SMEs are vital to the European economy, with approximately 25 million of them accounting for close to two-thirds of Europe's employment and GDP.
"Therefore, it comes as no surprise that SMEs are a key component of research and innovation policies. SMEs are often better positioned to exploit new and emerging research opportunities that address ongoing social, environmental and economic challenges," said Mr Potocnik.
The Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) aimed to create a favourable environment for SMEs, but figures show that just 22 per cent of SME proposals considered to be of a 'very high standard' received funding, whereas 50 per cent of total projects of a 'very high standard' received funding.
The Commissioner said that while FP7 aims redress this imbalance, he rejected proposals to set quotas for SME participation. 'This brings all kinds of artificial and bureaucratic processes into motion without really benefiting the best SMEs that we are trying to get in our programmes.
"There are many other things we will do to help SMEs, based on a clear distinction of different kinds of SMEs, their particular needs and what they can contribute to Europe's competitiveness," he said.
Among the FP7 proposals designed to increase SME participation include simplification of the rules, procedures and administration for applicants. The Commissioner referred to the FP6 principle of collective financial responsibility, which he said was a particular problem for SMEs, particularly in collaborative research. "SMEs are often confronted with demands for expensive bank guarantees. We propose to drop collective financial responsibility in the new Framework Programme and to replace it with a guarantee fund, which would cover the financial risks of defaulting project participants."
Another proposed measure is to lower financial burdens for SMEs participating in projects. The current EU contribution for industry participants is 50 per cent of the total cost of the project. Under FP7 proposals, the EU contribution would increase to 70 per cent for projects involving SMEs. 'My thinking was, and continues to be: if we can make life easier for the smaller actors, the life of others will also be easier,' said Mr Potocnik.
The Commissioner noted that successful SME participation under FP7 will also be determined by the organisation of national and regional administrations, and how they help their SMEs participate. He highlighted the need for an efficient network of national contact points and additional programmes to support SMEs' international collaboration outside the direct realm of FP7.
An example is the EUREKA EUROSTARS programme, an intergovernmental network for market-oriented, industrial R&D, which coordinates and pools national resources in order to support trans-national, multi-partner R&D projects initiated and led by R&D led SMEs. Twenty-one EUREKA countries have agreed to participate in the programme, with another twelve indicating their interest in joining. The Commissioner concluded by saying that support for such 'promising' initiatives would be considered in the Commission's FP7 proposals.
For further information, please read the Commissioner Potocnik's speech published here.