The Enterprise Europe Network (EEN) turns 15 this year. To celebrate this milestone, join us for a conversation with two proud ambassadors of the Network. European Commission’s Deputy Director-General, Maive Rute, and Natalia Martínez Páramo, Head of Unit at the European Innovation Council and SMEs Executive Agency (EISMEA) share their views on the Network’s success and way forward.
In a nutshell, what is the Enterprise Europe Network, and why was it set up?
Maive Rute: The Enterprise Europe Network is the world’s largest support network for small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) with international ambitions. It brings together over 450 local chambers of commerce, innovation agencies, regional development agencies and others across Europe and beyond to offer a wide array of services to those companies. These range from advice on Single Market rules, help on accessing finance, and support for innovation, to help in finding investors and commercial partners in another country.
We set it up 15 years ago to pool together the services already being provided at local level to help SMEs establish cross-border commercial partnerships, give advice on navigating local rules and requirements, and share best practices. Network partners don’t just work together: they learn from each other.
Over 50,000 European SMEs a year receive advice from Network members, around 120,000 get help in finding partners and investors, and nearly 190,000 benefit from tailored guidance and training sessions.
Natalia Martínez Páramo: Since its creation in 2008, the Network has offered free support to 4,2 million small and medium-sized businesses, helping them make the most of commercial opportunities beyond national and European Union borders.
The Network is present in over 40 countries worldwide and spans a wide range of sectors, from agriculture to artificial intelligence. Our experts guide SMEs as they embrace sustainable models, adopt new digital solutions, enter international markets, and build up their resilience. With a deep knowledge of the local market and business culture, we also give businesses fresh ideas on strategy, commercial partnerships, and innovation.
It’s often difficult for SMEs to navigate the EU legislation and policies and understand how they affect their business. The Network will strip out the jargon and help small businesses overcome the challenges linked to their international activities. This can include selling goods and services across borders, ensuring product compliance, respecting taxation rules, or protecting their intellectual property. Accessing EU funding and other financial instruments can be another major challenge for small companies, but we’re here to help. We provide SMEs with one-to-one advice on how to identify the right sources of finance and ensure their business is investor ready.
How is this milestone going to be celebrated?
Maive Rute: I think this is an excellent opportunity to take stock of our work and promote our achievements so far. It is also a good occasion to celebrate with others. We want as many people as possible to know about the value that the Enterprise Europe Network brings.
The European Commission and EISMEA have finalised the communication material and activities plan for this milestone, and our more than 450 partners in participating countries will use these messages to reach their audience back home to raise awareness on how small businesses can benefit from our services. The #EENis15 campaign started in March and will last throughout the year.
Natalia Martínez Páramo: To mark this milestone, we have worked together with the Directorate General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs to produce news items, social media visuals, and infographics capturing the Network’s key achievements during its first 15 years of existence.
We have also shared a communication kit across the Network that our partners use to raise awareness about our services among national and regional audiences. The entire year of 2023 will be dedicated to celebrating the Network’s winnings and finding the best ways to build on this success. We couldn’t be more excited!
What were the highlights of those 15 years?
Maive Rute: I am happy with the way the Network has constantly developed its services over the years and delivered more and better advice and partnership opportunities. I was personally involved in getting the Network established 15 years ago – back then I was Director for Entrepreneurship and SMEs in Directorate General Enterprise and creating the Enterprise Europe Network was one of my biggest tasks. We organised a call for proposals with hundreds and hundreds of possible stakeholders interested in becoming part of the new network.
This was still a time with documents mostly on paper, not digital, and the SME programme management had not yet been delegated to the Agency. The unsuccessful consortia tried to challenge the decision, but finally everything worked out! Enterprise Europe Network is a true success story. In the early years, we developed a truly international network, creating partnerships with bodies in countries like the United States, Japan, Brazil, and Chile. And we helped our SMEs to innovate and access opportunities under Horizon 2020 and the European Innovation Council (EIC).
More recently, we developed a service for companies looking to scale up, and launched Sustainability Advisors and digitalisation services. In the last year alone, the Network helped companies deal with the fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine by setting up a Supply Chain Resilience platform to help them find new partners. It developed a range of services to help SMEs become more resilient, and now is launching a call to give SMEs access to ‘Energy Efficiency Vouchers’ to help them invest in renewable energy.
Natalia Martínez Páramo: We’revery proud of everything we have achieved so far. Over the past 15 years, the Network has grown into the go-to business support adviser for start-ups, small businesses, and entrepreneurs in Europe and beyond. Whether we look at the impressive figures showing the millions of SMEs we have assisted until now or at our inspiring success stories – from improving the life of cancer patients to supporting women entrepreneurs – we have come a long way.
Every day, over 800 small companies receive our support to expand their operations internationally and more than 500 companies benefit from our training sessions. We have also constantly adapted to the evolving needs of small businesses. For example, we added new tools to our portfolio to help companies build sustainable business models, boost their digital capacity, and tackle pressing challenges such as climate change. All these efforts have culminated in a remarkable satisfaction rate in the 90th percentile, which reflects the effectiveness of our services. In a nutshell, our work is making a real difference on the ground.
What were the challenges for the Network?
Maive Rute: Keeping the Network relevant for SMEs is obviously a continuous challenge. We also have to work on making sure that it complements other great EU, regional and local efforts such as our Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs programme, our European clusters network, and now our network of European Digital Innovation Hubs.
But our biggest challenge remains visibility. Not enough people know about the great work the Network is doing, and not enough SMEs know about the opportunities we offer. Therefore, our 15th anniversary campaign is so important.
Natalia Martínez Páramo: One of the main challenges of the Network is to meet the changing needs of SMEs. During the pandemic, for instance, companies all over Europe benefitted from our support and emerged stronger from the crisis. I remember how the Network mobilised its resources and launched the ‘Care & Industry together against CORONA’ matchmaking platform that brought together actors in healthcare, industry, academia, and government. The initiative was a huge success: in less than two weeks, over 280 organisations registered and about 500 opportunities were posted online.
Small companies have also been significantly impacted by the war in Ukraine and its aftermath. To stay afloat, these companies have had to challenge their old ways of doing things, restructure their business models, and come up with innovative ideas. As such, we had to quickly adjust our business support services to respond to these changing conditions and priorities. It’s easy for organisations to default to the ‘business as usual’ mode during uncertain times – but resisting the urge to do so will enable them to deliver more value. At the Enterprise Europe Network, we aim to leverage change to help SMEs grow further and faster.
Outreach is also crucial for the success of the Network. We have a unique combination of local knowledge and global reach, which helps us support SMEs in becoming more innovative, sustainable, and resilient. Therefore, it’s essential for our Network partners to identify the best channels to reach the local business community and participate in important events. From our side in EISMEA, we’re already taking significant steps towards this goal by promoting our success stories and expertise while boosting our digital presence.
What’s in store for the future?
Maive Rute: As I said, in the last year, we have rolled out new services for the Network on sustainability, digitalisation, resilience, energy transition and support for Ukraine. We want to build on these. The Network has a key role to play in supporting SMEs in their recovery and future growth, and in ensuring that the EU’s policy agenda leads to tangible benefits for small businesses.
We need to make sure our industry is fit for the Net-Zero Age, based on secure energy resources, greater energy efficiency, and the transition to renewable energy. Furthermore, the Network is strengthening innovation across Europe’s regions and continues to work with the EU’s trading partners, with special emphasis on integrating Ukraine into the Single Market. Finally, in line with European Year of Skills, we will ensure that Europe’s companies have access to workers with the right skills. So, we have done a lot, but we have more to do!
Natalia Martínez Páramo: Recently, we have broadened our services to help SMEs become more agile, sustainable, and resilient while leveraging the full opportunities of the Single Market. Our work, however, extends far beyond Europe. Over 85 percent of our international partners were providing Network services in 2022; we’ll continue to extend our global reach as the world’s largest business support network for SMEs. To achieve this, we aim to make the most of our Network partners’ expertise and give them the right opportunities to come together. That’s why we opened call for proposals that will enable Network members to assist Ukrainian SMEs with integrating into the Single Market; improve the chances of EIC applicants in securing funding; and help companies adopt energy-efficient measures.
Finally, like every year, we will celebrate our wins and look for ways to improve our services at the Enterprise Europe Network Annual Conference. This year’s edition will be held in Bilbao, Spain, in November, and promises to be an exciting event. We look forward to being reunited with our partners: I believe the secret of the Network’s success is the people who work for it, and I’m grateful for their commitment and enthusiasm!
Maive Rute is Deputy Director General at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (DG GROW).
Natalia Martínez Páramo, Head of Unit at the European Innovation Council and SMEs Executive Agency (EISMEA).