Key learnings from EU-funded doctoral programmes

Applying for funding can provide value beyond securing funds, it can prepare for smooth and successful project implementation. To continuously learn and advance, we are following up with previous clients. Recently, we touched base with clients currently conducting MSCA (Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions) projects, i.e., implementing research training and doctoral programmes. The Technical University of Darmstadt (TU Darmstadt) and University of Groningen are two among our previous clients that we have followed up with, both providing key insights.

TU Darmstadt is the coordinating institution of the CC-TOP MSCA project, a doctoral programme that combines leading-edge enzyme discovery technologies with state-of-the-art protein engineering strategies and structural biology methods. The aim is to optimise the process-validated carboligases for scalable applications in industrial biotechnology, in turn establishing greener, more efficient, and more cost-effective manufacturing processes. More detailed, CC-TOP delivers tailored research training to 15 top Early-Stage Researchers (ESRs) on cutting-edge carboligases, i.e., enzymes that catalyse the bonding between carbon atoms (C-C).

We are already halfway through the programme and the doctoral candidates are making great progress in their individual projects. They are also very much enjoying their secondments for collaborative research to other universities or companies of the network in Europe, expanding their science skills and experiencing new cultures. We have, so far, had three great training schools, one in Dubrovnik, Croatia, one in Madrid, and one in Las Palmas, Spain, which combined science and soft-skills training, along with career counselling from experts. Thus, preparing our doctoral candidates for future leadership roles in the field of biocatalysis” says CC-TOP Project Manager, Agapi Theodoridou, and adds: “We share our experiences online, giving a glimpse of our programme and trainings”.

Despite unforeseen challenges caused by Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic, including additional fees and visas as well as delays and travel restrictions, the CC-TOP project has followed the plan defined in the MSCA funding application. CC-TOP secured about €4 million in EU funding under the Horizon 2020 framework. More specifically, CC-TOP is supported by MSCA-ETN (European Training Network), the EU flagship programme for doctoral training under the sub-programme MSCA-ITN (Innovative Training Networks), which in the current Horizon Europe framework corresponds to MSCA-DN (Doctoral Networks). Innovayt assisted the CC-TOP consortium, including TU Darmstadt and 11 other beneficiaries from both academia and leading industry as well as 8 associated partners, to achieve this successful funding outcome.

Previous good experience and colleagues recommending Innovayt, weighed in on our decision to apply with help for such a competitive grant. The most beneficial aspect of applying with Innovayt’s help, was the overall coordination of the proposal writing process, which was executed within a limited timeframe and with many very busy partners. In addition, the meticulous tailoring of the proposal to exactly meet the EU success criteria, was instrumental to the positive outcome.

Agapi Theodoridou, CC-TOP Project Manager.

When asked if there was anything particular in the application process that has helped when conducting the project, Theodoridou pinpoints that the well outlined training plan for the doctoral candidates has made the project easy to implement. On the same question, Sandy Schmidt, Professor at University of Groningen, answered that the structure behind the management process has eased the project implementation. Professor Schmidt also emphasised the strategic guidance on the overall project structure and scoping as key elements.

The University of Groningen, together with 19 other partners ranging from universities and research institutions to leading industry players, secured €2.7 million in MSCA-DN funding after a close-to-flawless evaluation scoring 98.8%. This grant is being used to support the BiodeCCodiNNg project.

Driven by the paucity of knowledge around the underexploited family of enzymes performing N-N and C-C bond formations, the BiodeCCodiNNg project objective is to train 10 doctoral candidates with out-of-the-box thinking as well as an entrepreneurial mindset to expand the repertoire of enzymes for industrial biotechnology. Decoding novel reaction chemistries from enzymes that are not accessible with the existing biocatalyst portfolio is a formidable challenge. However, if successful, it will open brand-new opportunities for a more environmentally friendly production of chemicals and pharmaceuticals. The project is still in an early phase, with all doctoral candidates recently recruited.

Reflecting on the grant application process, Professor Schmidt pinpoints gaining feedback that is based on experience and expertise as well as having someone coordinating the proposal and process among the main benefits of working with Innovayt.

I knew from previous applications how challenging it can be to apply for funding, ranging from requirements constantly changing to competition getting stronger, so it was important to have Innovayt by our side. It was such a relief, it allowed us to focus more on the science. All in all, very helpful!

– Sandy Schmidt, Professor at University of Groningen.

It stands clear that applying for funding can set the scene for smooth and successful project implementation, ranging from outlining training plans to structuring management processes in a well thought-out, comprehensive, and realistically feasible manner. However, it also stands clear that applying for funding can be a challenging and time-consuming task where external expertise is appreciated and of instrumental value.

Thanks to both TU Darmstadt and University of Groningen for great collaborations, we are looking forward to continuing following your project outcomes and impact!

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