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Creating the conditions for ‘cleantech’: interview with Norberto Patrignani

31/03/2016
Creating the conditions for ‘cleantech’: interview with Norberto Patrignani

The Cleantech Incubation Europe INTERREG IVC project examined the support conditions needed by ‘cleantech’ entrepreneurs and start-ups. One outcome of the project, which concluded in 2014, was a Cleantech Incubation Policy and Practice handbook[1]. Professor Norberto Patrignani of I3P (Innovative Enterprises Incubator, www.i3p.it) of Turin Polytechnic, Italy, who was involved in the project, explains some of the main findings and discusses their application in the northern Italian region of Piedmont.

Can you summarise the aims of the Cleantech Incubation Europe project?

Norberto Patrignani: The project was a kind of survey of cleantech incubators around Europe, in order to exchange best practices around cleantech incubation. The project particularly concentrated on start-ups: how we can create or prepare the ground for new companies dedicated to cleantech.

We were 13 regions from Italy to Spain, to Finland, to Germany. The first problem was: how can we compare these very different cultures, languages, societies and environments? How can you compare an incubator in Turin in Italy with an incubator in Helsinki, Finland? We established a common framework with four main steps. First: how do those different places face the problem of idea generation; where do the ideas come from? Second: how do you select those ideas? Then the third step is the core, it is the incubation process: how do you incubate those start-ups? The final step is the exit strategy. How do you release those start-ups into the real world?

[Note: informed by this framework, the project has produced a handbook of best practices. For example, in terms of idea generation, the book highlights research funding, ideation and ‘scouting’, such as a university (TU Munich) that prioritises entrepreneurship; for the selection of start-ups, the project identifies idea and business plan competition, and pre-incubation as suitable tools; for incubation, it recommends setting up suitable and specific facilities for cleantech start-ups, with infrastructure to support pilot schemes, demonstrations and prototyping; and for incubation exit, good practices include defining explicit exit strategies and providing bespoke post-incubation ‘growth support’.]

So within each of those steps, were you able to identify common best practices in European regions?

Norberto Patrignani: Exactly. That was the idea. Incubation is a process that is very common around the world. You can apply those four steps to all incubators, for example for ICT, biotechnology or cleantech. Incubation is incubation. But our goal was to identify what is particular to cleantech.

What is special for cleantech incubation is, first of all, the role of public authorities. Cleantech needs the support of public authorities; it is an area in which the public-private partnership is a core requirement.

Ambitious, long-term government plans through to 2030 or 2050 help create a lot of opportunities for cleantech incubators and, in particular, will create a market. Start-ups need an environment that is able to receive their products and services. In ICT you can have a short-term view: setting up websites, e-commerce, social networks and so on. For cleantech, a fundamental characteristic is that you need a long-term view. You need an investor with a very long view and it is very difficult to find such investors in private venture capital.

The second issue that is specific for cleantech is that cleantech needs space: laboratories and demonstration sites. In ICT, you can have an incubator with just a few computers. In cleantech, if you want to develop a new wind turbine you need a demo site, you need an infrastructure in place. It is very important. One of the best demo sites we found was the Copenhagen cluster in Denmark[2]. They have a very large area completely dedicated to experiments in new technology and new ideas in cleantech. You need physical space. You cannot experiment with a wind turbine in the middle of the city. This is the second main thing that we learnt from this project.

What is the situation in Piedmont, and are the findings of the project relevant there?

Norberto Patrignani: The region of Piedmont was very interested in this project because one of the partners, as well as the Turin Polytechnic incubator I3P, was the City of Turin. Piedmont, like all regions in Europe has worked on developing strategies in this area since 2008/2009, in line with the Europe 2020 strategy. But Piedmont is living through a difficult transition. The main companies here were Fiat Automobiles and Olivetti, so cars and computers. Both disappeared. Fiat is still here, but is now in Detroit [following the 2014 Fiat/Chrysler merger]. Olivetti is no longer here, so Piedmont has to reinvent itself and there is a lot of effort in the area of cleantech.

One issue is energy. Piedmont imports two thirds of the energy required here in the region and one major cleantech incubation project we have is the Turin Energy Centre, very close to the Turin Polytechnic campus. The Turin Energy Centre will be one of the main energy facilities in Europe and will have a strong connection with the European Commission’s Joint Resource Centre at Ispra.

The Energy Centre will be dedicated to new production, new ways of reducing energy consumption and everything related to this. It will be a demo site, and will attract researchers from the university and companies, and will be a place where partnerships between companies, start-ups and the university will happen. We are very proud of this, because this was one of the suggestions that we made in our project, though the Turin Energy Centre is not the result of our project. It is progress in exactly the same direction, so we are very happy.

[Note: The Turin Energy Centre is one of three EU-backed laboratories for energy-related experimentation. It is under preparation and should be ready in April 2016. See, for example (in Italian): http://www.lastampa.it/2016/01/07/cronaca/nuove-energie-laboratorio-torino-1yZdIsvDI0dxXXTkVS3rdM/pagina.html].

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The Cleantech Incubation Europe project

Duration: January 2012-December 2014

Partners: City of Delft, Delft University of Technology (the Netherlands), Peterborough City Council, Opportunity Peterborough (UK), Municipality of Torino, I3P (Incubator of Politecnico of Torino) (Italy), City of Helsinki, Green Net Finland, Szent Istvan University (Hungary), ParisTech, Essonne Region, Novagreen (France).

Budget: €1,298,298 (EU contribution from Interreg IVC programme €994,691)

Further information: http://cleantechincubation.eu/

The Cleantech Incubation Europe (CIE) project’s handbook of best practice is available online (PDF): http://cleantechincubation.eu/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Cleantech-Incubation-Practice-and-Practice-Handbook.-June-2014.pdf