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From start-up to scale-up: 4 ways IMI boosts small business

As they grow, SMEs in all sectors face constraints on their resources. IMI’s SME strategy allows us to support them in different ways

Image by Mihai Surdu/Pixabay 


Of the more than 300 SMEs involved in IMI projects, the majority are partners in consortia, meaning that they benefit from IMI’s funding pot. But IMI has more than one way to help SMEs beyond cash infusions. A number of SME affiliates are actually contributing EFPIA partners, while others are commercial ‘spin-outs’ that owe their existence to entrepreneurs who spotted a market gap while carrying out research in a consortium. Finally, our projects even offer support to SMEs outside the IMI family who otherwise have no connection to our funded research.

As project partners: support, insights and new applications

IMI projects tend to attract SMEs in the biotechnology, IT, data management and project management fields. As members of a multidisciplinary team, they get to work on research initiatives on a bigger scale than they could hope to carry out alone.  They often get to team up with the leading experts in their field.

These SMEs benefit in a number of different ways beyond the funding support, such as networking and product development (see article “Small firms see big gains from joining forces with pharma”). The project PREFER, for example, is working on ways to extract patients’ opinions and preferences about the pros and cons of drugs so that they can be taken into account when decisions are being made by regulators and other stakeholders. The Belgian SME MindBytes, which develops digital health tools, came on board for this task.

According to MindBytes’ Scientific Integration Expert, Connor Buffel, the company’s participation in PREFER has allowed them to build long-term relationships with new partners, which helps them broaden their reach. Thanks to the large scale of the project, they have also been able to both validate and fine-tune the tools that they brought to the project. This year MindBytes got an order from a pharmaceutical company that they credit to their membership in the PREFER team.

According to Mr Buffel, Mindbytes even managed to identify an existing unique selling proposition that they had not been aware of before. “It will allow us to expand our applications in many other areas that we are not currently active in,” adding that being part of the project helps them understand how pharma approaches problems in this field and how they view the activities of companies like MindBytes.

“It has also allowed us to engage with people working in emerging areas of the pharma industry. Internal pharma budgets related to patient preference work has been increasing over time. Five to ten years ago, budgets were either minimal or non-existent. So it’s a nascent field that is increasingly being recognised as important by pharma, PREFER being a case in point, and funding is growing accordingly.” He adds that their work in the project has made them more familiar with the diversity of departments, roles, and initiatives related to patient involvement, a key priority for IMI, that are emerging in the sector.  


IMI projects can also act as gateways to international markets. Harbour Antibodies is an SME involved in ZAPI, a zoonotic disease preparedness project. The company engineers mice to produce high-affinity human antibodies, and their work in ZAPI has helped yield insights that are now being applied in COVID-19 research. Company founder Frank Grosveld says that the biggest benefit of being part of the ZAPI consortium has been the international academic contacts they have made. Harbour Antibodies is the European daughter company of Harbour Biomed, which is based in China and the United States. Being part of IMI projects allows the partners the kind of international reach that is important for the SME’s growth. He adds, “We have built up a very good and intense collaboration with a few partners where we complement each with our different expertise.”

SMEs might also join consortia as partners in projects that are already underway, depending on the project’s needs. In 2017, the antimicrobial resistance project ENABLE selected three European SMEs to bring their promising antimicrobial candidates through preclinical development. According to Sven Hobbie, CEO of the Swiss biotech start-up Juvabis, partnering with ENABLE was critical to their rapid progress, saying that it aligned the SME "to the high competitive standards set forth by the consortium.”

As contributing EFPIA partners: just add scale

Pierre-Alain Bandinelli from Da Volterra, a French biotech SME, says that the visibility associated with his company’s involvement in two IMI antimicrobial resistance projects, COMBACTE-NET and COMBACTE-CDI, helps the company build on its reputation, which can help attract potential investors.

However, the biggest advantage, according to Mr Bandinelli, is the power of the collective resources that IMI is able to bring to the table. Although Da Volterra is a contributing partner and EFPIA member, meaning they have committed their own resources to the project, IMI’s investment has made all the difference. The project is allowing the SME to carry out a phase 3 (efficacy) study on one of the company’s promising therapeutic assets.

“Phase 3 trials are not often led by biotech companies and that’s only been possible for us thanks to the co-funding by IMI,” says Mr. Bandinelli. Being in the consortium has also helped Da Volterra benefit from the expertise of the members of the consortium, leaders in the field, who helped build the study. The work being carried out in COMBACTE is essential to the company success. “If it was not for the IMI support, it would a different story. Here, we can build on IMI’s funding and resources – with a reach that is unequalled.”

“In terms of public funding, I’m not aware of any other instruments that have the commensurate size to conduct late stage clinical studies,” he says. Once the COMBACTE-NET trial is over, the data generated will hopefully lead to market approval for Da Volterra’s asset. “In our case,” adds Mr. Bandinelli, “IMI is really turning something that was just an idea in the lab into something clinically meaningful for patients.”

As spin-outs: spotting new opportunities

A spin-out is a company that fills a market gap identified during the course of a project and ultimately gains a life of its own. IMI projects have resulted in a number of successful examples.

The project EHR4CR created a platform for accessing millions of (privacy-protected) electronic patient health records from different sources across Europe, allowing scientists to find the right candidates for clinical trials, leading to the formation of the start-up InSite in 2016. Another project, eTOX, did the same for drug discovery toxicology databases. In order to allow this simple search function while at the same time protecting pharma companies’ confidential data, the infrastructure that became the company Phenaris was born.

OncoTrack, which found molecular fingerprints of cancer tumours and studied their response to drugs, led to the creation of two spin-outs. CPO (cellular phenomics and oncology) was founded in Germany by three members of the Oncotrack consortium in 2014. The company, which commercialised the technology of 3D tissue culture systems as a basis for drug testing, was restructured and re-branded as CELLphenomics in 2019, and even led to the creation of a second company, ASC Oncology.

As outside SMEs: maximising IMI reach

Finally, there are SMEs that are not part of the IMI ecosystem but who get a helping hand in one way of another from our projects. The European Lead Factory allows SMEs with a potential drug target to apply to access to their drug discovery platform in the hunt for new compounds and ultimately, develop into new drugs. Other projects have supported small businesses by issuing their own calls, providing funds for products or services that help with the project’s core activity. EDHEN runs open calls for SMEs to apply for free training and certification to convert health data from various formats to the OMOP common data model. By getting certified, the SMEs not only boost their prospects by expanding their reach and range of services, they can also contribute to the creation of emerging markets for data sciences. So far, 26 SMEs have been certified


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