Speaking recently to PharmaBoardoom, Assobiotec’s Leonardo Vingiani introduced the key dynamics shaping the Italian biotech industry today and the issues it still has to overcome to become truly globally competitive.
The association’s latest reporting shows that there are 751 active biotech firms in Italy, with a turnover of EUR 11.3 billion, investing EUR 1.8 into R&D every year. As Vingiani notes, “Today, biotech companies from both life sciences and bioeconomy have the potential to affect 20 percent of the national GDP.”
More importantly, Italian biotech’s investment in R&D is on an upward growth trajectory. Assobiotec’s reporting also shows that between 2013 and 2019, pharma R&D investments in Italy increased by 31 percent, higher than the European average of 24 percent.
Vingiani outlines the strengths of the Italian biotech ecosystem and the areas in which it excels thusly: “Italy already has a good level of specialization in advanced therapy medicinal products (ATMPs). Furthermore, we have strong capabilities in producing medicines for rare disease.” He continues, “Because Italy only holds small and medium sized companies in the life sciences space, rare disease treatments for limited patient populations will be a key area of focus for the next decade.
“Moreover, Italy is excellent in immunotherapy due to the number of clinical trials in this area conducted locally. Nevertheless, there is still room to grow and enrol even more patients in clinical trials because of the country’s top-class healthcare infrastructure and expertise.”
Translational & Cultural Challenges
However, the picture is not all rosy and Vingiani cautions that greater collaboration between academia and industry will be necessary to propel Italian innovation from bench to market. “Despite a lower investment in science than some other European countries, Italy and its researchers have created a good environment for science,” he states. “However, the country needs to better focus on translating the knowledge and the quality of the knowledge into value for products and companies.”
Cognizant of this issue, the new Italian government has created a new fund for technology transfer under the National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA) and is also tasking the Human Tecnopole, an open research centre in Milan born out of the EXPO Milan 2015, with fostering collaboration and bringing added value to the scientific research ecosystem across Italy and Europe.
Vingiani also points out that, unlike in other key global innovation hubs such as the US, “Specific legislation exists in Italy that prohibits researchers from moving freely between university and industry. A cultural problem remains: research and business are considered separate.”
A Collaborative Post-COVID Future
Further investments, including in COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics, are ongoing in Italy and the country boasts promising candidates from homegrown firms ReiThera and NextBiomics. Vingaini is hopeful that a new attitude and approach to investing in life science innovation has emerged from the pandemic, concluding that “The pandemic stressed the importance of life sciences. Following the first outbreak, vaccines and new therapeutics for the disease were discussed. This situation created a new environment in which spending on the life sciences was viewed as an investment rather than an expense.”
He adds, “This highlighted for the government the critical value of investing in the life science industry and its innovation. Collaboration is important in this regard to become a leader for the production and creation of knowledge that could be critical for health. This changed the attitude of society toward the life science industry with the pandemic forcing us, unprepared, into a new type of collaboration.”