More than 2,000 people have applied to the EU's 'Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs' scheme, a programme that the European Commission hopes will replicate the success of its celebrated student exchange programme. However, only 600 have managed to find a placement so far, highlighting a mismatch between supply and demand.
While it is much younger and less well-known than the student exchange programme which inspired it, the European Union's 'Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs' (EYE) scheme already has a growing group of supporters.
More than 2,000 young and aspiring entrepreneurs have applied to take part in EYE since the programme was launched in 2009.
However, only 600 have already been matched with companies that have agreed to host them for a period of up to six months.
So far one of the main limitations on the growth of EYE has been a lack of entrepreneurs willing to act as hosts. But as more business people learn about the scheme, the Commission hopes that more potential hosts will come forward.
More than 1,000 host entrepreneurs have signed up for the scheme so far, and many have asked if they can have another young or 'new' entrepreneur come and work with them.
Italian company convinced of benefits
"EYE is an excellent way of getting to know young and very motivated new entrepreneurs," said Maurizio Saviolo, who is one of the managers of Minteos – a company based in Turin, Italy, which specialises in developing hi-tech systems for environmental monitoring.
Minteos has already hosted two young entrepreneurs through the scheme: one from France, and another from Spain, each for a period of six months.
"We were involved in defining the profile of the young entrepreneur, and also at the end of the process to evaluate the shortlist of candidates and choose the best one for us," said Saviolo.
According to Saviolo, the host company can also benefit from the scheme by using it to establish relationships with young entrepreneurs based in other countries, who can then become business partners and help with finding new customers across Europe.
Based on this experience, Minteos has decided to continue participating in the scheme. "We are in contact with the Italian office of the EYE programme to select another young entrepreneur, and are looking in particular at candidates from Northern European countries," said Saviolo.
Exchange leads to unexpected results
In some cases, both parties have decided to continue the relationship well beyond the six months of the initial exchange.
One young entrepreneur from Finland, Antti Kangaslahti, went to London in late 2009 to spend six months working with a communications company called Radley Yeldar and was asked to stay after the end of the exchange.
"We thought he did such a brilliant job so we hired him afterwards. Now he's working with our digital team as a full-time member of staff," says Jim Bodoh, brand consultant at Radley Yeldar.
Bodoh admits that he had never expected that an exchange organised through EYE would lead to the offer of a permanent position in the company.
"Because these are by definition entrepreneurs, it would be unusual that they would be seeking a full-time job, and I don't think Antti was either," he said.
"It's just by coincidence, an opportunity arose here that he was very interested in. And I think he still pursues his own business interests as well, in parallel with his work here."
Bodoh believes that taking part in EYE has been good for his business, and says that he would recommend the scheme to other companies. "It was brilliant for us and I think it's also really good for the people who are involved as entrepreneurs," he says.
Convinced of the benefits, Radley Yeldar is getting ready to host another young entrepreneur in the next few months, this time from Italy.
According to Bodoh, the main weakness of EYE it that not many people know about it. "I think this programme could use a little bit of a higher profile. That would be my only criticism," he said.
An opportunity to expand activities
Some young entrepreneurs are deliberately using the EYE scheme as a means to establish partnerships with companies working in similar fields of activity.
Alex Vendeuvre is a young French entrepreneur who has started his own company specialising in renewable energy. By participating in EYE, he is in the process of building a long-term partnership with a Belgian company called Greenelec.
Both Vendeuvre and Greenelec are interested in developing small-scale electricity generation using wind turbines and solar panels.
"In order to help me develop this activity, I decided to participate in the EYE programme, and to have the support of a business that was already recognised, and which already had an activity since several years," said Vendeuvre.
The Frenchman says that working with an established company has given him access to know-how and expertise, as well as making it easier to borrow money from banks.
"We are in the process of establishing a partnership. It becomes concrete with two solar projects that we are putting into service in the next month in Belgium," said Vendeuvre.
"Then after we are going to deploy our activities both in France and in Belgium, to promote the spread of photovoltaic roofs for enterprises and private homes," he added.
Vendeuvre admitted that it was not easy for him to find a host company specialising in renewable energies. In the end he decided to approach Greenelec, because he had already met the company's founder a few years previously.
According to Vendeuvre, the EYE scheme provides an ideal framework for young entrepreneurs who want to build relationships with established companies in other countries.
"It provided an important financial support, which allowed me to work full-time on developing my company, and provided a framework for my partnership with Greenelec," he said.
Vendeuvre said that the money he was getting from the EYE scheme, which is a little less than €6,000 for the six months, was vital for covering the costs of doing business with a partner in another country, and making frequent trips from Paris to Belgium and back.
"It helps with my travel expenses, my communication and office expenses, everything that I need to start up this activity," he said.
Based on his experience, Vendeuvre is enthusiastic about the EYE scheme. "I think that for a young person who has a plan to set up their own business it's a good experience, because there's a real exchange of know-how between entrepreneurs," he said.
"It's different from a traineeship or internship, because you are really in an exchange which is more collaborative, and which can lead to commercial opportunities," he continued.
"As a small business, it's better than working on your own and being limited to working on just one country. So it's good for having opportunities in other markets."
In February 2009, the European Commission launched Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs (EYE), a pilot scheme allowing young businesspeople to spend between one and six months with an established entrepreneur in another EU country.
Under the project – similar to the Erasmus student exchange programme – aspiring entrepreneurs are paid up to €1,100 a month to shadow an experienced business owner, in order to improve their skills and transfer knowledge across borders.
According to the European Commission, as of March 2011 more than 3,000 entrepreneurs had applied to take part in EYE, and more than 600 partnerships had been established.
Whether EYE can continue after 2013 will depend on the results of negotiations on the financial framework for the EU budget in the next period (2014-2020).
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