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Grant consultants take the stress out of funding applications

24 Apr 2009

Grant funding is instrumental to survival and growth in difficult economic conditions. Caroline Fearns of PNO Group explains why turning to a grant consultancy could save you time and money.

PNO Group is a full-service independent grant consultancy that operates across Europe. The company's clients range from small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) through to multinational companies as well as non-profit organizations, technological platforms, multistakeholder partnerships, universities and governments. PNO employs 500 specialists and has 40 offices in 13 European countries.

What types of funding are available to the photonics community?
There is a vast array of opportunities that optics and laser businesses can potentially exploit. Although many photonics companies are aware of the existence of external support, the best way to optimize external funding is not common knowledge.

Grants and incentives are distributed at regional, national and European level and are awarded in the broad thematic areas of R&D and innovation, investment and job creation, manufacturing and eco-innovative technologies. Funding is also available for collaborative R&D programmes, for example to develop next-generation optical internet access.

In the UK, regional grants are distributed to SMEs by regional development agencies for R&D activities that result in new knowledge or novel products or processes. Regional governments throughout Europe provide the same function. Funding for PhD studentships are a further opportunity for photonics businesses, which may take the lead in arranging projects with an academic partner of their choice.

R&D tax credits are a form of tax relief that can either reduce a company's tax bill or, for some SMEs, provide a cash lump sum. Although often not fully optimized, the aim of the tax credit is to encourage greater spending on R&D and to promote investment in innovation. A similar system is available in Europe and is especially generous in France.

Do I need a grant consultant?
The short answer is no. Strictly speaking, it is not always necessary to use a grant consultancy and many businesses have successfully applied independently. For those that have allocated sufficient time to the process, including subsequent administration, grant funding has paid dividends.

However, allocating time, knowing who the funding bodies are and what funds are available is only half the battle. An overall view of all of the options available and proficiency in the application process is just as important to improve your chances of success and, more importantly, to fully optimize your external funding strategy.

The world of grants is extremely sophisticated, often challenging and always demanding in terms of resources. Consultants such as PNO understand all of the complexities. We have in-house specialists in a wide variety of fields, from life sciences to aeronautics, plus the necessary skills to act as an independent partner for any organization that is seeking public funding. The net effect of our contribution is to reduce your workload, increase your return on investment and shorten your time to market.

Can you give an example of a company that has got it right?
NXP, a semiconductor company founded by Philips, has been highly successful in procuring external funding. Headquartered in Europe, the company has about 30,000 employees working in more than 30 countries and posted sales of $5.4 bn (€4.1 bn) in 2008.

NXP keeps a close eye on the grant landscape but has a unique blended approach to external funding. Although the application phase is managed internally, the company uses grant professionals to ensure that compliance to the terms of the grant is achieved. This includes providing the declarations and management reports that are required so that the grant may be drawn down in full.

SMEs should be equally switched-on to the notion of a strategic external funding plan. Innovative SMEs have access to and need to be aware of the range of grants and awards that allow projects to progress and recognize achievement and contribution to the sector.

Luminanz, a UK firm developing LED-based low-energy lighting, was recently awarded a prestigious Shell Springboard grant for its intelligent and energy-efficient lighting solution. Luminanz sees external funding as an important business strategy and has used professional organizations to ensure that its external funding portfolio is optimized and well managed.

What do companies do wrong?
The main stumbling block is failing to identify an opportunity early on. It is also important to explain your project in a clear and concise manner as well as how it aligns with the aims of the grant scheme. A common mistake is to overlook the ways in which different schemes can complement each other or in some cases clash. There are examples of cases where attaining one grant may preclude a company from applying for a more lucrative opportunity.

A problem shared by companies in all sectors is that they are unsure of their eligibility and are reluctant to apply for grants owing to a lack of knowledge or resources to handle the laborious administration. Companies are often not aware of the level of information required of them, even after the application is submitted.

It is crucial to allow plenty of time for the appraisal period that follows submission of an application. Keep in mind that it can vary substantially – from a few weeks to months – and consider the number-one rule: that a project must not commence until an offer is made.

• This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Optics & Laser Europe magazine.

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