In the quest to drive access to innovation funding across Central Europe, the FI4INN project recently conducted a transnational focus group, leveraging insights garnered at regional and national levels. The primary objectives were to validate earlier observations on SMEs and SUPs satisfaction with current innovation funding opportunities, compare cross-country situations, and address common challenges in the region.
Discussions within the innovation funding landscape revealed that companies struggled with evaluating their eligibility for specific instruments, often facing heightened frustration due to ambiguous criteria. The absence of clear specifications in some cases compounded this difficulty, prompting a collective call for national and regional agencies to disseminate information transparently, especially regarding European programs and calls. Simultaneously, communication challenges emerged as a pervasive issue, including prolonged waiting periods, unresponsive channels, and unreliable timelines, contributing to dissatisfaction among participating entities with current support ecosystems. Navigating the intricate support ecosystem represents one of the fundamental complexities for startups and small enterprises. A suggested solution involved implementing a unified instrument tailored for startups, simplifying the system. The concept of “awareness” gained prominence, emphasizing the need for clarity in identifying instruments customized for different company types, enhancing accessibility throughout the innovation funding process. The ongoing struggle with funding and cash flow issues, notably affecting startups, remained a persistent theme, with criticisms directed at ex post form of funding, long-lasting evaluation processes and certain programs imposing high self-financing rates.
Recommendations underscored the significance of supporting instruments based on ex ante financing for startups or a lump-sum principle. This approach aims to provide upfront financial backing. Overall simplification of the system has also been proposed, enhancing startups’ ability to navigate the challenging innovation funding scenery. A call for simplified bureaucracy gained prominence, advocating for streamlined processes. Consortiums were proposed to alleviate bureaucratic burdens, fostering mentorship for startups, and potentially revolutionising how startups access innovation funding. Recognizing the crucial role of early-stage investments, recommendations called for concerted efforts to facilitate connections between startups and business angels, bridging the gap. Focus on business development and sales activities was underscored to bolster overall success, encompassing not only financial backing but also strategic guidance. Support strategies emphasised differentiating tools based on Technology Readiness Level (TRL) and unique startup characteristics, with support emanating from local innovation centres. The innovative idea of considering startups in their early stages as non-profit organisations, qualifying for 100% funding, was introduced, valuing their inherent contribution to society.
The findings and recommendations from the FI4INN transnational focus group represent critical points impeding innovation support across Central Europe. These insights serve as a compass, guiding the way toward an enriched landscape of innovation funding. Implementing proposed solutions would certainly address current challenges, moreover could lay the foundation for transformative shifts in innovation support dynamics, creating a nurturing environment for startups and small enterprises to flourish. Although institutions have their hands often bound by various rules and regulations, they should try to find ways to move towards these recommendations as closely as possible. As Central Europe embraces these changes, it positions itself as a hub of ingenuity and progress, fostering an entrepreneurial spirit that knows no bounds. The collective commitment to implementing these recommendations will fortify Central Europe as a vibrant hub for innovation and entrepreneurship, inspiring positive change and paving the way for a future where innovation thrives.