12 Feb A conversation with…Laura Muñoz
What was promised is debt. We say goodbye to 2019 with a new beginning, “A conversation with…” or in Spanish, “Una charla con…”. To start this new adventure within RSR Strategy Consultant I have set the bar very high. I wanted to start big and with someone who means a lot to me in my professional and personal environment. Today I would like to introduce Laura Muñoz Senovilla, Innovation and R&D consultant and Project Manager, entrepreneur, PhD in chemistry at the Spanish National Research Council, and above all, a great person.
Laura is energy, she is passion, she is companionship, she is smile, she is unconditional support and she is one of the most capable professionals I know in this fierce world of consulting. In addition, her background in academia together with her vision as a project manager and innovation consultant, makes her point of view on any subject always go beyond.
On this occasion, I have challenged her to talk about innovation, first in a general way, and then to focus on her vision as a participant in the new European Innovation Council pilot.
A talk with…Laura Muñoz” starts.
Q: Laura, can you tell us briefly how you got into the world of innovation consulting and where you are right now in your career?
A: I’d like to tell you that it was the result of a well-defined professional strategy, but the truth is that it was a series of coincidences, very well linked, of course. I come, like many in this sector, from the world of fundamental research. I carried out my doctoral thesis at the CSIC, and I had the opportunity to spend a good part of those years in stays in some of the best European research groups within my field of research. Those stays were not only fundamental to my work, but also opened my eyes to the fact that it was possible to transfer the knowledge generated as a result of fundamental research to industry, through close cooperation between the two. However, the ecosystems that favour such transfer do not always exist, and intermediate links are needed to help ensure that the results of years of effort and dedication, whether from the academic or business worlds, do not end up in a forgotten box. For this reason, after researching what professional opportunities existed in this field, and after training in innovation, I redirected my career towards innovation consultancy, because for me this is the intermediate link that, from its field of action, facilitates the advances in knowledge reaching society and serving to generate wealth through the reinforcement of the industrial fabric and the creation of quality employment. At the beginning of 2019, with more than 4 years of experience in research and another 3 in innovation consultancy behind me, I decided to set up on my own. A decision not without risk, of which 1 year later, I could not be more satisfied.
Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages, in your opinion, of the world of consulting today?
A: From my point of view, one of the main disadvantages in the world of consultancy today is perhaps the massification that is beginning to be felt in the sector. In recent years, especially since the greater participation of SMEs in H2020, with instruments specially dedicated to their participation in the programme, the number of companies offering services related to innovation consultancy has grown exponentially. However, as in most of the sectors that are becoming more widespread, there is a risk of losing quality in the services provided and therefore weighing down the image of the whole sector. We are dedicated to a very demanding business, competing with the best at a European level, which demands the maximum of our capacity as professionals and in which unfortunately the effort is not always synonymous with success. I fear that, if we let this search for results lead us to diminish the excellence of our work, we will end up losing the trust that our clients place in us every day when they entrust us with the most valuable part of their business: their projects, and we all know how difficult it is to regain that lost trust.
On the other hand, the main advantage is that those of us who work in this field are very lucky to be in contact every day with the most cutting-edge innovation in the world in various fields of science and technology. We live in a continuous learning process, working side by side with exceptional professionals, from researchers to entrepreneurs, including business people with long careers, who have decided to devote their time and resources to developing new solutions that help solve problems that affect us all directly or indirectly. And we, as innovation professionals, have the privilege of being able to facilitate the materialization of these solutions, to bring them to the market and therefore to society.
Q: Drawing on your extensive experience, I would like to focus the interview on something you have mastered perfectly: The Horizon 2020 SME Instrument. In general, how do you assess this instrument as a tool to support the internationalisation of small and medium-sized enterprises?
A: I sincerely believe that it is one of the best instruments of the European framework programme for research, proof of which is the excellent results that it is having in terms of, for example, the return on investment of the participating countries. The results published in the interim evaluation report after four years of the programme could not be more promising. For every euro invested by the instrument, SMEs managed to leverage 1.6 million euros of private investment. Moreover, the EASME (Executive Agency for SMEs) projected that by January 2022 each euro invested would attract 4.8 million euros of private investment (3 times more). This is not only an excellent instrument for the internationalization of technology-based companies, but also for their scaling.
Q: As anyone who reads RSR Strategy Consultant knows, the SME instrument has undergone many changes until the current EIC pilot, which we will talk about later. What has been for you, as a first-person participant, the most radical change you have faced?
A: As you say, the instrument has undergone many changes throughout its history, although it is true that up to now they have focused on restructuring or changes in the sections of the proposal template, which once they were used to, did not pose any additional challenge. However, the changes brought about by the transition to the EIC pilot, as we have been able to read in your entries on the instrument, and now that we know the first results of the October cut, have been a real revolution, completely changing the picture to which we were accustomed, with Spain overtaking its leadership position in the instrument and the irruption of countries traditionally positioned in the tail end of the proposal now occupying the top positions. The first thought that came to my mind when these results were published was whether perhaps we had sinned as an expert country that knows the instrument inside out and had trusted ourselves by underestimating the scope of the changes, not only when it came to the proposal, but also the type of companies that the new EIC pilot is targeting.
Q: As we have already mentioned, we are currently immersed in the new European Innovation Council (EIC) pilot, which has meant, among other things, the completion of Phase 1 of the SME Instrument. How have you perceived this change Laura?
A: In my opinion, the disappearance of the instrument is generally very bad news. It was a successful instrument that helped SMEs to study the viability of their projects, not only from a technological point of view, but also from a business and financial point of view. The instrument gave the companies the necessary financial support so that in a short period of time (6 months maximum) they could do their homework and cover, with the help of the best experts in different fields of specialization, the critical aspects in order to be ready for the next big stage (framed in Phase 2), in which to demonstrate and validate their product in operational conditions and from there, to the market. Phase 1 was good even for those who could not get funding. I know of many companies that the result of coming face to face with the 10 gold pages that Phase 1 was, was as or more valuable than getting the funding, because it made them stand in front of the mirror and ask themselves many things that they thought were already solved or not important, about their product, the technology that makes it possible, the business model or the financial plan. Ten sheets that for many companies became the road map to follow and in many occasions the pitch with which they got prizes, the first private investments, or being incubated by the most prestigious startup accelerators in the country.
With the instrument now completed, we can only hope that in the near future the various national bodies will take over and rescue the instrument to continue supporting the companies that generate most employment in Europe, the SMEs.
Q: Another of the main changes we have experienced during October 2019 is the new format of Phase 2 of the EIC, which incorporates the possibility of requesting capital, among other issues. As a participant, what do you think of this new pilot? What changes have you found most difficult to face in this new version of the proposal?
As you say, the possibility of being able to apply not only for a subsidy, but also for a blended-finance has meant a revolution in the instrument, so much so that it has changed its name, with the express mention of SMEs disappearing. A whole declaration of intent on the part of the European Commission to make us aware that it is not just a question of changes in the workforce as had been done on previous occasions, but of the type of companies targeted by the instrument, which are those with funding needs, which also demonstrate sufficient operational capacity to scale up and internationalise their company with their technology-based product as the cornerstone of that growth. In this sense, one of the biggest challenges I have faced in this new version of the proposal is the justification of non-bankable, one of the new and main criteria for the eligibility of companies.
Q: Finally, I’d like you to give us some tips to better prepare for the upcoming Phase 2 calls (EIC Accelerator), which are, as always, highly competitive.
The first piece of advice I could give is don’t get too confident. If you have participated in the program before, even if the staff at first seems like a mere reorganization of sections, it is not, so be careful with the recycling of proposals. From my point of view, the rationale behind the new template is that in the near future the instrument will become an investment vehicle. In other words, the template is structured as if it were a due diligence in itself, since it makes us from the excellence section to outline the risks we will face when we take our product to market, those risks are the ones that will define in great part the value of our company and therefore the equity we will give in exchange for our financial needs. Therefore, the proposal, throughout its 30 pages, has to take us to that point by emphasizing the main aspects and solving the main doubts that an investor would want to know before making the decision to invest or not his money.
Another piece of advice is not to wait to explain the non-bankability almost at the end of the proposal in the section of why you need the support of the EIC, but to justify those financial needs throughout the proposal, so that the evaluator is clear that you are one of the companies that the EIC is looking for. That is, with financial needs that cannot be covered through other mechanisms (bank loans, investment rounds, etc.)
And, finally, pay special attention to the TRL of the tasks you propose, especially those aimed at marketing and therefore classified in TRL 8 and TRL 9, and make clear its difference from those that are eligible for funding through grants (from TRL6 to TRL7).
As I said in the introduction, Laura is a person and a professional who can be trusted and whose experience is a safeguard for success. It has been a real luxury for me that in her busy schedule she has been able to make room to give us some of her knowledge to RSR readers. I think this interview, given the recent changes we are undergoing at the EIC, was more than necessary.
But as I have already said, this is just the beginning. In 2020, I will make every effort to get other experts in the innovation sector and strategy consultancy to give us a little bit of their time to deal with issues such as innovation from political institutions, the role of the humanities and social sciences, innovation in SMEs and how it fits in with support for research career development… who gives more?