What is the Central Innovation Programme for SMEs (ZIM)?

The Central Innovation Programme for SMEs ("ZIM") of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Protection ("BMWK") pursues key objectives to promote innovation in small and medium-sized enterprises in Germany. It is designed to strengthen the innovative strength and competitiveness of these companies by promoting research and development projects. By providing targeted financial support for research and development projects, ZIM has made a significant contribution to strengthening the innovative power of SMEs. It has helped companies to develop new project ideas and technologies and to put these innovative solutions into practice and successfully place them on the market.

ZIM – a funding programme with a long history  

The ZIM programme was created in response to the increasing need to promote innovation in small and medium-sized enterprises. It was created in the early 2000s in response to the challenges of globalisation and technological change in order to strengthen the competitiveness of German companies.

Since its launch, ZIM has constantly evolved to meet changing requirements and innovation trends. Various development phases have helped to refine the focus of the programme and adapt the funding instruments to the needs of companies.

Over the years, ZIM has grown in importance and established itself as a central pillar of innovation funding in Germany. The continuous adaptation to new challenges and technology trends has contributed to the programme becoming an attractive point of contact for the realisation of innovative projects for both companies and research institutions.


What is special about the ZIM programme?

What makes the ZIM programme special is its targeted focus on small and medium-sized enterprises whose innovative strength is to be strengthened. It offers these companies customised support to help them realise their research and development projects. This targeted support is unique in the German innovation landscape and specifically addresses the needs and challenges of SMEs.
  • Open to all topics: no restrictions on the technologies supported
  • Fast processing times: one-step application; outline optional
  • Fast project start: project can begin at your own risk as soon as you submit your application
  • Applications can be submitted at any time: no deadlines to consider
  • Annual budget of approx. 630 million euros: central German funding programme with high financial funding security

These features make the Central Innovation Programme for SMEs a sought-after resource for companies that want to turn their innovation ideas into reality.

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ZIM: Who is eligible for funding?

Various institutions and organisations that wish to promote innovative projects are eligible for funding under the Central Innovation Programme for SMEs (ZIM).

Eligible for funding are:

  • Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs): Companies with < 250 employees, an annual turnover of no more than 50 million euros and/or an annual balance sheet total of no more than 43 million euros
  • Other medium-sized companies with up to 1,000 employees: Companies with up to 500 employees are eligible without restriction. Companies with more than 500 employees must work on a joint innovation project with an SME.
  • Research institutions: Universities, universities of applied sciences and other scientific institutions that work with companies on joint projects.

Eligibility depends on various factors, including the specific innovation project and fulfilment of the ZIM guidelines. Companies should familiarise themselves with the exact criteria to ensure that their projects are eligible.

In addition to the above criteria, institutions and projects are considered eligible if they fulfil the following criteria:

  • Project form: both individual projects by companies and collaborative projects with other companies or research institutions that fulfil the ZIM guidelines are eligible for funding
  • Innovation-related: The projects must have a clear innovative character, be it the development of new or the significant improvement of existing products, processes or services.
  • Research and development activities: Project activities should go beyond mere routine development or step innovations and make a substantial contribution to research and development.
  • Technological challenge: Projects should be technologically demanding, close a technological gap or offer innovative solutions to market or industry challenges.
    Feasibility and market potential: Emphasis is placed on the feasibility of the projects and their potential on the market. Plausible realisation and realistic market demand are important factors.
  • Country/region: Companies (taking into account the above-mentioned SME criteria) with a permanent establishment or branch in Germany are generally eligible for ZIM funding.
  • Legal form: Applicant companies can have various legal forms including sole proprietorships, partnerships or corporations.

Please contact us without obligation. With more than 20 years of experience in funding acquisition, we can assess your eligibility for funding.

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What types of projects are eligible for funding?

ZIM supports projects along the entire value chain through its various funding programmes. This includes initial feasibility studies and research and development activities through to market launch services.


Within this three-pillar funding programme, ZIM provides financial support for both individual and collaborative projects with national and international companies and/or research institutions:


What financial support does ZIM offer?

Eligible costs within the ZIM programme

The Central Innovation Programme for SMEs (ZIM) of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Protection (BMWK) offers comprehensive financial support for innovative projects of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Germany.

Financial support under the ZIM programme covers various aspects:

  • Funding for research and development projects: Companies can receive grants for research and development activities that lead to the development of new products, processes or services.
  • Personnel cost subsidies: ZIM supports companies in financing personnel costs as part of innovation projects. This includes, for example, costs for researchers, developers or project managers
  • External services: The ZIM enables grants for external services that are utilised as part of innovation projects, for example for development contracts awarded to companies or research institutions.
  • Overhead surcharge: In addition to grants for personnel costs and external services, ZIM also grants an overhead surcharge of max. 100% for R&D projects. This covers running costs (electricity, water, materials), salary adjustments and other costs.


Maximum funding rates within the ZIM programme

The ZIM funding rates depend on the type of project, company size, age and location of the company. It also depends on whether the project is a national or international cooperation project.


How does the ZIM application process work?

The application process for the Central Innovation Programme for SMEs (ZIM) involves several steps.


  • Preparation of the application: Companies must prepare their innovation project and ensure that it complies with the ZIM guidelines. This includes defining the innovation objective, describing the project, clarifying eligibility for funding and identifying potential partners.
  • Application: The application is submitted to the responsible project management organisation. This involves completing specific application forms and submitting all necessary documents and records in accordance with the requirements of the funding programme.
  • Assessment and evaluation: Once the application has been submitted, a technical assessment is carried out by experts. They check the quality of the innovation project, its eligibility for funding and its innovative character. The projects are assessed on the basis of predefined criteria.
  • Decision and approval: Based on the assessments, the applications are evaluated and decisions are made on the approval of funding. Successful applicants receive a grant notification and can start implementing their project.
  • Project implementation and accounting: The subsidised projects are implemented. The companies must adhere to certain guidelines and rules. Once the project has been completed, they must account for the services rendered and expenses incurred in order to receive the funding.

It is important that companies observe the exact requirements and deadlines of the respective tender and adhere closely to the application guidelines in order to maximise the chances of successful funding. If in doubt, it is advisable to contact a funding expert at an early stage to obtain support with the application.

We will be happy to assist you – from the preparation of the application to the settlement of the approved grants.

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Advice and support in the ZIM process

The ZIM application ultimately decides whether or not an R&D project is funded with grants from the Central Innovation Programme for SMEs (ZIM). Professional consultancy service providers can offer comprehensive advice to companies wishing to submit a ZIM application and support them through the ZIM process. Important to know: The costs of external consultancy services for the application and billing of the subsidised R&D project are not eligible for funding under ZIM. However, these can be worthwhile for you, as professional external advice can do the following for you:

  • Advice for applicants: companies wishing to participate in ZIM can obtain advice on how to submit an application. This advice includes support in the preparation of applications, clarification of funding criteria and the development of innovation projects.
  • Networking and cooperation partners: Companies receive help in identifying potential cooperation partners and building networks with research institutions or other companies in order to create synergies and strengthen the innovation process.
  • Project support and coaching: Professional consulting service providers offer support and coaching throughout the entire course of the project. This includes expert support in the implementation of innovation projects, the preparation and controlling of regular payment requests as well as administrative tasks and challenges during the process (reporting obligations, project extensions, postponement of funds, etc.).
  • Support with invoicing and documentation: Companies receive help and support with the invoicing of services rendered and the correct documentation of their projects in order to successfully receive funding.
The BMWK itself also supports companies with various offers. The pages on the Central Innovation Programme for SMEs provide information on these services:
  • Webinars: The BMWK organises training courses in the form of webinars to inform companies about funding opportunities.
  • Newsletter: The BMWK offers best practices on the ZIM website and publishes a newsletter to keep companies up to date in the field of innovation.
  • Telephone contact: It is also possible to identify the responsible project management organisation and call the relevant contact person.
Comprehensive advice and support during the entire ZIM process are nevertheless indispensable. They enable you as a company to effectively realise your innovation project and strengthen your competitiveness. Please feel free to contact us!


Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

What is the difference between ZIM and the research tax allowance (FZul)?

The main differences between ZIM and the "steuerliche Forschungszulage" (research tax allowance) are as follows:
  • Higher funding rates for SMEs (up to 60%) with ZIM
  • Overhead rate of max. 100% for ZIM
  • Payment of approved funding every three months for ZIM
  • ZIM funding is designed for projects that have not yet started; FZul also possible retrospectively.

Who is ZIM suitable for?

The ZIM funding programme is suitable for SMEs, young companies and medium-sized companies with a permanent establishment or branch in Germany.

Are there any deadlines that need to be observed when applying for ZIM funding?

No. ZIM applications can be submitted at any time.

What types of projects are funded by ZIM?

The ZIM programme funds individual projects by companies as well as national and international cooperation projects with companies and/or research institutions.

Are software projects eligible for ZIM funding?

As an open-topic funding programme, the same guidelines apply to software projects as to all hardware topics. However, it is often more difficult to identify development risks and the novelty character of software topics. In this case, it is advisable to contact the responsible project management organisation and/or a professional consultancy firm.

Are ZIM projects de minimis relevant?

No. ZIM-funded projects are not de minimis relevant.

What is covered by de minimis funding?

Within the framework of ZIM, contributions from members of a ZIM network are eligible for de minimis funding. Furthermore, trade fair appearances and consultations on product design and marketing are relevant for de minimis in the project type "market launch services".

How much ZIM funding is available?

The amount of ZIM funding depends on the size of the company and the type of project. The maximum funding rate is 60% of a maximum of 550,000 euros.

Can I submit several ZIM projects at the same time?

Up to two approvals are possible within a twelve-month period.

Can companies receive funding from other programmes at the same time as ZIM funding?

Yes, companies can receive funding from other funding programmes at the same time as ZIM funding, but not for the same project.

What is a ZIM feasibility study?

In addition to traditional R&D projects, technical feasibility studies and feasibility analyses are also eligible for funding under ZIM. These serve to evaluate and analyse the potential and the probability of success of a planned R&D project.

What are ZIM services for market launch?

In addition to traditional R&D projects, ZIM funding is also available for market launch services that are provided by external service providers and serve the economic utilisation of a ZIM-funded R&D project. This includes, for example, measures for patent registration, quality assurance, certification, market research, testing, etc.

What are the most important success factors for the approval of ZIM funding?

The most important success factors for approval of ZIM funding are
  • High degree of innovation
  • High technical risks within the solution approaches pursued
  • High commercialisation potential

Do I have to submit an outline to ZIM in advance?

No. No sketch has to be submitted to ZIM in advance. However, in certain cases it is advisable to submit an outline for an initial assessment of the project idea.

Are there restrictions for certain sectors or types of innovation projects within the ZIM programme?

No. The ZIM funding programme is open to all technologies.

What options are there for companies that are not eligible for funding but would still like to participate in ZIM projects?

Companies that are not eligible for funding in ZIM can participate fully in the project as an associated (non-funded) partner. Alternatively, the companies can participate in the project via an external contract from the applicant.

What needs to be considered for newly founded companies?

ZIM is no start-up programme. Therefore, the start-up must already have been completed. However, formal entry in the commercial register is not sufficient. Rather, it should already be possible to demonstrate turnover with a regularly produced product. This is because ongoing sales are a prerequisite for funding in ZIM as proof of financing the R&D project's own contribution.

By when can a funding decision usually be expected?

The processing time for a ZIM application is usually around three months.

Where can I find more information on ZIM funding?

Further information can be found on the official ZIM FAQ page.  

Where can I find the guidelines for the  "Zentrales Innovationsprogramm Mittelstand" (ZIM)?

The guidelines for the ZIM programme can be found on the official ZIM guideline page.


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