ITT: an Italian research model

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ITT: an Italian research model

The director of an international group of scientists conducting research into humanoid robots and intelligent materials at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) in Genoa, Roberto Cingolani outlines the key features of this state-funded centre of excellence established in 2003 and comments on the present state of research in Italy.

How would you describe the working model at IIT? What distinguishes it from other European and global research centres? What are its strengths?

The IIT model is inspired by leading international research organisations, such as the Max Planck Institute and TNO in Europe; MIT, Scripps and Caltech in the USA; or Waseda in Japan. The scientific results of IIT are above the national average and in line with those of top research institutes worldwide. IIT’s biggest asset is undoubtedly its multidisciplinary and multicultural approach. At IIT, we have 1,500 researchers from about 60 countries, with over 20 different scientific profiles ranging from medicine to engineering. Another of the institute’s strengths is its recruitment process for researchers. Some years ago we introduced the Tenure Track procedure based on the recruitment policy of Harvard University. With this selection system, researchers are recruited via an assessment that is exclusively carried out by panels of external experts. Once selected, researchers have a specific period – from five to ten years – to demonstrate their ability to run a high-level research programme in their field. During this period, they are totally autonomous and responsible for their collaborators and research budget.

What is IIT’s place in the panorama of international research centres?

We work with all major research centres worldwide, and we also have two outposts at Harvard University and MIT in the USA.

What are IIT’s most promising areas of research? Which fields are your cornerstones?

 Until now we’ve invested a great deal in robotics, nanotechnologies and new materials, and we’re among the world leaders in these fields. In recent years, topics related to “life sciences” have really come to the forefront, and they’re unquestionably set to gain even greater prominence. Nanomedicine, brain research and genomics are all immensely interesting fields on a global level, and our institute is enjoying excellent recognition from the international scientific community in these areas.

Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia

Has your platform helped to alleviate Italy’s brain drain? What is the proportion of Italian and international scientists at IIT?

IIT’s overall staff comprises around 1,550 people. Forty-five per cent of our researchers come from overseas. Of these, 29 per cent are foreigners from 58 countries, and 16 per cent are Italians who have returned. The average age of IIT’s personnel is 35 years old, with roughly 40 per women and 60 per cent men.

How do you rate the education and training of scientific researchers in Italy? Which are the top national and international educational centres?

There are several places in Italy that train researchers to be competitive on an international level. For example, the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies and the Scuola Normale in Pisa, or the polytechnics in Milan, Turin and Bari, but also many universities such as La Sapienza in Rome, Federico II in Naples or the University of Genoa. The list could go on. In any case, in terms of training we’re competitive with big universities like Harvard, Stanford or Cambridge. Italian researchers aren’t lacking in training, but sometimes there can be problems with mentality.

 

Is it possible to do research in Italy today, despite limited public investments?

It can be done, just as we and other institutions are doing in Italy. We’re managing to hold our own on the global stage despite the generally poor research funding policies. A more forward-looking research policy would allow us to do even better.

What could be done or improved to boost the development of research and its associated structures?

Researchers do this job out of passion. They desire well-equipped laboratories, an environment suited to high-level research, clear rules of assessment and autonomy. These are the characteristics that make an interesting research structure. As with sport, if you manage to get the best talents on board, the team will be successful. The research system moves forward with the same logic, and it can at least partially support itself with its own products.

What are your biggest successes in terms of new start-ups and patents? And what is still in the development phase?

To date, IIT boasts more than 480 active patents, 16 established start-ups and about 20 others on the launching pad. One of the most successful start-ups has certainly been Movendo Technology, which combines robotics and rehabilitation, and successfully sourced 10 million euros of funding from the Dompé group. They have already sold several rehabilitative robots and created about 30 jobs, which will quickly increase to about 100. Initiatives in the development phase include the Bedimensional start-up geared to the production of graphene, one of the most promising new materials, as well as other innovative materials. But there are many other projects, too, such as Nanochrome, a start-up developing low-cost genetic and diagnostic tests.

Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, bioplastica

In Italy, what is the current state of the fourth industrial revolution, or rather the revolution of nanomanufacturing? What must be done to speed things up?

We’re already on the right path. For our part, we’re producing and developing the technology needed to embark on this revolution. There are certainly some organisations – both public and private – that still haven’t adapted to these changes. The sooner this is done, the sooner Italy can relaunch nanomanufacturing and be competitive. I think it’s only a question of time.

What are the latest developments for the Italia 2040 project, i.e. the Human Technopole scheme you are heading for the area of Milan that hosted Expo 2015?

We’re following government indications and coordinating the start-up phase from a technical-practical perspective. Once our mandate has been concluded, the HT foundation will continue under its own steam by attracting the best international talents in the research fields covered by the new organisation.

In your opinion, what are the five innovations that will most change the way we live and work in the next five years?

For sure, robotics will increasingly impact our lives – not robotics designed to replace man, but able to flank and help us in our everyday lives. Nanomedicine will change the way we treat ourselves and it’ll make treatments more accessible and effective. A major role will also be played by the new generation of photovoltaic technologies based on perovskite, a material that could replace silicon. Biodegradable plastics obtained from renewable sources (such as vegetable waste) will also become increasingly important. Together with the birth of new energy sources, such materials could profoundly change our society, which is still too dependent on fossil fuels. Lastly, innovations will come from genomics combined with big data sets, which will allow us to map and study our genetic code and understand its secrets by crunching massive amounts of data. In turn, this will allow us to treat old and new illnesses, improving the living standards of an ageing population that isn’t yet ready to face the great challenges of future society.

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Roberto Cingolani
Roberto Cingolani

Born in 1961 in Milan, he obtained a master’s in physics from the University of Bari in 1988 and a specialisation degree from the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa in 1989. An expert in nanotechnology, he worked in the USA, Japan and Germany before becoming scientific director of the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) in 2005.

Last modified: 28 March 2017