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“The programme helps SMEs understand how they can develop their own markets"

Ahead of the Eurostars event on October 13 in Brussels, Eurostars programme implementation manager Michel Vanavermaete talks about the added value of the programme, its position in the current SME funding landscape and how he sees its evolution in the future.

There are many innovation funding programmes targeted specifically at SMEs on national and European level. What is the specific added value of Eurostars?

Eurostars has an enormous added value for SMEs. Apart from the obvious advantage of getting public funding support, there are three major axes: 1. through the programme they get the possibility to innovate by cooperating with other SMEs, and get technical expertise from universities or research institutes as well as support from their suppliers or customers which can be big companies. 2. The programme “coaches” SMEs in international cooperation. Cultures, business models and the ways to do business are very different in Europe, and in today’s global market it is very important for companies to understand these differences and to be able to work together. 3. The programme helps them to see how they can develop their own markets, and in many cases this means developing an international market.

Where does Eurostars position itself in the existing SME funding landscape?

With many different programmes supporting SMEs, it doesn’t make their lives easier. They often don’t know where to go to in the first place. Therefore it is very important to have a good understanding and communication on the different programmes and their differences.

Compared to Eurostars, national programmes focus on the development of companies in a certain country only, while the SME instrument or other European programmes usually provide support at another level– they are mostly for companies that already have a lot of innovations, and are about to enter the market on a bigger scale. Each of these programmes has its role and place – I would say anything that can support the competitiveness of European companies is very important – but a better identification is certainly needed.

Could you tell us how Eurostars was born?

The idea for Eurostars started in 2006; up to then, the national funding support decision was taken by the national authorities. Within an international cooperation project, this can lead to different decisions in the different countries where project participants come from. Large companies or universities are used to this, but SMEs can’t have this lack of clarity, synchronisation and common decision. They need a fast decision that is common to all national funding programmes.

So the idea was to set up a programme where the decision on the quality of a project is taken centrally, which leads automatically to national financing opportunities depending only on national budget capacities. The European Commission said that if EUREKA member states can come to this kind of joint cooperation and set up a joint programme, they were ready to participate financially.

This is why and how Eurostars was born; it started in 2008 as one of the first programmes dedicated specifically to SME-driven projects and particularly to SMEs with the ability to innovate. Due to the enormous demand for projects, it was continued under Eurostars-2 with more money, more countries, and participation of third countries like Canada, South Africa and South Korea.

What has been the biggest success of the programme so far?

We have certainly been able to answer the demand of SMEs, in the sense that the decision process on project quality is fast, and the success rate is high (about 1 out of 4 project applications financed). We have analysed the impact of these projects on SMEs and found they have a big impact on competitiveness and job creation in the participating SMEs. The projects have also given important opportunities to access new markets.

But there is also a second big success of the programme:  the excellent cooperation of national funding agencies. This was not easy due to the same obstacles that SMEs face when they want to go on an international market – languages, cultures, and policies can be different; however, there was a lot of commitment from the highest levels in the national authorities, European Parliament, Council and Commission to making this programme a success story.

How do you see the evolution of the programme in the future?

Today, the cooperation and industrial competition within Europe is no more a difficulty for European SMEs. People have learnt about the different rules in Europe and the European Union has eased and regulated these exchanges between European countries. To keep a strong economic position, the European companies and particularly SMEs have to face the global market and therefore a global competition. Therefore continuously improve competitiveness by innovating every day, learn the abroad markets and cultures by cooperating with organisations from abroad countries, collaborate within Europe to compete together on the global market.

It is important that there is a strong cooperation of national and European authorities to support innovation – Eurostars has shown that this is possible. It is also important that thanks to the leverage effect and combination, synchronisation of national, regional and European financial means, Europe’s investment in innovation becomes much more visible in other continents. 

Are you interested in learning more about the programme? Join us for our Eurostars Event 2016 in Brussels (13/10/2016) to meet Members of the European Parliament and the European Commission or in Amsterdam (12/10/2016) for B2B Matchmaking session