The EU launches a new funding call for experimental innovation support programmes

By Albert Bravo-Biosca and James Phipps on Thursday, 9 November 2017.

We don’t typically write blogs to announce new European funding programmes, but the H2020 2018-2020 work programme just approved by the European Commission has good news for everyone who wants to see innovation agencies across Europe becoming more experimental and evidence-based.

The Commission has launched a new call to fund experimental pilot projects undertaken by regional and national agencies that run innovation support programmes for SMEs and startups. The call has two strands:

  • Smaller grants (up to €60.000) for projects which aim to investigate, including through small-scale RCTs, either the feasibility of a promising idea for a brand new SME innovation support scheme ('proof of concept'), or test different options of significantly revising an existing support scheme. 
  • Larger grants (up to €500.000) for large-scale experimental pilot projects which aim to test on a larger scale, with RCTs, new SME innovation support schemes. The Commission is looking for proposals to test promising scalable innovative new schemes in support of innovation in SMEs to provide clear evidence of their impact.

The deadline for the call is 27 March 2018, so now is the time to start thinking about new ideas to test, whether small tweaks to existing programmes or radically new support schemes.

Where to start? 

Knowing what can be tested, and how it can be tested, is not always easy. This is why at IGL we’ve been developing, with the support of our partners, a series of open-access resources that we hope will be useful to anyone interested in becoming more experimental. 

If you need inspiration, check our online Trials Database, which collates information on trials from around the world focused on innovation, entrepreneurship and business growth. You can also look at some of the projects that we’ve funded through the IGL Grants programme or developed with our partners. Our blog series also summarises many lessons emerging from ongoing and completed trials, and the journey that some governments have followed to become more experimental.

At the IGL2017 conference last June we launched our online Experimentation Toolkit, designed to help you develop your experimental pilot and understand what is feasible and what is not. From rapid fire trials that test the immediate impact of a tweak in a programme, through to the economic evaluation of a large intervention, the toolkit should give you all the answers or point you in the right direction (if not, let us know!). You can also read our RCT guide, that provides a step-by-step explanation on how to do trials in this policy space. 

It is often helpful to work with university researchers when designing a trial, but finding the right research partner can be a challenge. The IGL Research Network has over 85 researchers from some of the best universities in Europe and the US. All of them have one thing in common - their interest to collaborate with public organisations to set up trials that help us understand what drives innovation and how best to support it. So do not hesitate to get in touch with them to explore a collaboration. 

Now is the time

At IGL we believe that innovation and entrepreneurship policy needs to become more experimental and evidence-based, and together with the Kauffman Foundation and the Argidius Foundation, we’ve been running a small-scale experimentation fund, the IGL Grants programme, for the past four years precisely with this aim. 

With over 30 trials supported, the programme has shown both the feasibility of trials in this space as well as demand from both practitioners and researchers. But to achieve systemic change, we need a larger push, with more funders embracing this agenda and helping to push it forward.

This is why IGL has been calling for a pilot European experimentation fund for innovation and growth since 2013, when we wrote a first proposal setting out why it was important and what it could do. 

Therefore, we couldn't be more pleased to see the European Commission taking up this idea and launching, for the first time, a call to fund experimental trials on innovation support programmes. 

Our hope is that this will encourage public support organisations to run trials, changing behaviours across Europe and contributing to seed a culture of experimentation here and around the globe. 

We would like to advance towards a system that not only generates and tests new policy ideas, but also maximises the effectiveness of public policy by ensuring the most successful are fully scaled and widely adopted. 

But for this to happen, it will be paramount that a sufficient number of proposals are submitted. Given the short timelines, with the call closing in March 2018, and the novelty of the approach, there is a substantial risk that only a small number of projects are submitted. So far, this is a one-off call. For it to become a regular one, innovation agencies across Europe need to act now.