Politics / Law

Is that a glimmer of sunshine I see on the horizon?

16.12.2011

Brussels – At the end of November, the European Commission coyly lifted its skirts for an ankle-flash of the innovation and research programme that will replace FP7 – the long awaited Horizon 2020. FP7 has evolved well for many areas of the programme. So what can its successor offer in a time that is overwhelmingly horrible for biotechnology? A scence and sector that is expensive, risky and slow to deliver – biotech is the complete opposite of those that cash-strapped governments want to support.

As you know, I will talk your ears off about the need for greater defragmentation, as well as focus on commercialisation and journey to application, and I am cautiously optimistic about the proposed contents of Horizon 2020.

It proposes to align funding programmes from different Directorates. Pretty dull stuff, I hear you say, but I have seen Direct­orates pull hard in opposite directions, with sometimes laughable results. Pulling together Framework, the CIP platform and the European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT) makes much more sense.

Less red tape (we’ll believe it when we see it), with faster results and project starts, less audit horror and simplified structures – got to get past the beancounters for that, but you never know!
Then there’s a focus on ‘industrial leadership’, with biotech as a named sector – a European weakness will hopefully be addressed. There are also plans to help innovation by including more support for close-to-market science, better public procurement for R&D and innovation – the last of which remains a barrier for health technologies in particular – and a scale-up of public sector risk-sharing with the private sector. Any new SME support programme has GOT to be better than the current one for biotech, so we will keep our ear to the ground for that one. The much-touted commitment to defragmentation of skills and geography will also be welcome. Europe’s regions are still obsessed with growing their skills reeeeaaallllly slowly, rather than working with other places where those skills already exist for fast-track, international solutions. Debt and equity platforms for SMEs – we need to see more details of this to assess genuine assistance for biotech development. There’s also an SBIR-style funding mechanism, currently being trialled in the health programme – hurray for this, a big thumbs up. Conspicuous in its absence was a tough line to improve technology transfer. This is one of the major bottlenecks in effective exploit­ation, but we just hope that it will be addressed in every element of the new programme, particularly as part of the ‘industrial leadership’ focus. So – what do we think of the proposed Horizons 2020 as a whole? It certainly has potential, with a more joined-up approach and results-

oriented language. The economic situation in Europe will no doubt have changed significantly by the time the new programme launches, so nothing is written in stone. We’ll hold our collective breaths, and hope that bio­tech weathers the ongoing storm to the next big Commission effort.

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