The Biggest Mistakes When Applying to the EIC Accelerator (SME Instrument Phase 2)

Every once in a while, a company is reaching out to us with a rejected EIC Accelerator grant (SME Instrument Phase 2) application which they have prepared themselves but were unsuccessful with. Very rarely, such self-prepared applications are professionally written and reach a high score (i.e. above 13 out of 15) whereas, in most cases, these applications are well below scores of 12 and even below 10 in some cases.

Some common themes can be noticed when reviewing such applications and this article presents a list of the most common reasons why self-prepared applications have low scores. Usually, a lack of product innovation, an unexperienced team or the company itself are not the biggest reason for the low rating but the quality of the grant writing.

Of course, the innovative nature of the applying Small and Medium-Sized Enterprise (SME) or startup is important as well but the eligibility requirements from the European Commission (EC) and European Innovation Council (EIC) are relatively broad and inclusive enough as to not discount most projects.

Reason #1: Viewing the template as a questionnaire

The official EIC Accelerator grant application template (see Deviations from the Template) should be followed only as a general guideline and be used to develop and structure an application that is comprehensive and unique to the applying company. It should not be viewed as a questionnaire which is simply answered with a few general text snippets in the hopes that the reader will read between the lines.

None of the text found in the original template, outside of the headlines, should appear in the written application (i.e. none of the posed questions should be placed inside the proposal). The same goes for footnotes, guidelines, tips, abbreviations and rules which can be entirely omitted from the final proposal. All of the content found in the template acts as a guide for the applicant and does not need to be reproduced for the evaluator.

In addition, the official EU template is (intentionally) scarcely formatted and lacks guidelines on figures, tables and photos which is why it should by no means be viewed as a style guide or guide book for an EIC Accelerator application.

Reason #2: Addressing sections too shallowly

Imagine having a conversation with someone who only answers with “yes” or “no”. Every person would immediately lose interest in this interaction since a conversation is supposed to flow with each spoken sentence leading to a multitude of other sentences. In the same way, the European Commissions’s evaluation and review experts expect applicants to elaborate on each point which is why the writer should focus on telling a complete and impressive story.

In the end, the EU is looking for high-risk and high-reward unicorns which makes excitement and passion, in written form, a must for every application.

If the template asks for the timing of the innovation, why not elaborate as to why the current point in time is perfect to invest? Why is the market timing perfect? Why not describe the timing of the customer needs or competitive differentiators?

The key to avoiding this mistake is to be comprehensive but not too wordy. To add useful and valuable content that directly addresses the posed question but also addresses the criteria found in the Evaluation Summary Report (ESR) which presents the grant proposal rating (see Using the Evaluation Summary Report).

Reason #3: Not viewing the proposal as a story

The proposal must be a very well written business plan but also tell an exciting story. As such, there might be a variety of sections that seem unrelated (i.e. the intellectual property and the key performance indicators) but they should all be connected in some way so that the proposal makes sense and is consistent (see Identifying a Broad Vision for an EIC Accelerator Project).

It is also necessary to have a wholesome approach to proposal writing in order to fill in the gaps between sections (i.e. transitions) so that each section naturally flows into the next one. The proposal template might omit certain aspects or only ask for them vaguely instead of directly requesting them, i.e. a comprehensive introduction which could give context to the innovation, information on the companies financial health or other items commonly found in a business plan.

The final grant proposal should stand on its own (i.e. not rely on the template to make sense) and answer all the questions of an investor or Venture Capitalist (VC) while also being an interesting read. A great story has a beginning, a middle and an end which should be considered for the entire application (i.e. the problem, the solution and the roadmap) so that it builds trust with the reader and does not appear too shallow.

Reason #4: Omitting important sections that were not in the template

The EIC Accelerator grant proposal template does not account for the vast individuality between projects and applying companies. Describing the commercial strategy for a Business-to-Business (B2B) versus a Business-to-Consumer (B2C) project will require a different set of assumptions while a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) subscription model will be different from one-off hardware sales.

The EU cannot account for each case individually which is why the template is very general. The grant writer has to account for this and understand that the template is vague by design so that each applicant proactively elaborates on the respective sections according to their specific case.

The level of detail put into an application and the degree to which sections are described will also immediately tell the evaluator how well a certain project is thought through which, in turn, will dramatically affect the proposal score.

Reason #5: Not taking enough time for the writing

Every applicant should at least leave 50 days to prepare a great application and under no circumstances rush the process. In very rare cases, a company can prepare a competitive and professional application in only a few weeks but this is usually reserved for a case in which extensive business plans have already been written beforehand (incl. prepared financial projections, development plans and budgeting).

One of the most common reasons why companies receive very low scores is that the application was prepared in a rush (i.e. in under a week) without properly reading the Work Programme and template as well as treating the application as a low-effort lottery ticket and not as a well-crafted financing proposal.

Reason #6: Not understanding the evaluation criteria

The evaluators will grade the proposal based on a certain checklist of criteria and not only rate them based on their overall impression (i.e. the ESR criteria – see here). All of these individual points (i.e. criteria) will need to become an integral part of the written application even if some are entirely absent from the template itself.

It is useful to first read the evaluation criteria and then to read the EIC Accelerator template since both documents are an important part of a successful grant application. This attention to detail alone will already place the applicant ahead of the competition since most companies are not aware of the difference between the template and the evaluation scoring.

It is common, especially for first-time applicants, to not understand how proposals are graded and to mistakenly view the official template as the only guiding document.

Reason #7: Not being persistent enough

It could be that the proposal, while having been rejected, is not a lost cause by default but only needs more time. Maybe the initial score was above 13 (out of the maximum 15) and the application simply needs a few useful additions in order to reach the threshold for the interview invitation (i.e. EIC Accelerator pitch week in Brussels).

If so, there is currently no limitation as to how many times an application can be submitted which allows each applicant to edit and improve the proposal for a re-submission with improved results.

The success rates for the highly competitive EIC Accelerator can oscillate between 1% and 7%, depending on the specific deadline and occasional pandemic, while the scores for unchanged resubmissions can vary as well, depending on the randomly chosen reviewers.

From experience, it usually takes multiple attempts in order to receive the grant financing which is why no company should give up too early.

Reason #8: No effort is made for the annexes

While Document 1 is unquestionably the most important part of the EIC Accelerator application, attention should also be placed on the annexes, namely the pitch deck, the financial documentation and the general annexes (see Software Choices for the Annexes). While these might receive less attention during the evaluation process, they will greatly influence the overall impression of the application and, in addition, the pitch deck cannot be changed once step 1 is achieved.

Making the annexes look professional and well-designed takes little effort compared to writing Document 1 and it should not be neglected in order to maximize the applications success chances.

Summary

The biggest reasons as to why self-prepared applications receive low scores are:

  1. Viewing the template as a questionnaire: The template is only a guide and should not appear in the proposal
  2. Addressing sections too shallowly: Every section must show a high level  of  depth
  3. Not viewing the proposal as a story: Good writing over cryptic brevity
  4. Omitting important sections that were not in the template: Customizing the proposal to the unique project
  5. Not taking enough time for the writing: Attention to detail takes time – at least 50 days
  6. Not understanding the evaluation criteria: Reading what the scoring will be based on – the ESR (see here)
  7. Not being persistent enough: Re-submissions are key
  8. No effort is made for the annexes: Making every proposal document as perfect as possible (see here)

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: