Technology transfer and entrepreneurial culture: two priorities for Italy

In recent years, expectations about the potential to draw economic advantage from research activity have intensified, thus opening the debate between local areas involved in creating conditions that “enable” the development of innovation and research, as well as highlighting examples of excellence on an international level.

Technology transfer and entrepreneurial culture: two priorities for Italy

In recent years, expectations about the potential to draw economic advantage from research activity have intensified, thus opening the debate between local areas involved in creating conditions that “enable” the development of innovation and research, as well as highlighting examples of excellence on an international level.

Among these is Oxford University Innovation (UK), an organization which—thanks to its clear mission, high-level expertise, “patient” capital, farsighted activities over the long-term, proximity of a structured network and access to excellent research—has generated a significant economic impact in terms of revenues, new companies and employment … an important impact for the economy of its home nation.

Oxford University Innovation is the largest technology transfer office in Europe. Founded in 1988 with the goal of managing the third mission of its university, over the years it has become the perfect bridge between industry and research, and between demand and supply of technology.

In England, if researchers at Oxford University want to sell their ideas, they know perfectly well whom to contact and know they can be counted on. Over the years, Oxford University Innovation has specialized by hiring professionals who play a “hinge” role in bringing together supply and demand. As a result, the university has been able to fully carry out its third mission.

Oxford Key Numbers
6,335 researchers, 2,873 patents, 612 million pounds invested in R&D (2014),
102 million pounds invested in 98 spin-outs (since 2000)

At Oxford, tech transfer generates resources that are anything but commonplace. In 2016, the return for the university and its researchers was calculated at around 9.6 million pounds.

Transferring one’s idea to the marketplace is not seen as its expropriation, but rather as something prestigious, not to mention the economic value. Oxford is the demonstration that if a bridge between supply and demand can be created, everyone is able to speak the same language and the various interests come into line and are shared. In addition, the business activity Oxford University Innovation engaged in has contributed to generating about half a billion pounds in value added (GVA) in the global economy in 2012-13 and has contributed to creating nearly 5,000 jobs worldwide (and about 3,500 in the United Kingdom alone).

In Europe, there are a number of examples of excellent and efficient TT offices (KU Leuven R&D (LRD) and Imperial Innovations in the UK, among others) and some of these, such as Ascenion in Germany and MRC-T in the United Kingdom, are specialized in life sciences. Both were founded around the year 2000 to fill the gap between basic research and application for business, with a clear mission: to fully take advantage of the potential for innovative research in the life sciences. And both have met their goal to transform the most promising research into treatments that are sustainable and accessible to patients, thus generating significant economic returns for their partners.

In Italy, facilities also exist which, thanks to a clear mission, major specialization in the sector and high-level expertise, have succeeded in obtaining noteworthy and promising results.

Within the life sciences sector, of note are the Ufficio di Trasferimento Biotecnologico of the Istituto Scientifico San Raffaele and TTFactor, a private company involved in technology transfer of research projects for three organizations of excellence: the Istituto Europeo di Oncologia (IEO), the Istituto FIRC di Oncologia Molecolare (IFOM) and the Centro Cardiologico Monzino (CCM).

Nonetheless, especially in this sector, it has become particularly clear that, for years, Italian research has been producing results that are not always sufficiently exploited.

Despite the fact Italy is the #1 country in the world for number of citations per researcher, for research productivity in terms of publications per researcher, and #4 in Europe for production value in high-tech sectors, the technology transfer system has a number of structural and organizational problem areas that impede the transfer of research results into value (patents, business agreements and creation of new companies) and, therefore, limit the opportunities for attracting risk capital, creating skilled employment and future spin-offs for industry.

To get beyond this “death valley” so that high scientific density is matched by the proper density of patents, and in order to launch a positive innovation/productivity/growth/employment cycle as has occurred in other countries, three proposals were put forward that were then discussed in-depth during the meeting:

  • PROPOSAL 1 –> Create a Transfer Lab specialized in the biotech sector.
  • PROPOSAL 2 –> Launch a joint MIUR, MiSE and Ministry of Health campaign to raise awareness in universities, research centers and IRCCSs to promote the culture of patent and technology transfer.
  • PROPOSAL 3 –> Launch an education campaign in schools, universities and research centers to train the younger generation in tech transfer and entrepreneurial culture, and to spread an important message: “doing business creates value”.

In Italy, the biotechnology sector has seen extraordinary growth thanks to the excellence of Italian research in academia and industry, but capitalizing on the results of biotech research requires highly-specialized expertise, extremely long periods of time and major investment, with a high percentage of risk.

For this reason, a specialized Transfer Lab would provide a major boost. Especially during our era of exceptional medical discoveries in which biotech represents a broad source of discovery with high potential for innovation.

The Transfer Lab would NOT replace existing TT offices; it would work alongside them, acting as a specialized COMPETENCE CENTER whose mission would be to transfer research results to the market through two types of activity:

  1. Updating of existing TT processes and adopting proven best practices; support for communications with researchers and potential investors; initiatives aimed at education
  2. Specific consulting on the most interesting projects: identification of opportunities, analysis and entrepreneurial risk assessment, preparation of business plans and support during promotion phases.

We all agree that part of the inertia in Italy and, therefore, the lack of awareness about the opportunities offered by Tech Transfer in the country, are still the result of cultural issues: excessive stigmatization of failure, low level of trust young people have in their own potential, low risk culture, inadequate ambition concerning growth and entrepreneurial “dwarfism”: Italy has 403,000 manufacturing companies, double those in France (207,000) and Germany (204,000) and nearly double the sum of Spain (161,000) and the United Kingdom (124,000) combined.

And yet something in the country is moving, or has begun to move.

  • In 2017, Italy was the #2 country in Europe in terms of tax breaks for innovation (up 20 positions in the ranking compared with 2016)
  • Tech Transfer is a priority for MiSE which is working on a 50 million euro tender for the creation of dedicated competence centers.
  • In 2016, the Italian Cassa Depositi e Prestiti in collaboration with the European Investment Fund created ITAtech, the first Italian equity investment platform dedicated to technology transfer, with holdings of 200 million euros.
Today, opportunities exist, but we must move fast!

Lombardy could be the perfect area from which to start. Milan has 3,000 multinationals, 34% of those present in Italy. The region has 12 national research councils (CNR), 14 universities and 19 institutes for treatment and research (IRCCS). 20% of TT offices in the life sciences sector and 23% of innovative start-ups are located in Milan.

Mission of the Life Sciences Technology Forum 2017
Make Italy the place we would like for the biopharmaceuticals of tomorrow: a leading player in the research, development, production and access to innovative, biotech products.


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