UK announces return to Horizon science programme in win for startups

After a two-year gap, the government has announced a return to the European Union’s £85 billion Horizon science research programme this morning.

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has confirmed the UK will be able to rejoin the multi-million EU Horizon accelerator, as part of the government’s stated commitment to support innovative UK startups.

Relations had previously soured during tense Brexit negotiations in 2021. This morning, the government announced it would finalise a new, £2bn deal with the scheme, unlocking substantial research and growth opportunities for scientific and technical businesses.

The news will be welcome to startup owners, many of which have received vital early-stage funding from the Horizon programme. That includes Weavr, a Startups-100 listed company which was funded by an initial grant from the programme in 2020.

Following two years of doubt, an official press release this morning encouraged British scientists to freely apply to Horizon grants and projects, “with certainty that the UK will be participating as a fully associated member for the remaining life of the programme to 2027.”

What is the Horizon science programme?

The Horizon science programme represents the largest funding source for research and innovation in Europe, and is the result of a partnership between leading research institutes and technology companies.

Members pay into a shared reserve which is then allocated to individuals or organisations to fund research projects with high potential.

Successful applicants also benefit from access to world-class facilities and access to the EU talent pool. These two resources can be critical for turning their offering from an exciting technology to a viable product.

Pre-Brexit, UK universities – which provide critical support services for the creation of new businesses – were huge benefactors of EU grants. In total, £256m worth of funding was issued to UK firms in 2018-2022, constituting 7.21% of all grant funding in this period.

But in 2020, Brussels blocked UK participation in Horizon following a dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol. The country will now rejoin two years into the seven year programme, which began in 2021.

Weavr, a software as a service (SaaS) platform for embedded finance, emerged from research funded by the EU Horizon fund just before the UK’s withdrawal from the programme.

Weavr CEO and co-founder Alex Mifsud describes the re-entry of UK participation in Horizon as “a moment worth celebrating,” saying it offers huge potential for UK innovators as it does for European ones.

“The funding enabled [Weavr] to collaborate with multiple partners across the EU and the UK, including an academic institution, a financial institution, a law firm, and a card scheme to deliver foundational technology for embedded finance that Weavr continues to develop and to successfully exploit commercially,” he adds.

“Innovation is foundation of prosperity for UK”

That the government has successfully negotiated a return to Horizon could placate business leaders and senior researchers, who had previously criticised the lack of support for UK research and development (R&D).

Earlier this year, Whitehall’s assertion that it planned to “cement the UK’s place as a science and technology superpower by 2030” was thrown into question by the shock closure of Tech Nation in March, after the government pulled vital funding for the startup growth network.

Last month, Founder Forum Group (FFG) announced it is preparing for a September or October relaunch of Tech Nation programs.

In a press release, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “Innovation has long been the foundation for prosperity in the UK, from the breakthroughs improving healthcare to the technological advances growing our economy.

“With a wealth of expertise and experience to bring to the global stage, we have delivered a deal that enables UK scientists to confidently take part in the world’s largest research collaboration programme – Horizon Europe.”

For some scientists, however, the news is too little too late. Dr. Ewan Kirk is Entrepreneur in Residence at Cambridge University. Kirk tells Startups that he welcomes the news that the UK has rejoined the Horizon Europe scheme, “it was a disaster to leave in the first place.

“We’re now three years behind, and we’ve only joined as an associate member — sitting on the fence of the world’s largest and most successful research collaboration. Leaving Horizon has shredded our reputation as an international science power. Why should our international peers trust or rely on us to collaborate going forward?”

AI dominance on the Horizon?

Praising the UK’s return to the programme, the government stressed that Horizon will “give UK companies and research institutions unrivalled opportunities to lead global work to develop new technologies and research projects, in areas from health to AI.”

AI has emerged as one of the most exciting areas of technological innovation this year, with Startups’ research finding that average funding for AI startups increased by 66% between 2021 and 2023.

The UK has been pulling ahead in the AI arms race, with tens of innovative AI startups already making a name for themselves in the small business landscape.

As the government strives for the UK to become a world leader in AI, Horizon will help to service these ambitions by allowing entrepreneurs to engage in cutting-edge collaboration with EU partners to boost investment opportunities and meet demand for AI jobs.

Max Bautin is Managing Partner at IQ Capital, a venture capital company based in London. Bautin described the news as “excellent news for the UK’s deeptech community.

“Much of [the UK’s deeptech] is sourced on research coming out of universities, and equally importantly talented researchers and founders, which will continue to be attracted to the UK as the leading deeptech ecosystem in the EU.”

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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