Shiva Loccisano has been involved in technology transfer since 2007, a period that, he says, has seen a steep growth trajectory in commercialisation activities in Italy.
He joins us to discuss the more than 15 years he spent at Politecnico di Torino as the head of technology transfer and industrial liaison department (a position he left last week, after this podcast was recorded, for a new job as chief executive of BeHold, the holding company of Alma Mater Studiorum Università di Bologna).
At Politecnico di Torino, he created the groundbreaking Challenge@Polito programme which has helped foster an entrepreneurial culture on campus.
Having also been a member of the board of directors of Netval, Italy’s professional association for tech transfer specialists, since 2016, Loccisano is well placed to tell us about the opportunities and challenges across the Italian ecosystem, which has historically suffered from a lack of proof-of-concept funds, a dearth of charities sponsoring research and government inaction but is fast catching up to its European peers.
Loccisano also discusses the proposed abolition of professor’s privilege in Italy, a law that would also ask universities to establish tech transfer offices but that might not be as transformational for researchers engaging with TTOs as it might seem.
Please note, the intro and outro have been omitted.
Shiva, welcome to the podcast.
Hello, Thierry. Thank you very much for asking me to take part in this one.
It is great to have you. To start with can you give me an overview of tech transfer at Politecnico de Torino with some figures if you have them?
SL: Yes, of course. The first thing I would like to highlight is that we, as many other technology transfer offices in Italy, we are quite young in relative terms if we compare with other first economies if you want in Europe or in America, We started our operation back in 2005 basically, even though actually we had some sort of acceleration after 2010. I have been involved in this pathway almost since the beginning, I joined the team in 2007 and I became the head of the office, which then actually evolved a little bit more as a business line if you want of our administration in 2012. So, it is now almost 10 years, I am here in this.
I think there are two points that can be highlighted of what I think we did quite well. From a more strategic point of view, I think our most recent organisation has been designed let us say to maximise the alignment of the relevant stakeholders within the university because we created what we call the interdepartmental laboratory of technology transfer which is a sort of task force that puts together all the research departments and a referent appointed from every department to talk about technology transfer and its strategies, and together with people taking part in the two most important boards in our university, which are the patent boards and the spinoff boards, who are the people taking decisions on these two topics. I think this is very important because it helps us to have a locus where we talk together with the most relevant stakeholder and so we know that we’ve all aligned.
From a more operational point of view, I think some of the most interesting things we made during the last year are the proof-of-concept initiatives and probably some initiatives devoted to supporting the entrepreneurial culture of our students and researchers and between them the Challenge@Polito, maybe we will spend some other words later about this.
I think you have touched on a few points that I wanted to cover there, including as you say, the Challenge@Polito. As you say quite a young tech transfer office, is there something that you already do really well?
Actually, there is always room for improvement of course, that is the first rule. I think mentioning something that was very successful if we want to put it in these terms, I think it is really our proof-of-concept initiative that I just mentioned because actually, as you know, finding funds for supporting the technology development in the so-called valley of death, in those level of maturity of technologies that normally are referred to as technology readiness level (TRL) which are in the middle when it is no longer lab research, but it is not yet industrial development. It is very difficult to find the right source of money in that phase. Normally there are governmental funds or charities. In many other countries, the charities play a very important role in supporting academies in passing this valley of death, and unfortunately this is not the case in Italy, nor for the governmental funds.
It used not to be at least, but the very recent years something happened and now charities are very, very supportive in this. So, we actually managed few years ago, it was at the beginning of 2016, to raise some money, thanks to our local bank foundation and we put together some good money for supporting small, but very important, projects for technology maturation of our technologies at the Politecnico, and I think this actually brought some very good results because in the last six years, basically we have been able to support almost 90 different projects in this way.
I would say that half of them found some way to the market. Many of that half actually managed to set up a spinoff company or startup. Some others are now into negotiations or very good contact with companies for transferring the technology with a license or collaboration agreement. So, I think that this proof-of-concept really push quite a lot our operations.
That is amazing. Is that something that has a finite amount of money or is that an ongoing initiative?
Actually, we had an initial amount of money. Of course, the idea of the technology transfer is always to make some market money from the licensing the technologies to reinvest into the system. I think we are not yet in the case where we are breaking even, so we earn enough to repay all our costs, but somehow we have been able to find new money for keeping these initiatives running.
Also thanks to, as I was anticipating before, some new initiatives this time also from the government, from the Ministry of Economic Development and particularly the Italian Patent and Trademark Office, which is a branch of the Ministry of Economic Development, who actually followed our line inspiring to our first initiative of proof-of-concept and set up a call for all the Italian universities and research centres to ask for some money to support the proof-of-concept programme within their organisation. So, it is now something happening at the national level, actually.
Amazing. What are some of the other challenges that you have in Italy at the moment?
Oh, there are many actually. If I have to pick up one, I would say people, people, people because right yesterday I happen to discover a new podcast from a history professor in Italy Paolo Colombo who dedicated that whole podcast to the history of Olivetti, the factory of, the first actually in the world, the personal computer factory, which was actually in Italy. There is this sad story of how it went badly because nowadays Italy is not so famous for having actually invented the first personal computer.
What was really, really fascinating about this Mr Olivetti, who was the founder of this big company was that he was taking so much care of the people, of his employees. Yesterday I was listening to this podcast and I was really thinking of how important, ours is a people business, and we need to find the right people with the right attitude because doing technology transfer is a weird job actually.
You need a lot of training because you need to be somehow very eclectic. You need to space from science to economics, to law, and a lot of psychology when you talk with people and communication skills. So, I really think the big challenge is finding to retain the right people because especially within universities, which are public bodies, the external regulations are very difficult to comply with in terms of finding and keeping the right people.
I want to talk about your other place as well, Netval. Since 1990, they have counted at least 1,830 spinouts, although the figure for 2021 is still provisional, so it might be higher. They hit a peak in 2018 with 156 spinouts. 64% of them were created in the past decade, so it is generally an upwards trend, even if the pandemic caused a bit of a contraction.
You are a country of around 60 million people, so that is quite a low number of companies. What is at fault here?
In fact, it is, but if as you somehow anticipated, the interesting thing here is that if you remove the first 15 years from your sample, out of those initial 1,830 spinouts still remain 1,700. So, that to say that the vast majority of them actually after 2005, and yes, this is still a low number, I agree with that, but I think it highlights two phenomena. The first one is that we actually started quite late compared to the other economies, as I was saying before.
Our champions in Europe, like colleagues from Leuven or Oxford or Cambridge, they are quite known to have started working a lot on technology transfer since 1960s or 1970s, we are discounting a delay of 30 years, at least. So, it is a very recent thing, that is the first point. The second point is that actually the trend of these last recent years is pretty steep, and I would say it is accelerating even faster in the last two or three years and much is happening right now with investment funds, et cetera. So, I would not swear that we will recover the full gap in the next 10 years, but probably we will do interesting things. I think it is worth to stay at the window and look.
I think that is a fair assessment. What is your view of the planned abolition of the professor’s privilege in Italy? Would that help create more spinouts do you think?
I hope so. I would say in just one word that is great. Then for the sake of clarity, I think we need to debunk some myths here on this topic. The first thing to say is that this is only a proposal that has passed a very first approval step and it still has to pass through the parliament. Therefore, we will have to wait to see what actually comes out at the end because surprises are frequent in these situations and statistically, most of the times those surprises are not pleasant. So, we will have to wait to see what really comes out as well.
The other thing to say is that most of the professors’ inventions already are transferred to the university on a voluntary basis, even if there is the professor’s privilege in place. And this is because it is actually convenient because the professor can rely both on the economic investments of the university for facing the patent cost or the protection cost, which on the other side he or she should bear on their own and also because now they can count on support structures, like technology transfer offices, which are progressively specialising in these and at the end of the line it is convenient, what I expect is that after this new law.
The other thing to say is that after the entering of this new law log that we hope will see in the future, the professors are not going to lose any money. Now, as someone sometimes says, because the law says in the current form says that they will have a right to be compensated at least with the 50% of any earnings that comes from the exploitation of their invention, while on the other side, if they want to exploit it even today with the professor’s privilege, if they want to exploit it by their own, they have to give back to the university 30%. So, on the one side, they have no risk, they get 50%. On the other side, they bear all the risk and they get 70%. After all, most of the time, as I was saying, they already go with the university.
What will change, and that is the reason I think it is positive if the law goes ahead, is that we will have less bureaucracy because as a technology transfer professional, we spend a lot of our time in assessing who is the owner of the rights and putting together all the different papers. And after there will be an easier let us say regulatory landscape and we know that all the rights are with the universities. We will spend much less time and we have more time to dedicate to the real exploitation and trying to foresee an impact of those technologies. That is why I think it is a great thing.
I think that makes perfect sense. When you do set up companies, how easy or not is it to find management for them?
That is a good question. I think it is still quite difficult in Italy. There are a number of reasons. One of them for sure is that we do not have a very let us say evolved entrepreneurial culture. If you think historically to the ancient history of Italy, we are quite known as a country of inventors and innovators, but I think it was a different kind of inventors and innovators. There is a nice joke that I have heard recently from someone which makes fun of Italians, which says that if you have one German person, you have one worker. If you have two German persons, you have two workers. If you have three German persons, you have a team. If you have one Italian, you have an inventor. If you have three Italians, you have a mess. I think this is a quite funny way to summarise the reality because in fact, in the last 40 or 50 years, our attitude to be entrepreneurial in a more modern way, like working together, following ambitious goals, et cetera, was not developed enough.
Recently it is changing. I see very promising new trends in these, especially when I look to our students for instance, Gen Z probably are starting to be the new one in this perspective and for this reason I expect in the coming years, we will see new potential managers for startup companies, but the moment we are still relying on previous generations. We are in a phase where there are still some difficulties.
Are faculty usually quite open to coming to the tech transfer office? Or is it still a dirty word, commercialisation?
SL: As I was saying before, talking about the professor’s privilege, actually there is one important concept. It really depends on the technology transfer office. As a part of our recent history or the delay as we discussed with the other countries which I already mentioned, there are some technology transfer offices which are very very young, let us say, still in their learning phase. But for those ones which are a little bit more mature. I see generally, and I see these with the two perspectives brought from my role in Politecnico di Torino and with a more general view at the national level, are ones which are a bit more confident with their job, who have developed maybe a little more extended network of industrial partners and stakeholders.
They are seen with a lot of favour from the academics and from their departments, and there is a growing relationship that is being built between the two. I think there are also some other external variables if you want because the concept of impact of research also coming from, for instance, the European Commission is becoming prominent now. So, if you want to see it from another perspective, our researchers are understanding that they know us.
Like it or not, you need to find someone helping you in putting together this part about the exploitation, the impact which is more far away from your standard background. So, you need to rely on someone and technology transfer offices are here, and for free because our service is offered within the universities normally, especially in Italy and therefore I think it is a very positive relationship which is improving.
That is great to hear. One of the cool initiatives that you are doing, and we mentioned it earlier as well, is the Challenge@Polito. Can you tell me a little bit more about this?
Yes, thank you for this question because this is one of the initiatives that together with some colleagues I started to launch. I am very proud of because actually they are proving to be a very, very effective and innovative way of actually getting two different results at the same time, which is working with the industrial world and, if you want, to train students in a more modern way. Challenge@Polito are challenge-based courses. It is not something new.
What I think we did innovatively is that we have been able to convince our academics and our general governance that they can be part of the official pathways, the official curriculum of our students. Therefore, the students attending these courses, are normally students coming from all the different Master’s degrees. So, in just one specific challenge, which is brought by one company, we accept students from all the different courses of engineering, architecture, and design, which are our disciplines here at the Politecnico, and with no distinction, so it does not matter if the challenge is about flying drones and we have chemistry engineering students taking part, those chemistry engineering students will anyhow have credits recognised for having taken part in these initiatives.
I think this is very, very important because it is making clear that from a pedagogical perspective, what we are working on here is not the domain knowledge that the students can get in all the other courses of their five years, but it is the transversal knowledge that competence, the so-called soft skills, the entrepreneurial skills. If you are working on your entrepreneurial skills, it does not matter if you are studying chemistry and you are working on a project which is on drugs, that is a completely different language.
Believe me, this is not easy in the normal culture of a university, and I think that the fact that we managed to convince our stakeholders to accept this is making a huge difference and numbers and the results are giving us reasons because we have trained so far in the last four years more than 500 students under these initiatives with some 30 different companies bringing their challenges, and every one of those challenges has become a success actually in terms of education. Some of them also in terms of business because we have been able to set up some startup at the end. So, that is interesting.
That is amazing. Is that something that you would be quite keen to teach other universities how to do?
We are doing it partly already because we have some collaboration projects with other colleagues and other universities. So, we exchange good practices and of course we have a lot to learn from others in many different fields, but I think this is something we can a little bit share with other colleagues, and I would be more than available to do so if there are more opportunities, of course.
We mentioned proof-of-concept funding obviously earlier. Once you do have a startup company, how easy or not is it for them to raise seed, series A, series B rounds?
I have mixed feelings about answering this question because on the one side it is never easy. When you have you have your idea and you are keen to bring it ahead and you want to start tomorrow morning, every day separating you from the starting point is a very difficult one, and we all know that raising money really is not an easy game. At the same time, the landscape outside is getting quite favourable in my perspective.
Also, in the very recent times after this very bad thing, which was the pandemic, the resilience plan from Europe is making available quite a big amount of economic resources to help economies to restart and fortunately this time, most of those resources are being dedicated to supporting innovation in the startup world.
So, I see that sometimes it happens that we find ourselves in the position where we have more money to raise than good ideas to invest in. So, that is the reason I have this mixed feeling because it is never easy, but the landscape around is favourable at the moment. The amount of invested capital last year over the preceding one was doubled in terms of investment in startups.
We have small figures compared to other countries, but the trend is very positive and we will have surprises in the next years, especially maybe in some fields like climate tech now or decarbonization where we actually have really need to ahead the system for having new technologies to help us in coping with these issues.
Big problems to solve.
Big problems to solve, big money needed.
Big money needed, yes. You are also a proponent of RTTP, the accreditation. How important is this in terms of lobbying the government in Italy to recognise the importance of tech transfer as a profession?
Here this is a very other important point in which I really feel. There is a curiosity you might not know, that in the draft of the new law, which is supposed to abolish the professor’s privilege we were mentioning before, there is also an article which says that universities are expected, it is not mandatory, but universities are expected to set up the technology transfer offices and to staff them with people with the right professional skills, that is more or less what the article says. It is quite vague, if you want, but it is a beginning.
I do believe it is very, very important thing because this goes back to the people, people, people I was mentioning before. I think that it is sad to say, but when we want to hire new people for doing our job of technology transfer, we normally look for people with a technical background. In my case, we are a technical university, so I look for engineers and the problem is that within the Italian public universities, you basically have just two different career pathways.
You can be a professor or you can be an administrative person. And in fact, technology transfer professionals or managers are none of them because definitely we are not academics, we do not do research or teaching as a main job. But we are in the field, we are practitioners. At the same time, we are probably quite a slightly different species of administrative people. Believe it or not young engineers, they do not like, they do not find sexy the idea to become administrative people in a public university.
I cannot believe that.
So that can be a little bit funny, but at the end of the line, it is one of the issues we have to face in our everyday life and job and I think that giving our profession the right recognition and maybe creating some sort of dedicated career pathway within the universities and not only the universities, but especially within the universities, I think this could bring a change in this perspective, and this could make some brilliant people closer to the idea of starting this career and at the end of the line having a positive impact on our ability to exploit the research coming from the university and having a positive impact on the society.
And the recognised technology transfer professional accreditation, which has no legal value at the moment, but still has value because it is made by a very extensive panel of peers across the whole globe, I think it can be a starting point for setting up guidelines for regulation with the goal of getting to the point where there will be some sort of legal recognition of this profession. And I think this would give to the system a good push forward.
What prompted you to pursue a career tech transfer?
To be honest, it happened by chance completely by chance as in many of other colleagues I know, and I spent time talking about this. My background is in biotechnology, so I studied a lot of chemistry and biology and one of the few things I remember from my studies is that one of the central concepts of all these physical, chemical fields is that the concept of equilibrium of balance or even better it is dynamic equilibrium, any chemical process or any chemical phenomenon in the nature around us is characterised by the fact that it has an equilibrium, which is not static, things go up and down, but at the end of the line, they stay around the point where they are supposed to stay.
I think that is the way people find themselves in doing a job like mine, because I think to do this sort of job, you need some aptitude, some skills, and also you need to like some things and dislike some other things that in some way are the same for all the people doing our jobs. At the end, you can go a little bit more away from it and then are a bit closer, but at a certain point in your life, you will find yourself being that because it is like something that when you feel confident with this innovation environment, et cetera, you will find yourself there at a certain point because it is impossible to avoid it.
I think that is actually really the way I found myself in this job. I started working in the lab and by chance I applied for a call for a technology transfer role and I was not really, really convinced to do that, I was pushed by some friends and one of my professors, and a few weeks after I started, I understood that was my pathway in my life because it was really the sort of things I was feeling confident with doing.
From what I have seen, you have certainly done a good job so far.
What lessons have you learned in your career or anything that you would share with someone starting out in tech transfer today?
Of course, there are many, and there are many questions that I would like to find answers to which I did not find already. But probably the most important thing is, as in many, many other context to be honest, that you do not have to be afraid to get out from your comfort zone to face new challenges because really it is like when you start writing a Master’s thesis, you are in front of the white paper, it is really a pain, but you have to push yourself to start writing the first 10 words and then start going.
I really think that this profession is very poorly known because it is a niche, and I always say that my wife and my kids, they still do not know what my job is, even though I keep trying to explain them every day, but it is not working. That is what retains many people get closer to the idea of doing this job. So, I would say try to expose yourself, at least for a while see what is behind, that is probably my first thinking. Then I think people who discover this, a whole world of interesting things. I am quite passionate with my job and I think this can be visible.
It definitely is. Is there anything that you would change about tech transfer?
I think there is one thing which fortunately probably already started to change, it is to stop thinking that we do technology transfer for earning a lot of money. Of course, we all look for earning more money and we are requested to do so, and we like to do so.
We are more than happy if we can manage to bring home some good money for investing in our research and activities of the universities. But I think that the concept of impact, which is a buzzword now, everyone talks about impact. We have to understand and really metabolise the fact that looking for impact does not only mean looking for money.
In many, many, many cases in my almost 20 years of career in this field, I found this misled concept of making money in technology transfer actually at the end, blocked some opportunities that we could have managed better if we did not think that wrong thing.
Are there any spinouts that you would like to highlight?
It would be very, very unfair in their regards to just mention one against the other. But I would say that we have some very good examples of companies who are growing well and that could be of interest also from an investor perspective. So, I would just suggest that if someone wants something, to get in touch with me and I would be more than pleased to point them out.
That is fair. That almost brings us to the end. Is there anything else we have not talked about that you want people to know?
No, I think as you understood, I like my job and I like to speak, I do not want to get boring. So, I really do thank you, Thierry, because I am very happy I had the opportunity to be part of your interviewees, and I listen to your podcast of other colleagues.
A lot of them are very estimated and expert colleagues. So, I am very happy to be part of the list. Thank you very much for this opportunity and good luck and great job.
Thank you. It has been a real pleasure to have you. You were my first guest from Italy as well. So, you have that honour.
I will add this to my LinkedIn profile.
Great. Shiva, thank you so much. It has been real pleasure to talk to you today.
Thank you, Thierry.