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And the winners are: Horizon Europe funding for artificial intelligence is surging, a Science|Business analysis finds

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With its AI Act, the EU may be flashing  yellow caution lights about artificial intelligence. But with its Horizon Europe research programme, it’s green lights all the way.

A Science|Business analysis of AI funding in Horizon Europe shows the pace of AI-related research grants accelerating, with 59 projects approved in just the first two months of this year. A large proportion are in healthcare, in topics such as breast cancer and cardiac arrhythmia.

And the big grant winners? Aside from the usual Horizon Europe champions of Germany’s Fraunhofer and France’s CNRS, there are some surprising up-and-coming AI research groups, such as the University of Patras in Greece and the Netherlands’ University Medical Centres at Utrecht and Leiden. Also rising fast are German automaker BMW and Spanish aerospace company Indras, along with a total newcomer to the field, Universidade Nova of Lisbon.

AI funding is booming all over the world, of course – but given the scale and importance of Horizon Europe, with its seven-year €95.5 billion budget, a deep dive into its grant patterns provides a quick overview of who’s who in European AI. Our analysis is based on data we retrieved from the Commission’s clunky Cordis portal as of 7 March 2024 – retrieved, we should add, by human brute force, not by elegant AI. A lot in our analysis depends on the accuracy of Cordis’ own topic categorisations, as defined in its SciVoc taxonomy.

Still, what we can see already are some pretty impressive trends for AI funding in Horizon Europe.

Funding volume

Since Horizon Europe started in January 2021, 297 AI-related projects have been funded, for €57.7 million. That three-year total compares to 489 AI projects in all of the prior seven years of Horizon 2020. On this basis, you can conclude the Commission is funding about one more AI project a month in Horizon Europe than it did in Horizon 2020. And as already mentioned, in just the first two months of this year there were a whopping 59 projects funded. At this rate, by its end in 2027, Horizon Europe will have broken all the AI records.

Looking at the average grant sizes paints an interesting picture, with slightly bigger sums for later-stage, close-to-market AI research, rather than fundamental and early-stage research. More specifically, “research and innovation actions”, the Commission’s term for collaborative projects at a moderately early or middle stage of development, are getting an average 8% less money per project in Horizon Europe than in Horizon 2020, whereas “innovation actions” for closer-to-market projects are getting 8% more.

The biggest winners, however are the Marie Skłowdowska Curie Actions for post-doctoral students to work in labs outside their home countries, with grant size more than doubling, by 108%. That suggests Europe is quickly training a new generation of AI researchers.

The AI topics

Also changing are the specific aspects of AI research which are receiving funding. “Software”, “big data” and “business models” were the most frequent companion keywords in Horizon 2020 projects. But in Horizon Europe, the top two keywords are “sensors” and “ecosystems”.  And some of the fastest-growing keywords are in the medical sector with breast cancer, cardiac arrhythmia, virology, ophthalmology, physiology, stem cells and  microbiology appearing in 33 projects so far in Horizon Europe, compared to six projects for all seven years of Horizon 2020.

Outside health research, “sustainable economy” is a hot topic, appearing 13 times in Horizon Europe compared to five in the whole of the prior programme.  

Winners and losers

No surprise, the overall winners in the AI funding race – as, given their huge scale, they are in many other areas of Horizon research – are Germany’s Fraunhofer with €26.5 million awarded, and France’s Commissariat Energie Atomique (€24.9 million) and its Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (€23.8 million.) But a surprise is that CEA is losing ground, with its AI total so far in Horizon Europe 64% less than it won in Horizon 2020. Also down are France’s Institut Pasteur and Italy’s University of Pavia, which received a combined €15.5 million in AI grants under Horizon 2020 and so far zero in Horizon Europe.

Looking at grantees by how fast their winnings have grown since Horizon 2020 offers a glimpse at the up-and-coming places in Europe for AI research.

Science|Business ranking of AI grant recipients by percentage increase of funding in Horizon Europe vs. Horizon 2020 (raw data from European Commission)

The University of Patras in Greece tops the list, going from €343,125 in all seven years of Horizon 2020, to €6.7 million so far in Horizon Europe. And in the Netherlands, the University Medical Centre Utrecht has grown fast. In Horizon 2020 it was a partner in just one AI-related project for €600,000, while in Horizon Europe it has already won nine projects worth €10.1 million. In four of those projects it is the coordinator, meaning it manages the project consortium and gets a bigger share of the group’s grant. Also in the Netherlands, the Leiden University Medical Centre has expanded quickly, winning €5.2 million so far in Horizon Europe, compared to €392,895 in Horizon 2020

When asked about Utrecht’s rise, Saskia Haitjema, associate professor and head of the Utrecht Patient Oriented Database, cited the focus that UMC Utrecht has had on data management in the past decades. Being one of the first hospitals in the Netherlands to implement an electronic health record system in 2008, UMC has an extensive database to work with on AI. In addition, the centre has built up in-house data expertise over the past 20 years, and in 2015 added e-health and big data to its corporate strategy.

Two companies are also fast risers. German automaker BMW boosted its AI grants tenfold from Horizon 2020 to Horizon Europe, from €225,250 to €2.3 million. Spanish IT and defence contractor Indra Sistemas raised its total from €482,734 to €4.3 million. 

Some organisations are newcomers to the field (our ranking in the accompanying chart looks only at those winning at least €2 million in grants in at least five projects since 2014). Portugal’s Universidade Nova de Lisboa had no AI grants in Horizon 2020, but has already won €12.5 million under Horizon Europe.

AI by country

Finally, by country, Spain, Germany and Italy sit at the top of the AI rankings in Horizon Europe, followed by France, the Netherlands and Greece. All three have seen big funding increases: 23% for Greece, 27% for the Dutch, and 38% for Germany.

But some of the fastest climbers in AI funding have been in eastern Europe, with Lithuania getting €20 million so far in Horizon Europe, compared to €2 million in Horizon 2020.  Estonia and Croatia rose 84% and 78% respectively.

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