Innovation - Editorial from ERC Scientific Council

07 February 2022
Cover image of Innovation - Editorial from ERC Scientific Council

Max Planck once stated: "Insight must precede application". It is from basic insight that new knowledge is generated; and it is by building upon this new knowledge that novel successful applications can be created.  It is by raising the overall level of basic research and pushing ahead the frontier of knowledge that we will be able to turn new ideas into innovative products and services that will increase productivity growth and raise the world’s living standard.

The ERC funds bottom-up, frontier research, in the belief that there is a need to support and strengthen research excellence in Europe without expecting any immediate technological fall-out. The ERC does not distinguish between basic and applied research; it funds scientific projects at the frontiers of knowledge, with excellence as the sole selection criterion. This type of high-risk/high-gain research builds the science-base for future innovation.

The history of science shows very clearly that without this curiosity-driven, basic research, no research directed toward solving “real problems” would exist and neither would technological progress. It is basic research that has contributed to economic growth and human welfare throughout the history of humankind.without this curiosity-driven, basic research, no research directed toward solving “real problems” would exist

Out of dozens of possible examples, let me mention the multi-billion dollar growth industry centered around the Global Positioning System (the GPS), that is based on an array of 24 satellites orbiting the earth, each carrying a precise atomic clock that was originally developed solely for the purpose of testing Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

CRISPR-cas9 is another good example: a discovery in biological basic science that opened new opportunities in therapeutics. Scientists who were studying how bacteria resist infection by viruses figured out that the tools used by bacteria to cut the DNA of an invading virus could be used to edit the human genome, with the possibility to target genetic diseases directly.

The high-quality investigator-driven research funded by the ERC is essential for industrial innovation to respond to global economic, environmental and societal challenges, although it often bears fruit only in the medium- to long-term.

At the same time, some excellent ideas might have immediate or short-term commercial applications. It is in this spirit that the ERC Scientific Council  launched in 2011 the Proof of Concept grant (PoC), allowing ERC grant holders to find out quickly if their blue-sky research has the potential to attract further public or private investors and eventually become a ground-breaking innovative application with large socio-economic impact. Since its launch, the ERC has evaluated more than 3,600 PoC applications and funded more than 1,300. Indeed, we have just released the results of the latest round of PoC funding. some excellent ideas might have immediate or short-term commercial applications

Examples of projects go from successful design of a single-photon click detector as a critical step towards quantum information processing with microwave photons. To the development of innovative therapies to enable functional recovery for people with spinal cord injuries. To the creation of a platform for cognitive and motor neuro-rehabilitation in a range of neuropathologies such as stroke. None of these applications would have been possible without the frontier research in the main ERC grants behind them.

And then? In some cases the projects manage to attract private funding that will support the long, complex bumpy path from idea to market. More often, the idea is at such an early stage that private investors find it too risky. In this edition of the ERC Magazine, entrepreneur Peter Cowley shares his experience of the various challenges faced by those seeking to commercialise research results. 

Among publicly funded programmes, the Transition grant recently launched by the European Innovation Council (EIC) offers ERC PoC grantees a great opportunity to scale up their ideas. The first EIC Transition call closed in September 2021, with a budget of €100 million.  PoC grantees presented very high quality applications to obtain support for the maturation and validation of their novel technologies and the development of a business model towards the future commercialisation. The results of the EIC Transition grant call reflected these efforts, as more than half of the grants awarded went to these researchers.

This is not at all surprising. Around 11% of ERC grantees have demonstrated entrepreneurial spirit over the years. Among the 4,875 ERC PIs who responded to a recent survey, 564 declared that they have either created a start-up or transferred their research results to a pre-existing company, or both. The PoC grant seems to offer a great opportunity to these grantees to realise their academic entrepreneurial project.
PoC grantees are in fact 13 times more likely to create a start-up than the other ERC grantees and 4.5 times more likely to transfer their research results to pre-existing companies.The PoC grant seems to offer a great opportunity to these grantees to realise their academic entrepreneurial project.

The ERC funds outstanding fundamental research in its main grants. The (comparably small) PoC scheme has proven to be highly successful in supporting ERC grantees in their first steps from idea to exploitation. 

Kurt Mehlhorn
Member of the ERC’s Scientific Council
Chair of the ERC’s Working Group On Innovation And Relations With Industry