Developing a culture of innovation in an outsourcing-based market

In the early 2000s we started by developing applications for companies who needed to outsource their software development needs. But within a few years’ timeframe, RomSoft has grown a vision to develop its own research and development department. I guess that’s how I got hired at RomSoft, in the first place.

From that point on, RomSoft has built its long term strategy around this objective, which then influenced its development processes, choice of projects and management decisions.

To clear out a small detail: research is expensive, and its results – somewhat unpredictable. So if you’re a software development SME from Eastern Europe and want to bring your contribution to reshaping the world through technology, where do you start? Launching your ideas on KickStarter? That might help too, but RomSoft decided to explore other options.

The biggest advantage of being a Romanian based SME is to be part of the EU. The European Commission can be the first potential “investor”, through its R&D strategic funding programs (dating back in 1984).

What’s your area of expertise?

After this revelation, there’s a bit of research work to do in order to understand what type of projects should you apply for? The best way to go is to analyze your company’s CV and see what your expertise areas are. If your genius idea falls into one of these expertise areas, it’s a winner.

At RomSoft, for example, we have solid knowhow in developing software systems with application to various areas of modern medicine, like e-Health, telemedicine or self-health management. These areas are emerging precisely from the opportunities created by the rapidly evolving technologies, addressing problems that could not be addressed a few decades ago:

  • Reducing patients’ dependency from doctors and caregivers
  • Better, improved data on patient history
  • Prediction and prevention of acute episodes of chronical diseases

Less invasive treatments

Is your idea unique?

Having figured out your area of expertise, there’s something else to make sure of: your idea must be unique, at least at European level. Also, it has to solve a global problem. The EU doesn’t really want to waste its research and development budget on small purposes. Throw in feasibility and you have a good candidate.

Hold on, there’s more. The EU may not care about your idea, even if it’s unique, global and feasible. It has to fall into a category of interest. In order to check, go to their calls for proposals page.

There you’ll find a complete list of European Union’s priority research themes. Domains like health, information technology, environment, sustainable development are top of the list. The better your idea is aligned with one of the announced themes, the more chances to succeed.

No place for lone runners

The third rule learned by someone looking for EU R&D funding, is that this is not really a place for lone runners. You’ll need a wolf pack. Well, in bureaucratic Brussels terms they are called research consortiums, but you get the idea.

Brussels clerks have a very precise check-list of parameters when they perform the selection of projects. For instance, if you take a university – all they care about is: does the idea have scientific value? If you take a company, they’ll ask: does this have a market potential? But from the EU standpoint, a project is analyzed from all these perspectives.

A research consortium must be well-balanced, to include universities – who sell pure research; to include entities that can apply the research, for example, in the medical field – hospitals and clinics that will test the results; and also, to include private companies that will develop a physical product based on the research, a system to be marketed and sold. The more balanced the consortium, the better its performances.

To find partners for your consortium, you don’t have to yell in the woods with the hope that someone will hear you. There are specialized entities that you can address to, like the Enterprise Europe Network. EEN is an institution created mainly to help European SMEs increase their competitiveness on external markets. It offers both EU funding expertise, as well as innovation and transfer technologies consultancy. Their services are offered for free by several hundred territorial member-agencies, including chambers of commerce, technological centers, universities and regional development agencies. You just have to identify the agency closer to you and ask for its services.

In the North-East region of Romania, you can contact either Tehnopolis or ADR Nord EST.

Or, you can join a research and innovation cluster that fits your targeted expertise areas. For example, RomSoft is founding member of the Imago-Mol cluster, the only medical imaging cluster in both Romania and the EU. These clusters strive to link public bodies, like hospitals, to private enterprises, especially firms in the IT and software development sector.

Expectations vs. Reality

Up to this point, things look clean and pleasant. Find an idea, find a consortium, write a proposal and hit the submit button. But reality may look a bit different, as depicted in the next image.

Eu funded research roadmap

In the example above you can see there may be a long way from idea to getting it financed…

A track record

The first project that got financed since I came as a head of research & development at RomSoft was DiAdvisorTM.  It was a personal blood glucose prediction system, meant to help patients struggling with type I and II diabetes to lead a much closer to normal life.

In a later project, PEPPER, we got to continue developing the innovations from DiAdvisorTM, so that the system could be used with an insulin pump. The patients wouldn’t have to inject themselves anymore, as the process would be completely automated.

But I could confidently say that the project that came the closest to a marketable product is EMIM – a fully functional online platform connecting patients, doctors and pharmacists.

The integrated pharmacy app of EMIM was featured last year on Euronews, in a piece depicting how European business clusters have been driving innovation despite the difficult context created by the covid-19 crisis.

A visual timeline of all the research projects developed since I joined RomSoft would look like this:

RomSoft research timeline

The cumulated financing attracted by RomSoft was a modest EUR 4.006.000, with a co-financing totaling a bit over EUR 1 mil.

Take away thoughts

To sum it up, the most sensitive aspect of the whole process is the way the project proposal is written. Be precise. Be complete. Cover all chapters, no matter how unimportant you think some of them. Act quickly. Calls are active for relatively short periods, and you have to submit your proposal in due time.

If your proposal is rejected, it’s not the end of the world. You will get a report from the commission with key aspects you need to improve. This is valuable knowledge, don’t ditch it in the trash bin. Some ideas get financed the 3rd or 4th time around. The only condition is that you have to rename your project. And of course, to improve it.

In the end, research and development is not as straightforward as you may want it to be, but here are some thoughts to help you put things into perspective:

(1) Not every research idea will prove a good idea when put into practice. A research project must be thought within reasonable risk limits.

(2) Every research project is a learning process and if at the end you can say that you’ve gained some new insights about how things work, this is a progress.

(3) The innovation capability is like a muscle: the more it’s exercised, the stronger it gets.

(4) There is no longer research for the sake of research. Though we don’t necessarily like the word, we must come up with new products, especially innovative ones, with significant added value, so that we can compete (at EU level) with the US or Asian markets, that have a major advantage due to being more result oriented.