SME Instrument: what to expect in 2018-2020?


While the last cut-off dates of the 2017 SME Instrument call for proposals are approaching, it is already time to look ahead and share some details about what applicants should expect by the new calls to be launched under the 2018-2020 Work Programmes.

Schuman Associates analysed a draft version of the new European Innovation Council pilot WP 2018-2020 that, on top of the SME Instrument, also include three other innovation support schemes: Fast Track to Innovation (FTI), FET Open and Inducement Prizes. All these schemes have been adapted to support market-creating innovation more effectively, also taking into account recommendations collected from the Horizon 2020 interim evaluation.


This mid-term review of the programme’s performance confirmed the extreme popularity and success of the SME Instrument: this new funding scheme was the most attractive programme part in terms of proposals submitted during 2014-2016, generating more than 30,000 proposals compared to around 5,000 in FP7 (under Research for the benefit of SMEs). This huge increase in SMEs’ participation comes as a direct consequence of the Commission’s efforts to make Horizon more relevant and easier to access for start-ups and innovators.  

Although the main aspects of the SME Instrument will remain the same (phases, co-funding rates, cut-off dates, project duration etc.), several important changes have been proposed by the European Commission and shall become official within a month or so, once the new H2020 WPs will be released. The main novelties can be summarised as follows:

  • As of 2018, the scheme will be fully bottom-up: the Commission has decided to remove the 13 pre-defined topics of the SME Instrument, probably in an attempt to offer a chance to compete for funding also to those innovative companies that do not necessarily fall within these fields. The removal of pre-determined topics for the calls could be interpreted in more ways: on one hand, it will probably bring a higher number of applications submitted at every cut-off date, thus making the scheme even more competitive than it already is; on the other, it could also create a level playing field for applications so far submitted in greatly oversubscribed topics such as the Open-Disruptive-Innovation scheme, transport or energy.
  • Greater emphasis on the project’s impact: when it comes to the evaluation process, while up to now SME Instrument proposals were evaluated on the basis of three equally important criteria (excellence, impact, implementation), in 2018-2020 these award criteria will weight differently, with the impact section counting for 50% of the total score. Quantifying each project’s impacts and properly describe measures to maximise it will play an even more crucial role for the overall success of project proposals.
  • Two-step evaluation for Phase-2 proposals: as of next year, the evaluation of Phase-2 proposals will gain an extra step. In Step-1, a ranking of proposals will be established on the basis of the standard Evaluation Summary Report (ESR). Then, as Step-2, applicants passing a specific threshold will be invited to a face-to-face interview in Brussels. This threshold will be dynamic and will depend each time on the volume and quality of proposals received. The interview will be used to clarify aspects of the proposal evaluated in Step-1 and will be conducted by evaluators with a mixture of technology, industry sector, business and finance expertise. Only designated staff of the project applicants will be invited to sit for these interviews.

It’s now a matter of a few weeks for the different H2020 Programme Committees to agree on the content and structure of the new WPs 2018-2020 and launch the first calls for proposals by mid/end of October.

If you would like to know more about EU funding for research and innovation or if you need help with your H2020 application, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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Schuman Associates is a Brussels-based, independent, consultancy with more than 25 years’ experience in European funding and public affairs.

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