Micro-enterprises in the EU – those employing less than 10 people – struggle to get their innovative products to the market and regional authorities are often unaware of what they are doing, said Hubert Delorme of UEAPME, the European association of small and medium-sized enterprises.
EU cohesion policy and the regions themselves could play a big role in spotting these "sleeping innovators" through detection and assistance programmes, he said.
Such programmes would involve partnerships with regional chambers of commerce and allow direct contact with very small businesses, Delorme added.
Currently, about 25% of cohesion money is being invested in the EU's broad innovation agenda, while €27 billion is specifically earmarked for SMEs for the 2007-2013 period, said John Walsh, an official at the Commission's regional policy directorate-general (DG).
The development of innovation clusters, advice programmes and training in areas such as patent procedures would also help to realise the potential of these innovating companies, Delorme said.
There is a lack of cooperation between regional bodies and small companies and the Union's cohesion policy after 2013 must make it easier for them to benefit from EU money and programmes, he added.
The public hearing last Wednesday (27 October) gathered a panel of experts to discuss the role of EU cohesion policy in innovation and SMEs, hosted by Polish MEP Danuta Hübner, chair of the Parliament's regional development committee.
It comes as the European Commission readies its 5th Report on Economic and Social Cohesion, which will lay the ground for a public consultation and major political debate on the main priorities of EU regional policy spending after 2013.
The Commission has also unveiled plans for a 'Single Market Act' by listing 50 proposals to kickstart the EU's internal market – including simpler accounting rules and better access to public contracts for SMEs.