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Future by quality: Life Sciences and Research in Italy

Terza edizione
Bresso (MI), 16/09/2019, National Interest

Widespread and well-rooted start-ups – recently formed and highly innovative companies – are often seen as proxies for competition in a given territory and its ecosystem. Starts-ups in the field of life sciences are contributing to a substantial transformation of that ecosystem and to modifying relations among actors, nevertheless in a context in which the Open Innovation paradigm is less applicable and where the need to protect intellectual property prevails. Start-ups can act as pivots between universities and scientific research on the one hand, and the pharmaceutical and marketing industries on the other, thereby filling those gaps in technological transfers that have often distinguished the Italian scenario.

In recent years, the Italian legislative system has adopted a consolidated discipline (D.L. 179/2012, and later supplements) that has made it possible to incentivize new high tech enterprises and create the conditions for attracting resources and ideas. This legal framework, which facilitates all the phases of start-ups, was enhanced in 2019 with the establishment of a fund that should free up Cassa Depositi e Prestiti funds and other institutional resources and act as public venture capital to invest in new funds and support private ones.  

However, a fertile and innovation-friendly framework (with everything, including risk and failure, that can come with it) is only one of the elements needed for a start-up to be successful. Certainly important is the composition of the team, which, on the one hand, should combine scientific expertise with managerial skills and, on the other, draw on the experience of founders and/or partners with previous experience in the sector in order to gain traction. Special attention also needs to be placed on protecting intellectual property, which means having a knowledge of local and Community patent regulations. Another critical factors is access to capital, which could be facilitated by favourable local conditions but that, on the other hand, is able to bypass territorial borders in a globally competitive world.

All the above elements are necessary conditions, but will never be enough if they are not backed by crystal clear and credible science that must be disruptive, not necessarily in its underlying idea but at least in the way it comes to market and generates value for the broader sector, which calls for an adequate business plan and credible business model to support the idea.

Having identified some common factors in success, observation of the panorama of start-ups reveals the fact that there is no pat recipe, that absolute constraints cannot be placed on innovation – even among start-ups whose success has been proven by the attention of investors and other industry interlocutors – and that each has followed a path that makes it unique. This diversity can be identified at various levels ranging from growth trajectory, to market approach, to the better marriage of local imprinting and receptiveness to international horizons and a more effective capacity for networking with the rest of the system.

National economic systems remain faced with the most important challenge, and that is the dissemination, support and development of a critical mass of ideas and the opportunities they are capable of creating. This means changing a dominant culture that disdains the contamination of science with economics, and encourage a greater propensity for risk-taking. Above all, this means making it possible for ideas with the potential to succeed to do so.