  8. System complete and qualified
  9. Actual system proven in operational environment (competitive manufacturing in the case of key enabling technologies; or in space)

whereas NASA is formulating the TRL’s in the following way:

  1. Basic principles observed and reported
  2. Technology concept and/or application formulated
  3. Analytical and experimental critical function and/or characteristic proof-of-concept
  4. Component and/or breadboard validation in laboratory environment
  5. Component and/or breadboard validation in relevant environment
  6. System/subsystem model or prototype demonstration in a relevant environment (ground or space)
  7. System prototype demonstration in a space environment
  8. Actual system completed and “flight qualified” through test and demonstration (ground or space)
  9. Actual system “flight-proven” through successful mission operations

Both descriptions are very similar but they can be difficult to understand due to their ambiguous language and generalisations. For that matter, it is worth reading the detailed NASA descriptions (i.e. software and hardware differentiation) since they provide significantly more information compared to the EC definitions (see NASA PDF).

Still, the TRL’s can be even further simplified since the detail requested in an EIC Accelerator (SME Instrument Phase 2) application is not very elaborate and the descriptions regarding the current TRL6 can be very individual. It is also useful for consultants, European startups or professional grant proposal writers to have a more simplified version of TRL’s at hand which can be rapidly applied to more diverse technologies or business models.

The TRL’s are generally following a progression from an idea (i.e. identifying the technological principle) over the testing of components in a variety of environments to the complete and proven end-result. This process can be simplified in such a way that it can easily include a pure software innovation, a hardware production process or a new kind of business model (i.e. these are all eligible for funding under the EIC Accelerator).

A different way to formulate the TRL’s could be:

  1. Idea stage
  2. First designs
  3. Principle tested (analytical)
  4. Components validated (simplified environment)
  5. Components validated (simulated environment)
  6. System validated (simulated environment)
  7. System validated (real environment)
  8. System complete
  9. System complete and proven

In this list, the system describes the complete technology (i.e. hardware or software) which consist of multiple components (i.e. features or parts). The environment refers to the testing conditions with simplified (i.e. non-realistic), simulated (i.e. replicating real-life conditions) and real (i.e. in actual field applications) being key differentiations.

The list above is not an official classification by the EC or NASA but is a different way of thinking about TRL’s while still adhering to the general stages provided in the official definitions. In the end, it is at the proposal authors discretion to decide how the current stage (i.e. TRL6) is defined and justified for a successful application. These justifications should at all times closely follow the questions provided in the official EIC Accelerator template.

In summary, it is useful for applicants to have a broader view of technology levels and not get discouraged if certain keywords do not directly fit a certain innovation. If you enjoyed this article then please feel free to also read the articles on how to choose a good project for the EIC Accelerator (Choosing a Good Project), a more general description on how TRL levels are considered in an application (TRL’s for the EIC Accelerator) and this help for the proposal design (Design Resources).

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 June 16th 2021 and October 6th 2021 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: