Nicolas Vigneron gives us an insight into the EUIPO’s SME programme

09 February 2021

The European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) recently launched the Ideas Powered for business initiative within the framework of its SME programme. Research shows that intellectual property (IP) in all its forms – patents, trade secrets, trademarks, designs and copyrights – is key to SMEs having a competitive advantage in their start-up and scale-up journeys. In this interview, programme manager Nicolas Vigneron gives us an insight into the EUIPO’s SME programme and the main activities and services that are being created with SMEs in mind.


What triggered the establishment of the EUIPO’s SME programme and what do you hope it will achieve?

European SMEs make up 99% of all businesses in the EU and generate more than 65% employment. However, 60% are unable to survive more than 5 years (the point when most ideas collapse due to a lack of external support). Taking a product to market has proven to be a major challenge for entrepreneurs and SMEs. It is important that we concentrate our efforts on finding solutions that help SMEs overcome their initial investment costs. IP can be part of the solution.

Recent studies show that brand-oriented companies are 40% more profitable and achieve double the turnover than others. It is clear that SMEs that make use of IP are more likely to survive than those that do not. Among other reasons, IP is a marketing tool that helps sell a company’s products and services, provides easier access to finance and partnerships, enhances a company’s value and gives greater export opportunities. Furthermore, IP rights protect innovation and creativity and give companies a clear competitive edge. Yet, despite the advantages and the evidence, only 9% of SMEs currently own IP rights. In short, SME innovation remains largely unprotected. According to the SME Scoreboard, the main reason that most SMEs do not protect their IP is a lack of information or knowledge of the benefits.

Ideas powered for business logo

With this in mind, the European Commission asked the EUIPO to spearhead a number of initiatives to support SMEs through their start-up and scale-up journeys. The response from the EUIPO was to create the SME programme, as part of its Strategic Plan 2025, with the vision to empower EU SMEs within the EU and beyond, protecting and enforcing their competitive advantage through IP rights and informing them of the benefits of IP for their businesses.

A series of initiatives under the Ideas Powered for business brand are the first results of this project.

What activities will the SME programme be involved in?

With this programme we want to create a strong, collaborative network, that provides easy-to-understand, trustworthy information to SMEs. We have four objectives over five years:

  • improve the information given to SMEs
  • support SMEs in their business journey
  • provide a supportive network for SMEs
  • increase the successful use of IP rights.

This year we will launch the new Ideas Powered for business website especially created with SMEs in mind. We won’t attempt to reinvent the wheel. With so much support for SMEs already out there, our first step will be to take the best of what is available and put it all together in one place. This new website dedicated especially to SMEs is planned to be launched in 2021 in collaboration with national IP offices and other stakeholders, including 4iP Council. The website will be one of the most visible products of the Ideas Powered for business network and it aims to put IP in the business context where it is relevant to SMEs. It will offer new tools and services specifically tailored to the SME sector, such as discovery guides, a visualisation map, a multi-language chatbot, a training area and a section with selected useful tools.

The website is currently in test mode and we are getting feedback from all our stakeholders including national IP offices and user associations. We plan to launch the website in English to the public in the second quarter of 2021. After fine-tuning, the next steps will be to expand to include the other EU languages as well as improve functionalities and content based on feedback.

Tell us more about the ad hoc services that were fast-tracked following COVID-19 to help and support SMEs.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the EUIPO launched the Ideas Powered for business hub in July 2020.

The hub promotes the benefits of IP protection and provides information on trade marks and designs using clear, jargon-free language. It offers step-by-step fast-track routes to registration, e-learning courses tailored to SMEs and it is also the access point from which users can sign up for free, personalised intellectual property support in their own language. Depending on the case, this can include:

  • pro bono / free, personalised consultations: this service pairs SMEs with providers of free IP consultations to provide swift, tailor-made and practical solutions to questions on IP. The service is offered by IP experts from all over the EU. The EUIPO matches the SMEs with suitable IP experts based on their needs.
  • dispute resolution service: this service is aimed at SMEs currently involved in opposition or appeal proceedings at the EUIPO. If requested, our mediators will get in touch to find a solution that will be acceptable to both parties, saving time and money for all involved.

The feedback given on these initiatives will be used to develop longer-term solutions. To date, over 200 IP professionals from all over the EU have volunteered to provide their support free of charge. More than 400 SMEs have taken advantage of these services and the feedback has been positive on both sides. SMEs can apply here and our experts will be in touch to let them know which service suits their needs best.

We are also keen to have new pro-bono providers to meet the demand of SMEs seeking support. All interested IP experts can sign up here.

What is the Ideas Powered for business network?

In 2020 we started collaborating with many influential European organisations who share our vision to create a network that can support and empower SMEs.

This network of SME stakeholders is growing fast, with nine important EU organisations already signed up and many more in the pipeline for 2021. These organisations, in fields such as accounting, crowdfunding, technology and innovation, include members at national level who are in touch with SMEs from all over Europe.

We have already started working on collaboration activities, such as joint webinars, training initiatives and event participation. This growing network allows us to reach out to SMEs with the objective of bringing the importance of intellectual property protection to them at the right moment in their business cycle. With the help of these organisations we expand our reach exponentially to SMEs from all over Europe. They are currently instrumental in disseminating information on our initiatives, such as the SME Fund, the free, personalised consultations for SMEs or the Ideas Powered for business seminars on IP for SMEs that we organise in collaboration with the national IP offices.

The network will strengthen and extend the EUIPO’s network of traditional partners, such as the national and regional IP offices, and engage with new collaborators that SMEs frequent on their business journey. Specific focus will be given to those falling within the categories of funding and investment, business and trade, education and knowledge exchange, public and private policy and IP.

We recently created a newsletter specifically for these newly joined up stakeholders, which targets the importance of IP at the right stage of an SME’s business journey. Please feel free to subscribe to this SME newsletter, which is packed with easy-to-digest information on IP and on the network.

Ideas Powered for business has just launched the EUR 20 million SME Fund offering financial help to SMEs. Tell us more about this initiative. What is the EUIPO’s role?

The EUIPO has become an important stakeholder in the implementation of the Commission’s Action Plan on Intellectual Property. This close collaboration has resulted in the set-up of important support actions, such as the Ideas Powered for business SME Fund, recently launched by the EUIPO in collaboration with the national and regional IP offices from the EU.

Beneficiaries can receive 50% off their trade mark and design basic application fees at national, regional and EU level and/or 75% off the IP pre-diagnostic service (IP scan) up to a maximum reimbursement of EUR 1 500 per SME.

The SME Fund opened for applications on 11 January 2021 to small and medium-sized enterprises based in the EU that fit the official EU definition of an SME. The 20 million euro grant scheme will be distributed in five phases, or windows, between January and September 2021. SMEs interested in the grant must submit their grant application online before applying for their trade mark and/or design and/or IP pre-diagnostic service (IP scan).

What exactly is an IP pre-diagnostic or IP scan? Who offers the service and what are the benefits?

An IP pre-diagnostic can be compared to a medical check-up, where the patient is a company and the doctor an IP expert. During an IP pre-diagnostic service, by looking at an SME’s business model and its existing products and services, the IP experts can help an SME formulate a plan, anticipate future growth and build an IP strategy. This service can help SMEs decide:

  • which intangible assets can be protected by IP rights
  • how to develop their IP portfolio if they already have registered rights
  • how to plan their strategy for the future.

Through the SME Fund, the SME can apply for the reimbursement of 75% of the costs of the IP pre-diagnostic service. This service is offered in some EU Member States with others coming on board soon. Before applying, SMEs should check the list to ensure that the service is offered in their Member State.

How can the SME Fund help SMEs with trademark and design applications?

SMEs can apply for 50% reimbursement on trade mark and/or design basic application fees, at national, regional and / or EU level. The territorial level of protection will depend on each SME’s business strategy and growth plans, so the SME might decide to have an IP scan carried out before deciding which trade marks or designs it should apply for. There is no limit to the number of trade mark and design applications that an SME can make under the SME Fund. However, each SME can be reimbursed up to a maximum of EUR 1 500 (e.g. if they spend EUR 3000 or more they will be reimbursed EUR 1500).

Can SMEs apply for both services? 75% off an IP scan, 50% off the basic application fees for trade marks and designs? How and when can SMEs apply for the grant?

SMEs can apply for both services but only one application per service is permitted. That means you can decide to make one grant application for an IP scan in one window and one for trade mark and/or design application fees in a subsequent window or combine both in one grant application.

First, you should apply for the grant using the online form provided on the SME Fund web page. Once the grant has been awarded, SMEs have one month to apply for the trade mark and/or design basic application fees and/or IP pre-diagnostic service and, after paying in full, they can then apply for reimbursement, which will be made within 30 days.

The first of five grant application windows in 2021 opened in January. Subsequent application windows will fall in March, May, July and September.

The grants will be awarded on a first come, first served basis during each application window. If you are unsuccessful in one window you can apply again in a subsequent window.

For more information and applications: Power your business with the SME Fund.

SMEs are invited to refer to the Frequently Asked Questions or to contact us at the EUIPO on + 34 965 139 100. A live chat is also available during business hours via the website.

What is the main pitfall SMEs face as regards IP rights and how will the EUIPO’s Ideas Powered for business contribute to avoiding them?

As was highlighted at the beginning, the intellectual property of SMEs remains largely unprotected because there is a lack of information or knowledge about the benefits of IP. In my opinion, this is the main pitfall. This may be due partly to the perception that IP is a complex legal concept, something understood only by those in the field, rather than as an engine for innovation and economic growth.

The EUIPO’s Ideas Powered for business initiative endeavours to make IP understandable and shift this perception to help SMEs appreciate IP as a valuable business asset.

While it’s important to make IP understandable, we recognise the fact that we need to understand the language of SMEs. Being able to engage with SME’s during their business journey will mean that we can help them build an IP strategy that will be central to the business model and will enable the SME to make its own decisions regarding intellectual property.

What are the consequences of COVID-19 on SMEs and how can IP help them? What recommendation would you offer a European SME today?

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented event. It happened suddenly, without warning, and as such many companies have had to swiftly adapt to change. The pandemic intensified the financial difficulties that SMEs usually face, although not all of them are in the same situation. Some SMEs, especially those that have started up more recently and have a greater financial burden, are more vulnerable than other, more well-established companies. In times of crisis it is even more important to make the right decisions and secure the business strategy of companies that will decide to start or reorient their activity to survive. For them, IP protection is critical to fostering innovation. A company that owns IP rights will have a stronger position in the market, a higher competitive advantage and legal protection against counterfeiting. It can even obtain value because, like tangible assets, IP rights can be sold or licensed.

Therefore, we recommend that SMEs protect and make smart use of their intangible assets. They should take advantage of the services and financial support we have on offer in 2021, including the free, personalised consultations on IP and the SME Fund.

We firmly believe that the benefits of IP protection can contribute to raising the survival rate of companies during the COVID-19 crisis.

Talk to the experts, and make the most of the discounts available. The next window for applications to the SME Fund opens on 1 March 2021. See the ‘check list for applicants’ and prepare your application here: Power your business with the SME Fund.

Also, keep an eye on the EUIPO website. We will announce Ideas Powered for business events for SMEs in different countries and webinars on intellectual property for SMEs. Don’t forget that we will soon launch the new Ideas Powered for business website, which is packed with information and tools especially created to support the SME on its business journey.

The views expressed in this feature are those of the interviewee and may not reflect the views of 4iP Council or its members. The purpose of this feature area is to reflect thinking on the topic of intellectual property and enable open discussion.