FEATURE
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Show me the money

Gemma Church looks at the availability - or otherwise - of EU-wide public funding for photonics-related projects

To fund or not to fund? That is the particularly thorny question for those dishing out the money within Europe’s photonics industry.

Photonics is big business, employing around 246,000 people in Europe (not including subcontractors) and with more than 5,000 companies involved in manufacturing photonics, most of which are SMEs, according to figures provided by SPIE.

And the range of places photonics companies and academics can apply for funding is also rather large. These include: the European Commision, with its own Photonics Unit to hand out an estimated €90m worth of funds over the next year or so; the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC); the UK-based Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and companies such as the IP Group, which commercialise a university’s Intellectual Property (IP).

There is also Photonics21, which is a voluntary association of businesses and other stakeholders within the European photonics market to help coordinate Europe’s R&D photonics endeavours. But with all the jargon, red tape and project proposals, how can anyone get their hands on the European photonics cash mountain?

The European Commission

The European Commission has a Photonics Unit, which is one of the basic technology units of the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) programme, which is in turn one of the major themes identified for the 7th European Framework Programme (FP7). Ronan Burgess, who is from the EU Commission Photonics Unit, spoke on some of these funding topics in April at the SPIE Europe Photonics Europe symposium, and said that photonics has been given a much higher profile in FP7.

SPIE does not fund photonics projects as such, but it does fund investment into the future of photonics through things like scholarships and support for the ICO conference, the ICTP Winter College, ALOP, and other programmes. Karin Burger, manager of SPIE Europe, says: ‘We inform our constituents of opportunities that arise through various programmes.’

Generally, the two main sources of funding for photonics scientists are those at a national level, and at a European level. John Magan, acting head of the photonics unit at the European Commission, says: ‘Roughly every year, the European Commission has a call expressly for photonics proposals to be funded. Our last one was in 2007, and we have two more planned – one at the end of 2008, another in mid-2009. There are other calls also of interest to the photonics community by the various member states, individually or in concert, and other European initiatives such as Eureka.’

The total EU-wide Community funding in the two planned photonics calls in 2008 and 2009 is €90m, according to Magan.

The European Commission chooses and funds photonics projects based on whether they fit within its calls for proposals. ‘We describe the projects expected in a work programme that we establish with the help of the community through the Photonics21 Technology Platform and that is approved by the member states,’ explains Magan. ‘After submission in response to an open call, the projects are selected through peer evaluation by experts in the area against a set of criteria, which we publish in advance.’

Photonics21 is a European technology platform with the main aim of improving the European Union’s competitiveness within photonics in five industrial areas, including: information and communication, lighting and displays, and security.

The European Commission is trying to coordinate its research efforts too. ‘National funding by member states is based on national objectives,’ says Magan, ‘while European-level funding is based on European ones. But the member states and the Commission are increasing their cooperation and working together towards a more integrated European Research Area. In photonics, this is taking place through the Photonics21 Mirror Group, made up of the relevant funding bodies in participating member states.’

The Photonics21 Mirror Group was set up and is chaired by the European Commission, with the objective of better coordinating European and national photonics funding strategies by bringing together national bodies in regular meetings. The Photonics21 Mirror Group has subsequently agreed to set up a joint funding activity called ERANET-Plus, which is basically a virtual common pot of money to fund photonics research, where two-thirds of the cash comes from the participating states and one-third from the EU. ERANET-Plus is likely to be launched in 2009 and focus on next-generation network access, according to Magan.

Working through the red tape

As with all funding applications, there are a lot of boxes to tick to make sure your application stands a chance and the European Commission has a National Contact Point Team to help applicants through the funding process.

Two of the main points to bear in mind when applying for EC funding are that an application fits within the calls for proposals and involves a collaboration with three or more partners from multiple EU countries. Speaking at the AILU event: ‘Funding Opportunities in High Value Manufacturing’, Jane Watkins, part of the National Contact Point Team for FP7UK, says: ‘You must wait for the call for proposals before making an application. You need to fit into these topic areas and if you do not fit then there is no point in going to first base as it takes so much time and money to put together a proposal. If you do fit then we will help you every step of the way.’

As for finding partners to work with, Watkins says: ‘Go to who you know and who you trust and know you can work with.’ But the process can take some time. The period between applying for funding and getting the first payment within a grant, can be around 12 to 14 months within European Commission funding, according to Watkins.

Technology Strategy Board

The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) funds a range of research and development projects, including those within the photonics area, and will fund proposals that offer the greatest scope for boosting UK growth and productivity. TSB has £1bn to invest over three years between 2008 and 2011.

Speaking at the AILU event, Jim Clipson from the TSB makes it clear that TSB is business-driven in its approach to funding. ‘We are looking for business and business-driven ideas and opportunities,’ he says.

The TSB hands out its funding via a series of ‘competitions’, which basically catagorise the types of research it will fund, in a similar vein to the ‘call for proposals’ of the European Commission.

The amount of time taken between applying for funding and getting the cash is relatively short at TSB, with Clipson estimating it takes around 19 weeks from when a competition is closed, to when the money is received. The success rates too are relatively high; for example, last year six competitions were launched, of which more than 760 applications were received and 20 per cent were successful in their bids, according to Clipson.

So what are the secrets behind a successful application at TSB? First of all, an applicant should fulfil the four basic criteria of the TSB funding process (see www.innovateuk.org). Clipson says: ‘There is no ideal project; they are all different, but there has to be a clear commerical opportunity, a technical but realistic challenge and a demonstrable need for support.’

If a candidate thinks they tick these initial four criteria with their bid, then they can submit an Expression Of Interest (EOI) to the TSB, explaining how their research would fit within the competition call, their business plan and so on. Clipson explains that it is vital that this EOI is clearly written, with the criteria in mind, as he says: ‘A lot of applicants are very good at explaining, but not always so good at writing it down.’

If a candidate passes the intial EOI stage, then their bid goes through another assessment. The chance of finally getting the funding if the EOI stage is passed is around 50 per cent, according to Clipson.

EPSRC

The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Programme at the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has a budget of £79m for research and £21m for training, to commit in 2008-2009. The remit of this programme includes communications, computer science, people and interactivity, semiconductor materials for device applications including modelling, and electronic and photonic devices.

Unlike the European Commission and TSB, the majority of EPSRC funding is within an open call for proposals, so that any photonics topic is eligible to apply for funding without having to fall within certain defined areas. But there are also more structured routes to apply for EPSRC funding, with some calls for proposals (see page 19).

Dr Liam Blackwell, head of the Information and Communications Technology Programme for the EPSRC, says: ‘Our responsive mode scheme, where applicants can apply at any time of the year, makes up the bulk of our research funding in ICT. We therefore feel funding is readily available to the photonics research community provided their bids are of high quality and competitive.’

Dr Blackwell adds: ‘EPSRC funds research on the basis of its scientific and technical quality and gives considerable flexibility to researchers in how they conduct their research projects.’

Funding from the EPSRC’s ICT programme is only available to applicants from eligible UK institutions - although links with other countries are encouraged.

Spin-outs and SMEs

Funding for university spin-outs is also changing, with specialist investment companies popping up to help new businesses. In the UK, the IP Group is one such company that commercialises a university’s Intellectual Property (IP). With 10 UK university partners, it will provide funding to university start-ups that want to branch out into the commercial world in return for a stake of that spin-out company.

The group funds a range of technologies, including photonics-based endeavours. For example, Oxford Medical Diagnostics is one such start-up that originated at Oxford University and is developing laser-based techniques for the analysis of gases.

It’s not just such specialist investment companies which are eager to encourage smaller businesses. Another area of emphasis for the European Commission is SMEs, with small-to-medium enterprises and academia able to receive up to 75 per cent of their funding needs from the Commission, with larger businesses only able to apply for a 50 per cent grant.

Affecting factors

Magan offers the following advice on funding proposals: ‘Probably the most important things to get right are: develop the right idea, find just the right partners to do the job, and describe properly how you plan to do it. Make sure you address the three criteria we apply: the scientific and technical quality of the work; its implementation (management, the quality and balance of the consortium, resources); and the potential impact of the project. We also provide a service to check prospective proposals and give feedback, so if you’re not sure, just contact us.’

Another potential problem facing the photonics funding space is the credit crunch, but Magan does not see any immediate danger: ‘The European-level planning and funding cycle is more than a year and we have an overall budget fixed up to the end of our Seventh Framework Programme in 2013. Perhaps it will have an impact on national programmes. But if anything, it will most likely change the areas funded, with the increase in demand for technological solutions, which will allow a transition to a new, more agile and more efficient economy.’

What are the chances?

The sort of photonics projects that are likely to get a slice of the funding pie are those that are in a similar vein to the major European projects.

The European Commission’s Magan says: ‘Our current work programme calls for projects in key applications (communications, lighting, sensors, biomedical, and industrial applications), together with the underlying technologies and more advanced research in areas such as organic photonics and nanophotonics.’

But the funding is limited so not all proposals win through. Magan adds : ‘Although the European funding is considerable, the amount available still doesn’t allow us to support all the best projects in the areas we call for, so some of them unfortunately miss out. And also, of course, any projects that don’t address the European-level areas we call for – though some of these could be funded nationally.’

There are plenty of national photonics groups, which can help with funding applications and photonics promotion, with national platforms set up in Italy (called PHORIT), Slovenia (Fotonika21), Spain (Fotónica21) and Switzerland (SwissLaserNet) and one currently being set up in Greece too. Within England one source of funding, for photonics or other research endeavours, are the Regional Development Agencies.

Collaborative future

The future for European photonics funding seems to have a heavy emphasis of collaboration between member states. ‘Apart from a shift towards the technologies and applications (next generation networks, biophotonics and green photonics),’ says Magan, ‘there will probably be more international partnerships and cooperation between European and other partners and funding agencies in the Americas, Asia, and the rest of the world, to address global issues and open new applications and new markets.’

Collaboration within the EU is also seen as key by Burger. ‘Funding is available if the prospective project falls within the parameters of the EC-defined Framework (currently number 7),’ she says. ‘There are requirements to work with partners across Europe, and so far we have not seen a project that has been carried out by one organisation being funded.’

So it seems that collaboration will be the next-big-thing in photonics funding. The key points from the funding bodies for applicants seem to be: make the message clear, the research relevant and collaborate whenever possible.

Grand challenges for small science

The UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is different from its EU Commission and TSB counterparts. Instead of telling researchers what areas will receive funding, it has a more open approach and lets the scientists set the agenda, as John Wand, head of the nanoscience programme at the EPSRC, explains: ‘We fund academics and blue sky research, but we do not have an agenda and instead the best proposals on a scientific basis are chosen, having gone through the peer review process.’

Speaking at the AILU event, Funding Opportunities in High Value Manufacturing, Wand adds: ‘The disadvantage is we are looking at the high-end academic needs, which might not be everyone’s cup of tea and might be seen as unfocused.’

So the EPSRC set up a cross-council programme to give some of the funding more direction, while maintaining its previous agenda-free funding too. Within nanoscience through engineering to application, the cross-council programme has set up a series of ‘Nanotechnology Grand Challenges’, which is a call for large-scale, integrated, interdisciplinary projects aimed at taking nanotechnology through towards application in an area of potential societal and/or economic importance.

The first Grand Challenge focused on nanotechnology use within the energy arena and the second is tackling nanotechnology for healthcare, with the focus for the third not yet set and due for announcement in summer 2009.

Within each Grand Challenge, around four projects will be funded potentially over a three-year period. At the end of the second year of funding, the EPSRC looks into the individual projects and those deemed to be the most successful, or of the greatest potential, are given funding for a third year to scale up their endeavours. Around one or two projects will get this secondary stage of funding.