As the SME Instrument has been redesigned into the European Innovation Council (EIC) Accelerator Pilot for 2021-2027, the European Court of Auditors was called upon creating a report in which the European auditors assessed whether this instrument has effectively supported innovation by SMEs; whether it has targeted the right type of SMEs; if it achieved wide geographic coverage; if the selection process and Commission support were effective, and if the Commission adequately monitored and followed up the instrument, in order to make improvements.

Overall, the special report concluded that the SME Instrument provides effective assistance to SMEs in developing their innovation projects and that having the EU branding helps companies to attract additional investment; however, the auditors also pointed out that the programme has shown a few short comings that, if assessed properly, would have been able to enhance the SME Instrument efficacy even further.

First of all, the frequent changes in the objectives and target groups have caused great confusion over the course of the programme and the late adaptation to the type of applicants (who progressively moved to a younger SMEs’ audience) have slowed down the growth of the SME Instrument. Also, heavily relying upon local stakeholders (NCP; EEN) to promote the SME Instrument has proved to be an ineffective strategy and seriously lowered the otherwise enormous reach of the programme. In this regard, the report goes on remarking the fact that, whilst the impact of NCPs varied greatly between the Member States, scarce support from the Commission; no budget allocation to sustain dissemination activities and overlapping duties have been reported as the main causes for such shortcoming. Finally, other important matters such as failures in the online submission system; shortage of expert reviewers and no differentiation between resubmitted and new proposals have been highlighted as challenges to tackle in order to improve the impact of the SME Instrument

In conclusion, the Special Report provides a thorough list of recommendations that should be implement buy the start of the next Framework Programme, which include:
1.) Improve marketing and communication strategy from National Contact Points and the Enterprise Europe Network to SMEs by promoting peer-learning projects and the exchange of best practice and ensuring that targeted support to the network of National Contact Points for SMEs is operational at the beginning of Horizon Europe, in order to better raise awareness amongst SMEs.
2.) Provide remote evaluators with additional time to conduct their work by setting up a two-way information channel between remote evaluators and jury members to allow better access to the evaluation and provide with feedback on its quality;
3.) Develop purpose-built IT tools to reliably manage the submission and resubmission process, which should be kept separated and, especially with regards to the resubmission, limited, thus freeing up resources which are currently used to re-perform evaluations of the same proposal in multiple successive cut-offs;
4.) Collaborate with Member States and national promotional institutions to promote and advice on nationally backed financial scheme, similar to Phase 1, that might meet the financial needs of the SME-I beneficiaries.

Full version of the report and its recommendations is available here.