How to build the ideal Horizon 2020 project consortium
A new report on Horizon 2020 has been published by the European Commission. Titled Horizon 2020 in Full Swing – Three Years On – Key Facts and Figures 2014-2016, the 68 pages provide a snapshot of the current framework programme’s main achievements after three full years of implementation. Based on the report, we have set out to answer one of the questions that has been on the mind of every proposal writer in Horizon 2020 (not excluding any predecessors and successors): What is the ideal Horizon 2020 consortium?
What size should our consortium be? How many companies should we have on board? In which countries should we be looking for partners? These are all questions we get asked by many of our coordinators, partners and clients during the process of building a Horizon 2020 consortium. The short answer is that there is no one size fits all solution. The success of each consortium depends on many factors, yet there are some criteria that can be gathered from the above mentioned Horizon 2020 report for an ideal consortium (European Commission, 2018). Additionally, we have let our over 20 years of experience influence the following findings.
The wide variety of Horizon 2020 project partners
The majority of successful proposals feature highly diverse consortia with collaborations between different types of institutions. The main setup is a triangular relationship composed of universities, private research and private sector organisations. However, especially public bodies and other entities, such as not-for-profit organisations and associations, exhibit distinctive higher approval rates according to the EC`s report and, where useful for achieving your project objectives, should be taken into consideration as well.
We believe that the composition of a consortium typically depends on the selected Horizon 2020 instrument, be it a basic science-focused FET Open project with more academics or the requirements of the call topic in so-called top-down work programmes like the Health or ICT schemes.
Considering these points, it’s a difficult and risky task to give advice on the perfect composition of a consortium in general. The type of partners you should be looking for is often determined by the type of project for which you are seeking to receive funding. For example, a Research and Innovation Action (RIA) typically has a higher share of academic partners in the consortium than an Innovation Action (IA) where the majority of partners often are companies (SMEs or larger industry) and/or the majority of the grant is allocated to private sector participants.
Nevertheless, cross-sector efforts are usually advantageous. For example, the accelopment-supported EURO SHOCK proposal was submitted to a stage-1 Health call in 2016. When invited to stage 2, we advised the purely academic consortium to attract at least one partner from the industry to join the consortium. The coordinator headed our call and not one but two companies could be convinced to join the consortium. In the stage-2 Evaluation Summary Report, the participation of the SMEs was highlighted as a convincing factor.
Past experience as a bonus, not a requirement
Besides the organisational type of potential consortium partners, their experience in Horizon 2020 projects also matters. Applicants who already participated in Horizon 2020’s predecessors, the 6th and 7th Framework Programme (FP6/7), had success rates of 15.3% in contrast to 11.3% of newcomers. However, our experience is that newcomers, be it first-time coordinators or organisations that have never been involved in an EU framework project before, are actually welcome. Experience has to be gained somehow, so the lower success rate should not be a deterrent for any newcomers thinking of writing a proposal.
Consortium size dictated by available grant
In our experience the size of each consortium more often than not correlates with the size of the grant. For example, a maximum of 10 partners is recommended, for a budget of 3 million euros in a collaborative project; though there are certainly many exceptions. According to the European Commission (2017, p. 362) the average consortium size of Horizon 2020 projects is 2.5 participants per EUR million funding.
Geographical distribution of partners
Success rates differ heavily among individual EU member states. In relation to the average member state success rate of 14.8%, applications from entities in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Austria are the most successful while applications from entities in Bulgaria, Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia and Latvia are the least successful.
However, we have learned that the geographical origin or distribution of partners across Europe (and beyond) sometimes depends on the research area addressed by a call topic, the specific requirements of a call topic or other factors. And there are even Horizon 2020 calls where the participation of organisation from selected countries is mandatory.
Does the perfect consortium exist?
Before analysing the Horizon 2020 report, we already had hypothesised that the ideal consortium would be dependent on each specific call. Reading the report and analysing the results confirms this: The defining factor is the formal requirements for the specific call. Sometimes the constitution of the consortium is already narrowly defined. Furthermore, the dominant criteria should be the right complementation of expertise.
However, to say the report hasn’t taught us anything would be an exaggeration. Based on the findings and our experience, we recommend a consortium which features cross-institutional collaboration with a balanced share of newcomers and experienced researchers. The funding amount should be taken into consideration in regards the consortium. While Eastern European countries generally have lower success rates compared to Western entities, an inclusion could be valuable as well.
European Commission [EC]. (2017). Interim Evaluation of Horizon 2020. Annex 1 [Commission Staff Working Document]. Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/research/evaluations/pdf/archive/h2020_evaluations/swd(2017)221-annex-1-interim_evaluation-h2020.pdf#view=fit&pagemode=none
European Commission [EC]. (2018). Horizon 2020 in full swing. Three years on. Key facts and figures 2014-2016. Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/research/mariecurieactions/resources/document-libraries/horizon-2020-full-swing-%E2%80%93-three-years-%E2%80%93-key-facts-and-figures-2014-2016_en