Fast Track to Innovation: an insider’s perspective

by Vivien Badaut, on the 31st July 2018

TL;DR

The European Commission Fast Track to Innovation is the most competitive collaborative R&D grant competition on the market. It also is the most rewarding in terms of money. As a reviewer, I now know how to assess and application; this assessing has significant consequences on how to prepare an application.

Reviewers typically only have 2 hours to read a full application; this means most of them will only skim-read through it.

When preparing an application, make sure to:

  1. include clear and easy-to-find answers to all questions asked to reviewers.
  2. be as concise as possible; don’t add more content than what is absolutely necessary.
  3. include graphics and visuals to explain your ideas and concepts. 
  4. proofread your application.

The odds are, you will have to resubmit once or twice before getting funded; that is perfectly normal.

Background

I started as an FTI project expert reviewer in early 2018. This year’s second round of review finished on May 31st, and I have now enough experience to give you some insight on the reviewing process. As you will see, the way you write your application has significant consequences on your chances of success.

I’ve been writing European grant applications for start-ups since the launch of Horizon 2020, in 2014. I had had prior experience applying to grants as an academic, but writing for other companies was a significant challenge nonetheless. The learning curve was rather steep. 

At first, we used the template provided by the European Commission to prepare the applications. Yet our projects would not get funds, no matter how much effort we put in. Of course, clients and business partners became frustrated. After multiple resubmissions, we realised that there was an asymmetry between the guidelines and the actual appraisals of applications. So we redesigned the template to include as much as possible of the standard evaluation form and got much better results. That discovery was indeed transformative. Nonetheless, being a reviewer for Fast Track to Innovation bring me a much deeper understanding of what makes a winning application. The conclusions of this article apply to most of Horizon 2020 grants.

Reviewing: 2 hours per application

As a reviewer, you are part of a group that will judge and rate a number of proposals. We have to read through all the documents submitted, understand them and fill out a report answering very specific questions. Then, we give a mark to each application on the basis of that report. That much is clear in the guidelines, but there are a few interesting caveats.

After the proposal submission deadline, the commission assigns projects to us, reviewers. It will pay us for 0.3 days of work per application, i.e. a little under 3 hours.

Structure of a Fast Track to Innovation proposal

For reference, there are three sections:

  • first, Part A is a quick presentation of the different partners of the project and of its budget. Not everything is relevant here, so it’s equivalent to about 5 pages of content.
  • Sections 1-3 of Part B are a 30-page-long technical-economic presentation of the project. The sections 4-5 of the same part, finally, have no length limit and are a detailed presentation of the project partners. They often include support letters from the said partners. The ones I reviewed were 20 pages long on average.

A typical proposal consequently totals about 55 pages, to read in 2 hrs – about 2 minutes per page. Given the complexity of the arguments developed, a reviewer will look for clarity. Consequently, you need to make sure that you present your arguments in a simple way. Yet you will also need to support them with appropriate documents and to structure your argumentation.  

In one of my early review, I wanted to gather reviewing data. I did what my former career as an academic had trained me for: an in-depth proof-reading, not caring about time spent but measuring it. It took me 5 hrs to review a single case, plus 1h to write the review. That is twice the time paid for by the Commission. Obviously, all reviewers cannot reasonably be expected to commit that much.

Thus, the logical conclusion: reviewer skim-read through most of the application.

The standard evaluation form

The Fast Track to Innovation standard evaluation form is the official template used by reviewers to assess your application. It contains 3 sections that roughly correspond to the Part B, Section 1-3 of your application: Impact, Ambition, Implementation. The European Commission asks us to give one mark per section, and to my knowledge, there is no formal rule determining how to mark.

However, the answering to every single question of each of the subsections of the template has to be in overall agreement with that mark. As you can see, it can be a bit subjective.

I personally use the following rule to determine the note per section: each subsection gets a mark, and I compute the average per section rounded up at the closest half-mark.

The final report

An average per subsection is computed automatically once all reviewers have submitted their assessment, and that mark is final. It determines if you are eligible for funding (i.e. if you are above the cutoff mark). It also establishes your ranking in the competition.

One of the 4 reviewers has to prepare a report summarising, section by section, all the criticisms on the project. This final report is sent to the applicants.

Finally, projects are funded in decreasing order, from the highest to the lowest grade, until there are no more eligible projects. In most cases, that means some applicant will be eligible for funding, but won’t be funded.

So, forget about the cutoff mark of 10/15. To be successful in Fast Track to Innovation, you need to aim for 13/15 and above. In other words, your proposal has to be perfect. This is typical of extremely competitive funding instruments, and it is a major issue for applicants, who often ponder about their return-on-investment.

Comment on reviewers

Now, you have to realise that “reviewer” is not a profession. Reviewers’ training in reviewing is indeed limited. One leg of the training is reading three Powerpoint presentations send by the Commission (they are mandatory to read and to refer to). The other leg is one online meeting with the Commission aiming at answering all remaining questions. NB: participation to the latter is not mandatory.

Reviewers come from all walk of life, they are typically academics with related expertise, business and innovation consultants, etc. Opinions on a proposal often differ significantly between reviewers, and some will demand (significantly) more than others. And this, unfortunately, means that luck is indeed a factor of success.

Final words of advice

As with any extremely competitive grant application, applying to Fast Track to Innovation will demand a significant amount of time preparing the application. You might also have to resubmit a few time, even if your proposal is excellent. As you know, reviewers are notoriously bad at discriminating between very good and excellent proposals.

On this basis, we recommend to a potential applicant:

  1. to treat the application as a project itself: provision time, resources and a budget.
  2. to include easy-to-understand figures and graphics.
  3. to conduct an internal or external pre-reviewing of their project using the almighty standard evaluation form,
  4. and to get professional help to maximise their chances.

(“Fast track to Innovation” not for you? click here for our presentation of the SME instrument. )

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