Biotech in Countries Starting with “I” — Part 3: Italy

This is a guest post from Susan K Finston, President of Finston Consulting. Do you have a response to Susan’s post? Respond in the comments section below.

Susan Kling Finston

While the world watches Rome and awaits the upcoming Papal Conclave, the Italian biotechnology sector has been engaged in some soul-searching of its own.

With nearly 250 pure biotech enterprises, Italy has managed to buck the EU’s negative economic climate with positive growth reported in 2012 (+2,5%).  Even so, it has stayed in third place within Europe, and so failed to catch up with the UK and Germany, much less to break out of the EU biotech ghetto.

Local and national policymakers have prioritized challenges that may sound familiar for developed and developing countries alike – the absence of well-organized VC culture for financing of biotech start-ups; weak linkages between academic researchers and industry resulting in few spin-offs for commercial biotechnology; and the need for greater cultural emphasis and reward for entrepreneurs willing to take on higher risk/high reward ventures like biotechnology.

Experts from industry and academia are coming together to implement solutions and/or adapt work-arounds tailored for the Italian environment to improve availability of funding and encourage partnerships between academic innovators and experienced managers.

These steps, though important, ignore the elephant in the room:  the ongoing opportunity cost of Italy’s failure to develop agricultural biotechnology.

Going back a quarter of a century, Italy led Europe in in agricultural biotechnology with over 250 experimental projects at a national level ranging including olive oil and fruit varieties.  Italy long since fell prey to internal EU politics over GM agriculture, and there is no current research funding on agro-biotechnology.

In 2001, the Italian Ministry of Agriculture banned all agricultural biotechnology research trials.  Despite subsequent EU decrees from Brussels that have been less negative over time, Italy has never reversed course. Continued political opposition at the local and regional level further complicate prospects for GM agriculture in Italy.

While facing an intractable political environment, the European Union’s own independent research concludes that “there is, as of today, no scientific research associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.”

Lacking advanced agricultural technologies, Italy has not only lost out on potential avenues for industrial biotechnology – it is unable to meet domestic demand for polenta, and has become a net importer of corn for this staple of Italian cuisine.

Italy’s loss has become Spain’s gain –  as in other states where farmers are given the option, Spanish farmers are choosing GM corn and now account for 90% of all EU BT corn production.

How long can Italy afford to turn its back on advanced agricultural technologies as an important part of its biotechnology strategy?

About the author:
President of Finston Consulting LLC since 2005, Susan works with innovative biotechnology and other clients ranging from start-up to Fortune-100, providing support for legal, transactional, policy and “doing business” issues. Susan has extensive background and special expertise relating to intellectual property and knowledge-economy issues in advanced developing countries including India and South Asia, Latin America and the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. She also works with governments, s and NGOs on capacity building and related educational programs through BayhDole25. Together with biotechnology pioneer Ananda Chakrabarty, she also is co-founder of Amrita Therapeutics Ltd., an emerging biopharmaceutical company based in India with cancer peptide drugs entering in vivo research. Previous experience includes 11 years in the U.S Foreign Service with overseas tours in London, Tel Aviv, and Manila and at the Department of State in Washington DC. For more information on latest presentations and publications please visit

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