EIC Accelerator Writing Tips - The Introduction
DISCLAIMER: Everything I say is just my personal and very subjective opinion, and my focus is helping SMEs to maximise their scoring while ensuring that the proposal is aligned with their strategy. My motivation is that I see many SMEs "decoupling" their proposals from their actual business goals and strategy. In those cases I feel that they are committing a potentially dangerous mistake. Firstly, they are investing valuable time in an artificial plan hoping they will be to handle this lack of sync, but in my experience, this MIGHT become a strong distraction at both the strategic and tactical level. Secondly, the worst consequences MIGHT happen if they actually obtain the grant, because then, they will be forced to invest even more resources AND TIME into building something that may distract them from pursuing their real goals.
It might be convenient to read first these preliminary considerations.
THE EIC ACCELERATOR INTRODUCTION
If we take a look at the EIC Accelerator template, the introduction does not appear to be that important: Title, acronym, maybe a logo, a table with the company data and 3 short 200-words paragraphs that present the company, the innovation and how such innovation contributes to implement the strategy of the SME. Indeed, I know many companies that take this section lightly: at the end of the day, none of it is in the evaluation template, so it does not contribute to the proposal scoring, right?
Well, it is my very personal opinion that this is the most important section in the whole proposal. The one where it all starts, and where it all ends. I think that it is key to ensure that everything you will commit to do, if funded, is fully aligned with your long-term and mid-term goals, and to show evaluators that if they fund you, there is no risk of strategic misalignment, something that usually ends badly.
Is This Not About The Innovation? As Far As We Deliver, Why Do They Care?
The European Commission, and in particular the European Innovation Council, created this program to fund innovation projects, but that was not the end goal. Their real goal is helping promising start-ups become the next market leaders. What if 6-months after starting, this strategic misalignment causes frictions in your day-2-day actions? What if suddenly you find that pivoting to a different area makes more sense for you?
In the past, when there was a Phase-1 (may State Members bring it back!), the most important result out of the feasibility study (in my opinion) was assessing the long-term strategy of the SME and the star role that the innovation project will play to achieve their strategic goals. We have kind of lost that, as the EIC found it more convenient to forget about the necessary homework and focus on increasing support to the innovations. However, that does not mean they are not directly and indirectly scrutinising that this homework has been carried out. In particular it is expected, at the very least that you have completed:
Feasibility study assessing technical, commercial and financial / implementation viability
Commercialisation plan (at least an advanced draft)
Business plan (at least an advanced draft)
When I saw the new proposed introduction, I thought that it was not only a good move, but also an excellent opportunity for the SMEs to stop for a second and assess their strategy. Now, this makes necessary a sacrifice in terms of your dedication to prepare this proposal. I know this is not the usual take. Many consultancy firms are happy to show how effective they are preparing winning proposals in record time, and indeed they are great professionals able to build such proposals and get you to the pitch panel. Indeed, if you have the right homework in place, specially at the strategic level, a winning proposal can be written in less than 5 days. However, if this is not the case (and “right homework” is a subject of debate here), PLEASE, dedicate enough time to do so: do your homework, starting with getting all senior management team together and assessing/refining your overall strategy, and making sure your feasibility study and the draft of your commercialisation plan is consistent and coherent with it.
When Should We Write the Introduction?
Some companies fill this section by interpreting each subsection as a question, and then answering each of them. Then they forget about what they have written and go deep in the proposal, sometimes refining the introduction section afterwords to make it more consistent with the writing (consistency is always something we need to ensure!). This is, in my opinion, a risky approach for 2 reasons. Firstly, you kind of put the focus on the proposal (which is just a tool), not in the company strategic goals. Secondly, it is very easy to become inconsistent (or to need to double the effort to ensure consistency) bot at the proposal level itself, which is bad, and in regard with the proposal alignment with the company strategy, which is worse.
Some other companies, write this section after they finish the writing of the overall proposal. This is the typical approach we follow when writing scientific articles, writing the abstract when we finalise the article itself. This way we ensure the consistency of the introduction with the rest of the proposal, which let us focus on what aspects to highlight in the introduction as per those that have been properly addressed in our proposal. This is, in my opinion, a much better approach, however, it does have hidden weaknesses. Firstly, it does not ensure consistency between the proposal and our strategy, but also, sometimes, we end up describing our strategy upon the specific “tactics” developed in the project: it might be consistent, but this way many times we fail to transmit the evaluator the long-term goals and the proposal itself might lose power.
So, what do we do?
Do your homework and be ready to iterate, write and review your proposal as long as necessary to improve it ensuring consistency, coherence and strategic alignment
=>Working out strategic alignment. My personal opinion, is that the SME should start with the very basics. Determining their Vision, and upon it deriving their Mission, and upon this context, determine how the proposal will impact both (I know this is easier said than done, and I dare to recommend). It is very convenient to count with the right methodology to do this. If none in place, I strongly recommend considering “Objectives and Key Results (OKR)” as it builds upon an agile and quantitative approach to ensure strategic alignment (If you needed a gentle introduction to the topic I recommend the book Radical Focus, from Ms Christina Wodtke). The good thing about establishing a quantitative methodology at the strategic level is that, then, it is far easier to prioritise which projects you launch and to link the project KPIs and metrics with the strategic “objectives and key results”. For this reason, I recommend that prior to start writing the EIC Proposal (please, read: prior to launching any project) we start by answering a few basic questions such as the following:
How does this business idea contribute to our vision, to our mission, to our current short-term goals?
Can it be structured in a different way to maximise its alignment with our strategy?
Does this business idea raise questions about our strategy? Should we revisit our Vision and Mission? Should we pivot?
What about the cash-flows? Do we count with sufficient funds to bring this idea to market? Do we need investors? What can we offer them in exchange?
Upon our experience with VCs… Have we succeeded? Have we not? If not, do we really know why they are reluctant to invest on our project?
Have we done all necessary homework? Have we really carried out a thorough feasibility study? Do we fully agree with the conclusions? Are the conclusions coherent with our plans, with our strategy, with our mission, with our vision?
It is only after we have been very thorough analysing our business idea in the context of our strategy, that we will be in the right shape to start writing an EIC proposal, starting with the Introduction. I know there are a few beneficiaries that might have succeeded without many of the homework that I am describing, however, believe me when I say that this homework can really save you a lot of time. Indeed, I know a few cases where upon this work some SMEs discovered that sending their proposal to the EIC Accelerator was not a wise move.
=> Iterate. Most issues can be solved by iterating. Iterating at the proposal level, and if necessary at the strategic level. The point is that iterating imposes a price both in the effort and time required, so we better reduce the number of times we need to iterate, and the abstraction level at which we need to iterate. If we discover after writing a full proposal that our strategy is not the right one, the cost will be high, if the strategy is OK and we “just” need to iterate the “spirit” (the high-level rhetoric) of the proposal, the cost will be lower, if both the strategic level and the overall proposal take are OK, then we will “only” need to iterate at the lowest level of abstraction inside each of the sections, which is what we should aim at. It is the duty of the SME management team to make sure that the strategy, and the high-level rhetoric of the proposal is as good as possible. Especially if they are not writing the proposal themselves and counting with consultants, as they are not wizards.
=> Review. Let the proposal be reviewed by a few people with different profiles. Take into account that among evaluators you will have at least three different profiles technical, business and financial. Make sure that the proposal talks to every one of these profiles and, more importantly, that for all of them the proposal is readable and understandable. They cannot score high something they do not understand. Also, try these reviewers to be people not actually involved in the writing of the proposal, so we can replicate the “first-time” effect and remember that an evaluator is only given around three hours to score the whole proposal (hope the EIC increases this time in the future, because in my opinion it is clearly insufficient).
Bottomline. Be ready to rewrite your proposal from scratch. What if after the review you reach to the conclusion that the proposal needs to be rewritten and the deadline is only 24 hours away? Please, do not wait until the last day to review your proposal. Try and have a complete draft of the proposal at least 2-3 weeks before the deadline, so you can count with time enough to start from scratch, if needed (it is not as hard as it seems, as after completing a full proposal and receiving a few thorough revisions, you will have the right mindset and the right material to build a proposal from scratch in less than a week).
THE EIC ACCELERATOR WRITING TEMPLATE
The introduction of an EIC Accelerator comprises the following subsections:
Title, Logo and Acronym
Details of applicant
Company description (200 words). Please provide a short description of the company, relevant products, services or other achievements (which may include previous projects or activities connected to the subject of the proposal), and significant infrastructure and/or any major items of technical equipment relevant to the proposed work.
Innovation description (200 words). Describe your innovation in no more than 200 words, avoiding jargon or technical language.
Contribution of the project to the company strategy (200 words). Briefly explain how your innovation relates to the overall strategy of your company.
Basic Information subsection: Title, Logo and Acronym
This seems more easy than it looks, but it is also something you need to dedicate time to. Everything in an investment proposal is an opportunity to show our audience, evaluators, if we are prepared for the next stage.
=> Title and Acronym. Try them to be descriptive, but avoiding unnecessary jargon, and making use of a wording that reflects the main virtue of your innovation. Also, if possible try to highlight aspects that the evaluator can easily translate into scoring. For instance, let’s consider this title and acronym: “RNN based HAR Device for HealthCare (RNNHAR)”. May be some of us fully understand what it is about, but it may be easier for an evaluator to understand what is he going to read about if we called it: “The first Artificial Intelligence system to monitor patients activities to automatically alert of potentially dangerous situations (AI4CARE)”. OK, may be it is not perfect, but you get the idea. The first title is OK, but many evaluators would possibly not understand fully what it is about. Further, the acronym is just a composition of 2 technical acronyms that do not say much. The second version of the title is a little bit better, it explains clearly the purpose of the project and introduces the term Artificial Intelligence. The Acronym plays also this game and remembers it is about using AI to improve care. We can continue this game: if we look at the hot topics in the EIC Accelerator, we might see that AI is a broad term, a bit wasted, and that a very current concern is about “human centric AI”. This should make us think about our product. Do we consider these aspects in our innovation? Should we? Let’s suppose we do, then, we might improve the title and call it “Human Centric AI patient monitoring system to early detect dangerous situations (AI4CARE)”.
=> Logo (and document template?). Try it also to be catchy and coherent with what we say in the proposal. Try it to transmit the right emotion and meaning. The proposal logo, if any, as well as other aspects such as the proposal template, or even the overall aesthetics of the proposal are telling something about our proposal, and about our company. The only big mistake here is being incoherent. For instance, a bad logo and overall aesthetics from a company featuring branding and marketing experts might seem incoherent and impact our credibility.
=> Details of the applicant. No need for comments here, but be aware that the company creation date will be there. Again, everything must be coherent: if we say that the company was created 1-month ago, how did we manage to get to, at least, a TRL6? We better have good and credible explanations for this, and we better eliminate this potential concern on the mind in the evaluator soon. In the company description.
=> Company description (200 words). It is my personal opinion that this is a quite important section: 200 critical words where we need to explain the evaluator who we really are: our vision, our mission and our overall credibility.
ETHOS and PATHOS driven rhetoric are useful here. Show the experience and the track record of the key members of the team, to gain credibility. May be you do not have (yet) sufficient experience, but remember that ETHOS can also be gained upon moral, good will, and honesty. Also, Most business ideas are born out of the founders passion, out of their motivation to solve some problem, a motivation that supports their vision. Why not starting with this story? This can make our audience engage with us, better understand the human dimension of the problem we aim at solving?
BUT NEVER FORGET LOGOS: it must impregnate the whole proposal: show the facts that support all your statements your track record, previous exits, patents, years of experience in the field of the proposal. Show facts and verifiable data, sources and references.
Summary subsection: Innovation description (200 words)
The template explicitly instruct us to describe the innovation in no more than 200 words, AVOIDING JARGON OR TECHNICAL LANGUAGE. We must use plain words and ensure it is understandable for non-experts on the topic. Still, I see myriads of proposals where the innovation is described in a way that even someone working in the field might struggle to understand it. So first and foremost, ensure you do so. In doing this, however, there are opportunities here that you should consider:
When describing the innovation, stress those aspects that confirm why the proposal is well aligned with the spirit of the EIC Accelerator. They look for disruptive and innovative proposals based on deep-tech, that the business upon them is scalable, that the proposal addresses a big problem at EU level and at global level. Sometimes I see descriptions full of jargon, but failing to state that it is based on a number of patents. Sometimes the proposal addresses a need related to a coming EU regulation, and there is no reference about it. Sometimes our goal is turning upside down the market dynamics in our sector and we fail to mention it. Some other times, we address specfic topics of concern (e.g. Human-Centric AI, Circular Economy, femtosatellites, 6G, … ) and we fail to use the right wording: a wording that reminds the evaluator we are addressing a problem which is among EU priorities. It is always important to check the evaluation template and observe the wording used in some of the scoring elements and replicate it to make it apparent the strengths of our proposal. Also useful is reading the Strategic Research Agenda of the EC, and again, use a consistent wording, as many evaluators are familiar with it and it might ring a bell.
Remember that some evaluators, after reading the introduction, will jump to section 2. Take some time to check that the full section 2 is understandable and make good use of the introduction, f necessary.
BUT NEVER FORGET LOGOS: We already said it before. Show your sources and references, as build strong rationales. If we lack the space to thoroughly develop a reasoning, show the evaluator where (in which subsection) you will give full proof/rationales.
Summary subsection: Contribution of the project to the company strategy (200 words)
We have already talked about this extensively, now we need to show proof that our proposal is well-aligned with our strategy. I would recommend that this sections includes 3 clear rationales:
Show proof that the proposal is fully aligned with the company long and mid-term strategy and link KPIs and our smart-goals in the proposal with such strategic goals. The EIC will not be prone to fund a project that “just” lets you increase your sales by 10%. They are eager for proposals that make a strong impact on your company. They fund those proposals that are key for the company to really grow: to become a mid-cap, to lead a market.
Show proof that the proposal is also linked with some EU strategic goals, and link KPIs and our smart goals with them.
Finally, add some CLEAR rationale of why we are deemed not bankable and why it is the EIC Accelerator our only alternative. Remember that the EIC Accelerator wants to focus on those projects that really have difficulties to raise funds among private VCs. It is important to show proof, to show a powerful reasoning of why this is so.
Bottomline: The EIC Accelerator Introduction is an opportunity to assess our strategy and verify that the proposal really contributes to it. It is worth investing time on ensuring strategic alignment before we start writing the full proposal. This section is also important to assess that we fulfil the main eligibility criteria and to advance our main strength ideas. Finally, it is also important to ensure that those evaluators that jump to section 2 after reading the intro, have the right and minimum context about our SME, our innovation, our main challenges in the road ahead and how the EIC can help us in our quest to cross the Valley of Death.