“We have succeeded in reaching a profile of companies that did not compete at a European level”
Sara Mateo, leader of the Entrepreneurship Area at Zabala Innovation, discusses the keys to the activities of her department in this interview.
Helping entrepreneurs accomplish their ideas is one of the objectives of Zabala Innovation’s Entrepreneurship Department. It is made up of eight professionals, with different profiles, who complement each other to develop market-oriented technological projects. Its leader, Sara Mateo, describes some of the characteristics of working in a leading department that channels innovation trends.
How has Zabala Innovation positioned itself in the field of entrepreneurship?
Through our Entrepreneurship area, we offer support to companies or research entities that wish to apply for funding to cover their projects from the initial phases until they reach the market. We mainly work with three programmes: those of the European Innovation Council, Eurostars and cascade funding.
Within the European Innovation Council, the EIC Pathfinder for researchers carries out disruptive research projects or new concepts not yet explored; the EIC Transition, for the maturation and validation of novel technologies in the lab and in relevant environments, as well as initial development of business models; and finally the EIC Accelerator for SMEs in the final stages of development that need to have a product ready for market entry.
In Eurostars, within the Eureka programme, SMEs are supported in their R&D activities that lead to a solution with a clear market orientation.
What about cascade funding?
This is a form of funding from the European Commission that involves intermediary organisations. The funds are distributed in the form of grants, generally in small amounts, with SMEs as the main beneficiaries to carry out small technological projects.
Additionally, it is important to note that these programmes have been designed specifically to support small companies that would otherwise find it difficult to compete in the European ecosystem with large companies and research centres.
Has the pandemic discouraged the entrepreneurial spirit, or on the contrary, do you feel like it is “reviving” the business world, so to speak?
I would say that the entrepreneurial spirit is still intact and even more alive than ever. In our team, we continually receive expressions of interest from companies about specific calls for SMEs and start-ups, for example, from the EIC Accelerator or Eurostars. It is true that some sectors have greatly suffered from the pandemic, but others have found new opportunities to innovate despite adversity.
The Covid-19 crisis has also led us to digital networking, with face-to-face meetings losing power. Is entrepreneurship affected by this trend?
We have observed a certain level of weariness in this area. Many of the meetings we have organised at Zabala Innovation for entrepreneurs, that we support through our cascade financing programmes, have been virtual. They have gone smoothly, but participants have informed us on several occasions of the need for physical face-to-face meetings, that tend to be easier for networking, help strengthen relationships and give rise to valuable collaborations – all of which can be difficult behind a screen.
We have also been able to participate in some face-to-face or hybrid events, such as 4YFN or South Summit, at times when the pandemic was more under control. However, restrictions, capacity limits, fear and uncertainty have caused the turnout at these events to be lower than usual.
Which sectors are emerging as entrepreneurial laboratories?
In general, the projects that apply for European funding are technology-based and have great market potential, regardless of the sector. However, there are priority areas for Europe and there is no doubt that projects that contribute to mitigating climate change, help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals or boost EU competitiveness and growth, have an advantage.
What role do European funds play in financing these new proposals?
A key role. Often the most innovative projects with the greatest market potential involve higher risks in the process of developing and maturing the ideas. When talking about technological risks, the risk associated with any novel idea that has not been tested so far a major challenge for companies can be securing private funding.
In the initial phases of research and development, public support is essential, the driving force behind R&D. With this first phase covered, private investment comes at a later stage to commercialise and scale the solution.
How does Zabala Innovation turn business weaknesses into strengths?
Small companies often have weaknesses, both financially and in terms of skills or knowledge in cross-cutting areas (legal, commercial, etc.). Given this reality, it is important to have a clear plan to address these weaknesses in the short, medium and long term. Public funding has a relevant role to play here.
In this way, a project with a good technological base, led by a committed team, and with an ambitious growth strategy, can obtain interesting subsidies that will enable the reinforcement of the workforce, investment in R&D and equipment, etc. At Zabala Innovation, we advise and guide companies in identifying funding opportunities and in the entire grant application process.
And what are the strengths of the Entrepreneurship Area?
Undoubtedly, our multidisciplinary team: the people who form it and the continuous training they receive that allows them to know the funding programmes in detail and trends in the European innovation ecosystem.
Entrepreneurship requires important factors, such as enthusiasm and motivation. Is there a psychological aspect of your work?
Entrepreneurs always show great enthusiasm when sharing their project, and they can convince others, better than anyone else, of the potential of their product. We often try to challenge them to think about things they may not have thought of before, looking for points of improvement or weaknesses that will prepare them for the demands they could receive from Europe when they apply for a grant, or from investors when they seek private capital.
What lessons learned will be implemented in your area in 2022?
In 2020, we said goodbye to Horizon 2020, among other European funding programmes. In 2021, the Horizon Europe Framework Programme began, and so it has been a year of learning. With the experiences of this first year and a success rate of 50% at Zabala Innovation, we are ready to continue working as we have done so far and make the most of the opportunities for our clients.
Finally, what achievement are you most proud of?
With the grants that we manage from the Entrepreneurship Area, we have managed to reach a profile of companies that usually did not compete at a European level. Now, small Spanish companies and those from the rest of Europe trust us to take the leap. This opens doors towards internationalisation and opportunities for collaboration with strategic players beyond their national borders.
In this video, you can learn more about the work of the Entrepreneurship Area of Zabala Innovation.