Italy Leads in Scientific Innovation on Earth and Beyond

The Italian agency for new technologies, along with a number of Italian universities that are consistently ranked the most innovative of European colleges, are working on projects that are boosting Italy’s startup scene and giving SMEs a competitive advantage.

An Italian research project is growing plants in extremely hostile conditions, and may in the future be able to cultivate olive trees on Mars. The technology that creates micro-ecosystems where plants can be placed in harsh environments and tested for their ability to grow was first patented by ENEA, Italy’s National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development.

ENEA is helping to make Italy a front-runner for innovation in the sciences. The organisation’s roots go back to 1952 with the creation of the National Committee for Nuclear Research (CNRN) which was later transformed into the National Committee for Nuclear Energy (CNR), a field of research in which Italy is a major actor. In the 1980s, CNR’s mission was expanded to include environmental and climate issues and renewable technologies, which led to the creation of ENEA in 1991. Today, the organisation’s focus is on energy technologies – including renewables, energy storage, and smart grids – energy efficiency, climate change, nuclear fusion, nuclear safety, and life sciences. ENEA is Italy’s national agency for the efficient use of resources and sustainable mobility in the circular economy.

In May, ENEA launched its “Proof of Concept” programme which plans to create a fun of 2.5 million euros over the next three years to bring new technologies developed by ENEA to industrial use. The programme will be combined with long-term industrial partnerships and a series of agreements with venture capitalists.

“The industrial structure of the country [Italy] is based on small-sized businesses operating in mostly mature sectors and investing relatively less in research and development than their European counterparts,” said Marco Casagni of the ENEA Industry and Business Associations Unit. “This is a characteristic which is in itself one of the main impediments to technology transfer; this is why we must help the competitiveness of Italian SMEs by making our innovations immediately available.”

The top-ten rank of Europe’s Most Innovative Universities according to Thomson Reuters in 2018 are KU Leuven (#1, pictured) in Belgium, UK’s Imperial College London (#2) and University of Cambridge (#3), Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (#4), University of Erlangen Nuremberg (#5), Technical University of Munich (#6), The University of Manchester (#7, University of Munich (#8), Technical University of Denmark (#9), and ETH Zurich (#10). Copyright: Sergey Dzyuba/Shutterstock

Some of those innovations include concentrated solar thermal energy; new materials and components for electrochemical storage like lithium batteries and supercondensers; and numerous technologies relating to nuclear fusion.

These technologies can help Italian SMEs, especially in the energy sector, grow exponentially. SMEs generate nearly 70 percent of total value added and 80 percent of employment in Italy’s non-financial business economy, according to a 2016 European Commission report. Across the EU, a growing number of businesses are increasing investments in energy and resource efficiency and environmental innovations.

Beyond innovations created by researchers at ENEA, Italy boasts some of the most innovative and technologically-driven universities in Europe. Out of the top 100 “most innovative universities” in a 2018 report by Thomson Reuters, three are Italian: Polytechnic University of Milan (#44), University of Milan (#66), and Sapienza University Rome (#81). The rankings are based on the institutions’ records of advancing science, inventing new technologies, and powering new markets and industries. Polytechnic University of Milan, for example, has its own startup incubator called PoliHub. It was founded in 2000 and has since incubated 100 highly innovative startups and had five major international and national acquisitions. It is ranked in the top 10 best incubators in Europe.

Students at these universities are going on to conduct great research in the sciences, the data suggests. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in 2016, Italy was ranked fifth in world economies with the largest volume of top-cited scientific publications; and from 2005-2016, Italy has been on an upward trend of scientific excellence, based on the percentage of documents produced within the country that have attained a top 10 percent cited status.

So while the Southern European nation may not be the first country that typically comes to mind in the category of scientific innovation, the data suggests that Italy’s spearheading of a project that could allow humans to grow plants on Mars should come as no surprise.

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Kaitlin Lavinder

Kaitlin is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. She holds an MA in International Economics and European Studies from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and previously worked as a national security reporter and Europe analyst. She has conducted on the ground research in Germany, Poland, Estonia, Czech Republic, Belgium, and the United Kingdom.

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