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The role of enterprises in Marie Curie Actions doctoral networks

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Doctoral Networks
Abel Muñiz

Abel Muñiz

Consultant and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions expert

A closing date of 28 November, €435 million in available funds and a big taboo to break: this is how the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Doctoral Networks call for proposals is shaping up. Although the focus of the action is on doctoral students, it is no less true that companies play a fundamental role in these grants. The belief that only the academic sector can benefit from them, although widespread, is totally erroneous. It is time to debunk the myth.

Under pillar 1 of the Horizon Europe R&D&I funding programme, the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Doctoral Networks (MSCA-DN) recognise the crucial role of doctoral training in advancing scientific excellence, seeking to boost researchers’ careers. However, it should be noted that funding must be applied for by an international consortium, which may include not only public and private universities and research centres, but also companies and other non-academic organisations. Participating organisations will be beneficiary partners if they are responsible for the recruitment of the doctoral researchers, or associate members if they only host them during their stays and collaborate in the training and supervision programmes.

In this way, the MSCA-DN transcend the traditional boundaries of academia and provide tools for doctoral students to come into close contact with industry, business, and other relevant sectors, ensuring that their research has a real-world impact, aligned with the needs of society and the market. By bridging the gap between academia and industry, the programme enhances the employability of doctoral students and fosters a culture of innovation and knowledge exchange.

Opportunities for companies in the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Doctoral Networks

Beyond these objectives, in each of the three categories of doctoral network included in the MSCA-DN there are interesting opportunities from which the non-academic sector can benefit. The most important is undoubtedly the Industrial Doctorate (MSCA-DN-ID), where at least half of the doctoral training must take place outside academia, to better match the skills acquired with the needs of the public and private sectors.

This call allows for the recruitment of a maximum of 15 pre-doctoral researchers, who could be employed in the academic sector for the full time, although they will have to undertake a secondment of at least 50% of this time in a non-academic company. In this scheme, the non-academic entity could only be an associate member, while the academic entity would be the sole beneficiary.

However, doctoral students could be employed in a company for 100% of their doctoral studies and undertake secondments in other centres for a maximum of half of the time. In this case, the non-academic entity would be the beneficiary of the grant and the academic would be an associate member. Alternatively, doctoral students could be subject to multiple contracts, where they would be recruited for 50% or less of the duration of the grant by an academic beneficiary and recruited for the remainder of the time by a non-academic beneficiary. In this scheme, both entities would be beneficiaries of the grant.

Provision of seconded staff and supervision

Regardless of who recruits doctoral students, the provision of seconded staff from universities (common to all doctoral networks included in MSCA-DN) is a key opportunity for the non-academic sector. These temporary stays in other entities of the consortium cannot exceed one third of the duration of the doctoral programme in the case of the MSCA-DN Standard/Regular option, a limitation that does not exist neither for the MSCA-DN-ID nor in the Joint Doctorate (MSCA-JD) leading to double or multiple doctoral degrees, recognised in at least two EU Member States or Horizon Europe associated countries.

In this way, non-academic entities not only benefit directly through the reception of seconded researchers but, through such staff, they are able to establish a link with academia and cutting-edge research in their sector, the results of which could have a major impact on their own R&D&I department and business decisions.

In addition, the opportunity for joint supervision of candidates by academia and non-academia encourages direct contacts between organisations. While this supervision is encouraged in MSCA-DN Standard/Regular, it should be noted that it is mandatory for MSCA-DN-JD and MSCA-DN-ID, with the peculiarity that in the latter it must imperatively be conducted jointly by academic and non-academic entities.

The benefits in a nutshell

The benefits for companies in Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Doctoral Networks can be summarised in the following points.

  • Access to innovative research and collaboration with highly qualified researchers. Non-academic partners in the consortium gain access to the latest research in the sector through the highly qualified PhD students they host or recruit.
  • Problem-focused innovation. The transfer of academic research into practical applications promotes the development of new products, services or processes aligned with the partner’s objectives.
  • Future recruitment of highly qualified personnel. Established contact with doctoral candidates allows non-academic partners to assess their capabilities, build relationships and potentially recruit top talent with the specific skills and knowledge required by the organisation.
  • Exposure to new contacts. Collaboration within doctoral networks offers non-academic partners the opportunity to establish contacts with other organisations in academia, industry, and the public sector, broadening their professional network.
  • Knowledge transfer and intellectual property. Participation in MSCA-DN offers the non-academic sector the possibility to exchange research results, technologies, or intellectual property with academia, leading to mutually beneficial outcomes such as licensing agreements, joint patents, or the development of spin-off companies.

A success story: SERENADE

A clear example of this is SERENADE, a project that seeks to promote circular economy approaches to reduce the environmental impact of food production by focusing on the creation of smart and sustainable containers and a portable food spoilage analyser.

Funded through the MSCA-DN-ID 2021 call, this project, led by BSH Appliances (non-academic partner), required the creation of a consortium of experts from four countries (Spain, Germany, Belgium and Italy), composed of companies of different sizes (SMEs and industries) and disciplines (Galloo, Sirmax, Bosch Sensortec, 3S GmbH), partners from the university sector (the universities of Zaragoza, Saarland, Padua and Leuven, the latter as a non-beneficiary associate member) and a technology centre (Flemish Institute for Technological Research – VITO).

Through this network, the PhDs of seven candidates in the fields of food and sensor technologies, artificial intelligence and green materials were designed and will be supervised. These PhD candidates will start their contracts in October 2023, working 18 months full-time at one of the five partner companies, and at one of the five universities for another year and a half. They will also spend up to five months on secondment at partner organisations. In this way, they will all be trained in both academia and industry, and in at least two different countries.

The leader of this project decided to rely on Zabala Innovation and its full proposal preparation services, in which the consultancy firm carries out the design of the work plan, the collection of administrative and technical information, the structuring and drafting of the proposal, the internal review by expert consultants in MSCA-DN, the coordination of the consortium and the submission of the proposal on the European Commission’s Funding and Tenders portal. Thanks to this service and the strong involvement of the consortium, SERENADE obtained a score of 94.6 out of 100, which allowed this project to be one of the highest rated proposals of the call (12% of the 1076 proposals submitted in the Doctoral Networks in 2021).

Expert person

Abel Muñiz
Abel Muñiz

Madrid Office

Consultant and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions expert