Horizon 2020: Putting European Innovations Back on Track

The transitions needed to face climate change are numerous: About how we can reduce carbon footprint, become more efficient in our heating, or increase the availability of data in processes. Innovations are needed to tackle these problems. In a global context, Europe is often said to need to be faster, facing the danger of lagging behind big international players like China or the US. To increase innovations, the EU created the program HORIZON 2020.

In today’s edition of The-Energy-Newsletter, we are talking to Eleonora Alamaro, who will give us an insight into the inner mechanisms of this European innovation program. Eleonora has been working for more than two years with the Czech Consultancy Company AMIRES. They have been helping companies, research centres, and universities for the past 12 years in getting and administrating research and development projects funded mostly by the European project HORIZON.

What is the HORIZON program?

It is the EU’s key funding programme for research and innovation, whose goal is to enhance cooperation between European countries, as much potential is lost when all the European countries do their research independently. So, instead, the EU came up with this research framework to put all this effort together by focusing on cooperative projects. The minimum amount of project partners from different EU countries in HORIZON is three per project; however, usually, it is much more. I work with an average of 10 countries, so organizations from 10 different (EU and not-EU) countries per project.

Horizon follows the EU politics; for example, recently, one focus lies on hydrogen as energy carrier. What I like about working with HORIZON is that I must keep studying and stay up to date.

How does it Work?

Within the HORIZON, there are different clusters, e.g., I work mostly for cluster 5, which is about Climate, Energy and Mobility. About 3-4 times per year, there are calls in which new topics are announced within a cluster. A call includes a budget, the requirements for participating companies, universities, and research centres, and the objectives that must be achieved. When an organization wants funding, one must write a proposal outlining why they are a good fit and how to achieve the set goals. Sometimes, the requirements can be very specific, sometimes it is even specifically asked to include non-European partners. They may need to come from a specific world region to enhance cooperation with that region.

At AMIRES, we help creating the consortium, write the project proposal, and apply for the funds. Then, there is an evaluation done by the European Commission on whether the project gets selected. In recent years, however, the funding competition has become much stronger.

Another part of my job is to do the dissemination, which in EU jargon means sharing research results with the scientific community, commercial players, civil society, and policymakers. The term communication, instead, means communicating the project results to a more general audience, using social media appearance. In Horizon both are foreseen, and some Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are set for each project. Another term is exploitation, which plans how to use the project results to tackle societal problems, in policymaking or for commercial purposes, as the description of the 5- or 10-year plan of prototype commercialization. For this, I have to do market research: What prototypes are already on the market, how are they doing, and what niche would our prototype cover?

In every call, the topic description refers to TRLs, or technological readiness levels, which are numbers between 1 and 9 describing the state of development of the technology to be reached at the end of the project:

Technological Readiness Level (TRL)STATE
1-3development of an algorithm, basic research
4test in laboratory conditions
5-6validation and demonstration in relevant environment
7-8demonstration in operational environments (real life)
9technology is ready to be commercialized

The relevance of exploitation, thus the commercialization plan, depends on the TRL required in the call; for example, a Horizon call wanting to invest in a TRL 2-4 project will give less importance to exploitation, compared to a call about TRL 7-8.

This quantified classification of TRL can also be found in the two types of collaborative projects: RIA (Research and Innovation action) and IA (Innovation action). The RIA projects have a higher focus on establishing new knowledge or exploring new technologies, thus they generally focus on lower TRL, and the EU covers up to 100% of the project costs. IA projects, instead, focus on producing technologies for market replication, therefore the TRL is higher, and the EU coverage goes up to 70%.

What are the Challenges?

At AMIRES, we also manage the projects after they are granted, which means we deal daily with different types of ventures (companies, research centers, and universities), each of them having different goals, timelines, priorities, and communication forms but they must cooperate in the project to get results. Also, cultural differences between the countries can play a role, and different actors are better or worse to overcome such cultural differences. So, as project manager, I have the daily challenge to find a common ground regarding these things.

The biggest challenge, however, is the…

Follow up

…something which the EU is lacking: after the project money is invested, the project is done, and there is a validated prototype and open-source scientific articles. And then what? Well, most of the time, there needs to be follow-up initiatives. Unfortunately, in my experience, most prototypes stay in the lab.

Also, what is a successful project?

A project often fails to yield a successful prototype, especially when the Technological Readiness Level (TRL) is low. However, what if some byproduct of the development process is very valid and can be commercialized? Are we talking about a successful project in that case or not? In our work, we also have to estimate the project’s return on investment (ROI). Ignoring possible byproducts, as we do in the current approach, leads to a lower ROI than there is.

Generally speaking, it is hard to evaluate whether a project was successful definitively and to define proper rules for follow-up projects. If I change something in the HORIZON project, it would be follow-up, since in the current approach, a lot of money and potential is wasted for sure.

Which Projects Are You following at the moment?

I work on several projects. The main ones are:

ComBIOtes: We are working on two inter-connected thermal energy storages for domestic use. This thermal energy storage solution for heating, hot tap water and cooling, is fully adapted for electricity load shifting, coming from renewables. The project includes partners from 9 countries, including China, as one of the two storages will be tested at the Institute of Electrical Engineering of the Chinese Academy of Science. One of the main goals of this project is to strengthen ties with China.

FRIENDSHIP is about improving solar heat usage for high-intensity industrial processes like mechanical, chemical, or textile. Here, the focus lies on solar energy as a heating source, and these industries demand up to 180°C in the short-term. The solar heat is provided by parabolic trough collectors, then the coupling of the High Temperature Heat Pump and the Combined Heat Storage (a heat storage not only able to store heat from the solar loop, but from the process loop as well in case of excess heat in the process loop) will then boost the heat temperature, store it and stabilize the delivery. The same techniques can also be used with refrigeration. Ten different EU countries are involved in this project.

Whom to contact?

Are you feeling inspired by this exciting idea and eager to explore more? Reach out to Eleonora for a delightful discussion, or simply visit AMIRES to learn more about their work. Feel also free to explore more about HORIZON, FRIENDSHIP, and ComBioTES.

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