“The landing in a sustainable agriculture is one of the major challenges of the third millennium, with a major impact on the health of humans and animals, biodiversity and the balance of the entire ecosystem.” To say it in this interview is Luca Ruiu, a researcher at the University of Sassari, founder and CEO of Bioecopest, a spin-off of the same university that develops natural biopesticides, “antagonistic microorganisms harmful for pests you want to eradicate from crops, but absolutely harmless for those who then goes to eat fruit and vegetables treated in this way.” With Ruiu we talk on biopesticides, sustainable agriculture and bioeconomy as a driver for the economic growth and the creation of new high-skilled employment.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
Mr. Ruiu, first of all help us to understand what exactly are biopesticides and what their future compared with the chemicals?
The landing in a sustainable agriculture is one of the major challenges of the third millennium, with a major impact on the health of humans and animals, biodiversity and the balance of the entire ecosystem. Biopesticides are biological control agents, products derived from the natural environment, animals, plants or microorganisms. A fundamental difference with plant protection products, synthetic chemical pesticides to which we are accustomed to reckon, is that biopesticides are safe and pose no risk to humans and nature. Biopesticides, in fact, may be represented by antagonistic microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, protozoa, fungi, nematodes, or biochemical, harmful for pests you want to eradicate from crops, but absolutely harmless for those who, for example, then goes to consume fruits and vegetables so treated.
Researcher in this field, you have made the big step to become an entrepreneur. How was born the idea of Bioecopest?
I began to study the issue of biopesticides since university and I carried out this research during my PhD in agricultural entomology in Perugia and in the period of post-doctoral research at Cambridge, at a laboratory specializing in this area. Then comes the need to enhance the results of research. The turning point came thanks to the Fulbright BEST: in 2008 I moved for about 6 months to Silicon Valley, California, developing my idea at the Universities of Santa Clara, Berkeley and Stanford. Then came prestigious awards like the National Award for Innovation in 2009 and the Prize of Prizes of the President of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, in 2010.
Thus was born Bioecopest as university spin-off, which immediately becomes independent and is localized in Alghero at the Science and Technology Park of Sardinia. It is a biotech start-up with a specific know-how in research and development in biotechnology and focus on the development of natural biopesticides for the defense of crops against harmful organisms. The name of the company encompasses all its mission: “bio” from biological, “eco” as environmentally friendly and “pest”.
Today the term start-up has become fashionable. But how difficult is it to start a business in Italy and specifically in Sardinia?
The Fulbright Program BEST in which I participated in, the Italian Business & Investment Initiative led by Fernando Napolitano, the Development Decree of the Minister for the Economic development, Corrado Passera, are clear signs of how today in Italy “to start-up” is becoming a real possibility. The network of investors is growing. Certainly not to the level of the Silicon Valley in California. There is still a lot of work, but I think the direction is the right one. Even in an island like Sardinia there are two universities, a competitive technology park, and important regional investments that are encouraging the creation and development of new business initiatives.
Are there sufficient measures in our country to support young innovative companies?
I think a first breakthrough has been achieved with the aforementioned Development Decree, which for the first time gives a clear definition distinguishing the innovative start-up from a generic start-up. Among the new tax incentives for those who invest in innovative start-ups, special types of contracts for workers in start-up, crowd-funding, the special regime of failure. Of course, this is a lot of work to make implementing the new law in all aspects.
What are the growth prospects of the market for biopesticides?
Regarding the market for biopesticides, the situation is more than ideal globally for start-ups. BCC Research (an American company specialized in the analysis of market trends, editor’s note) provides for a growing segment of approximately 15% per year. This is also a consequence of the withdrawal from the market of many pesticides and the cost for the development of new synthetic formulated, together with the new regulations that reduce the levels of residues (Maximum Residue Level, MRLs) in agricultural products and livestock. All this facilitates the development and pre-market registration of substances with low environmental risk for the control of harmful organisms. In addition, the use of integrated control, better known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM), will become mandatory from 2014.
Sardinia is a region grappling with serious employment problems, as most recently has also highlighted the case of Alcoa. According to the latest data from Istat (Italian Institute for Statistics) in the age group between 15 and 24 years are unemployed on average 40 percent of the Sardinians, and over 20 percent in the age group between 25 and 34. The bioeconomy, in your opinion, can be the pivot of a new industrial policy that can create jobs in your region?
Certainly we move towards an economy increasingly based on knowledge. Someone said that time is the greatest innovator. It is no coincidence that today’s traditional industrial activities must give way to new industries that will absorb a new generation of workers. I imagine a future in which the technician who works in the industry is a specialized graduate, maybe a biotechnologist.
What advice would you give to the next minister for economic development?
To remain competitive in the international context is certainly important to encourage and facilitate legislative measures and financial and entrepreneurial initiatives in the field of bioeconomy. With this in mind we have some significant initiative in Sardinia, where the idea of cleaning up the former industrial center of Porto Torres joins to make it an international center for biotechnology and green chemistry. So Sardinia looks to the future, as well as Matrica, exploiting technologies developed by Novamont, chose this island to locate its biotechnological activities. A plant for the production of bio-pesticides could be the next step.
The Italian version of this interview is published on http://www.affaritaliani.it/green