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ERC and Pathfinder (FET-Open) are very different funding schemes under Horizon 2020. To name a few differences – ERC is an individual grant, while Pathfinder (FET-Open) is a collaborative project. ERC is looking into excellence in basic research, while Pathfinder (FET-Open) is seeking Future and Emerging Technologies and it is by-definition more applicative. A Pathfinder (FET-Open) project is expected to reach proof of concept in the scope of the project, while in ERC it is not necessary. The budget structure is different, and the list goes on.


A closer look at ERC and Pathfinder (FET-Open)

Still, despite such apparent and basic differences, there exists a hidden link which creates a de-facto undocumented overlap between ERC and Pathfinder (FET-Open). Becoming aware of this undocumented overlap can prove beneficial to many. What is this proposed overlap? How can understanding it prove beneficial? In this article, we will lay the foundations which link between the two projects and create this overlap. Afterwards, we will discuss how to navigate such commonalities for a greater benefit.


The commonalities between ERC and Pathfinder (FET-Open)

ERC and Pathfinder (FET-Open) share several fundamental commonalities setting the stage for a proposed overlap. Such commonalities include:

  • Both grants are found under the Excellence pillar in Horizon 2020;
  • Both are bottom-up funding schemes;
  • Both look for ambitious, high-risk projects and nurture pioneering, groundbreaking science;
  • Both are interested in the long term vision and high gain; and
  • Both use similar evaluation systems.


Of the above mentioned commonalities, there are two specifically important and complementary points that allow us to suggest this undocumented overlap between the ERC and Pathfinder (FET-Open):

  1. The expected novelty of these grants; and
  2. The way they are being evaluated.


Typically, many applicants approach Pathfinder (FET-Open) proposals with knowledge and experience stemming from the general Horizon 2020 collaborative projects. But, due to the above-mentioned commonalities and hidden overlap, we suggest a different point of view. Such point of view sheds light on why a Pathfinder (FET-Open) grant proposal is more competitive.


ERC knowledge will make your Pathfinder (FET-Open) application more competitive

To begin, we must remember that there are relatively high expectations about the novelty of these grants and their groundbreaking nature (which typically cannot be compared with other Horizon 2020 collaborative grants or many other national grants). We know from experience that the tools used for evaluating the high-risk” nature of ERC applications are also used for Pathfinder (FET-Open) applications. The level of expectations in Pathfinder (FET-Open) for that matter are as high as in ERC. Therefore, it is important to note that any experience with ERC applications and its evaluation process can assist and improve the presentation of a winning Pathfinder (FET-Open) application.


Moreover, the Pathfinder (FET-Open) evaluation process resembles the ERC evaluation process to some extent. In fact, it is closer to ERC than to the regular Horizon 2020 grants evaluation process. For one, the review panel selection process in Pathfinder (FET-Open) resembles the ERC review panels structure and system. In addition, in many cases the evaluators of Pathfinder (FET-Open) are selected from the ERC pool of evaluators. This means that when applying to Pathfinder (FET-Open) we are in fact targeting a different (and higher) evaluation standard compared to the regular Horizon 2020 evaluation processes. Similar to the previous item, here as well prior knowledge and experience with ERC evaluation will only benefit a Pathfinder (FET-Open) application.


The bi-directional pathway between ERC and Pathfinder (FET-Open)

In addition to the above, there is another important point to make. There is a possible bi-directional (although somewhat hidden) pathway between ERC and Pathfinder (FET-Open). This is mainly relevant for the community of researchers coming from the academia, which may constitute as “ERC material” on one hand, and engage in technology-oriented pioneering science on the other. Not all projects can exploit this pathway, but there are many that can.


This bi-directional (hidden) pathway allows researchers to either transform one grant application into the other, or even apply to both grants concurrently (with proper adjustments).


Transforming an ERC project into Pathfinder (FET-Open)

The key is to start from the ERC point of view (either an awarded ERC or a rejected proposal with high mark). Examine if it is possible to present a project that starts with basic research work, representing the required high risk and non-incremental work. These elements provide the “ERC nature” of this pathway. To complement this we need the “Pathfinder (FET-Open) nature”. For that we should make sure that the project delivers a new innovative technology at the end (could reach just the proof of concept). This should establish the project’s long term vision. Once established, attend to the rest of the Pathfinder (FET-Open) three gatekeepers to make sure there is a good match at hand.


Transforming a Pathfinder (FET-Open) project into ERC

Though trickier, the same principles apply here as well. The key to transforming a Pathfinder (FET-Open) project into ERC is to ensure that the “ERC nature”(the high risk, high gain, non-incremental work and hypothesis-driven nature, if possible) core is in place. The PI profile should be “ERC material”. Clearly, all collaborative aspects should be removed since this in not expected in ERC. Finally, rethink the project outline. While in Pathfinder (FET-Open) the project should work towards a proof-of-concept at the end of the project, in ERC the expectation is to have a basic research project that is open-ended. If you can transform your project in that way, you will be able to take advantage of this pathway.


Applying concurrently to ERC and Pathfinder (FET-Open)

Technically speaking, there is no restriction preventing a concurrent application to both ERC and Pathfinder (FET-Open). The evaluation processes of ERC and Pathfinder (FET-Open), although similar, are in fact parallel and separate one from the other. This means that there is no central monitoring entity that may forbid or disqualify such concurrent efforts.


When considering the concurrent application option, keep in mind the following guidelines:

  • Handle and prepare each grant separately according to its rules and attributes. Handle the ERC according to ERC guidelines, and do the same in the Pathfinder (FET-Open) application.
  • Pay attention to the timing – the deadlines probably won’t overlap. Therefore, when preparing your application take the timeline into consideration when deciding on the content of each application.
  • Another aspect to consider about the timeline is the evaluation timeframe of each grant and how this is going to affect the proposed content of each of the applications.
  • Do not cross reference between the applications. Make sure that each of them is perceived as an isolated project and effort; BUT, at the same time –
  • Consider overlaps of resources allocation in each of the projects and make sure to avoid potential situations of double-funding.
  • Last, but not least – think about the reviewers. Although the review process is separated and isolated, we know from experience that the reviewers for both ERC and Pathfinder (FET-Open) can be recruited from the same dedicated pool of reviewers. We have seen cases in which the same reviewer was evaluating both the ERC and the Pathfinder (FET-Open) application of the same PI. Having this in mind, if you do plan such a concurrent effort, we recommend to tell a complementary story (rather than an overlapping story) across the two applications, while conforming to all the above-mentioned guidelines (and yes, this could be very tricky). Take advantage of the nature of the grants for that matter: allocate the basic research portion to the ERC, and then the more applicative portion to the Pathfinder (FET-Open).


To conclude, understanding the overlapping commonalities between ERC and Pathfinder (FET-Open) can prove substantially beneficial. While this can help in making a Pathfinder (FET-Open) application much more competitive, it also opens additional doors for funding opportunities. If you’d like to take advantage of such opportunities, and need additional assistance to solidify your approach, check out our available services that can help.

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