Gino Ferretti, President of the University of Parma

An Interview with Gino Ferretti, President of the University of Parma

Articolo pubblicato nel giugno 2007 sul blog di BAIA.

Gino Ferretti is the President (Rettore) of the University of Parma (Università degli Studi di Parma) in Italy. Parma is a very interesting city, not only for its incredible cultural and historical heritage, but also for its gastronomic tradition which brought us such products as Parmigiano-Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma. Thanks to a flourishing and technologically advanced food industry, it has become known as the Food Valley, an obvious reference to the Silicon Valley. By many Italians the city is considered a live laboratory experimenting different combinations of tradition and innovation. From his position at the University of Parma, Gino Ferretti is the person that can marry the incredibly rich food traditions of Parma with the business opportunities and challenges created by the global market and economy. Having known Gino Ferretti for more than 15 years, I asked him to share his ideas on how to bridge the Silicon Valley business models with the Food Valley food traditions.

Franco: Professor Ferretti, can you tell us a bit about yourself and the University of Parma?
Gino: The origins of the University of Parma go back more than one thousand years. While the original constitutive document has been lost, we still have an ordinance of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I dating back to 964 AD authorizing the Bishop of Parma to institute a Law School. We have records of scholars active in the city in the following centuries, but it was only in 1406 that a document was drafted stating a “re-foundation” of the University as an institution independent from the local bishop.

Today 1,100 teachers and a total of 1,100 technicians and administrative employees work for the University of Parma. We have about 30,000 students spread over 12 Faculties: Law, Literature, Economy, Political Sciences, Psychology, Medicine, Pharmacology, Veterinary Medicine, Agriculture, Science, Architecture, and Engineering.
According to our data, 48% of out students come from outside of the Emilia-Romagna region, while only 33% come from the city and province of Parma.
Answering the question about myself: I have a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Bologna. In my career I taught at several universities including Bologna, Padova, Trento, and, for the last 20 years, Parma. I have been in charge of the Reggio-Emilia public transportation company as President for about 2 years. After holding the title of Director of the Department of Industrial Engineering for six years, I have been elected Dean of the Engineering Faculty for 2 years. I’ve been the President (Rettore) of the University of Parma since the 2000 and thanks to the favorable results of the recent elections, I will be in charge until 2011.

Franco: According to Ignazio Marino, President of the Italian Senate’s Health Commission, Italy is second only to India in the phenomenon known as fuga di cervelli or “brain drain”. This suggests that while Italian universities produce competitive young researchers and engineers, the Italian business and economic environment does not attract them. What’s your opinion?
Gino: The quoted statement is absolutely correct. This is mostly the result of a political crisis that dates back to the seventies. The social and economic differences between the diverse parts of Italy and the enduring political and ideological conflicts make governing our country a very difficult task. The instability of the government creates a difficult situation for enterprises and entrepreneurs with the result of slowing down economic development. Despite these problems Italy’s scientific production, when considering the funding and the resources available to researchers, is at a very high level. What has been missing is a strong and consistent commitment of the central administration that has instead favored other sectors pursuing an easier and faster popular consensus.

Franco: The region of Parma is known as the “Food Valley” (an obvious reference to the Silicon Valley). Which parts of the economic model of the Food Valley could be adopted here in the US, and which aspects of the Silicon Valley economic model would be beneficial in the Food Valley?
Gino: The province of Parma and its region have historically been among the wealthiest and more productive agricultural areas in Europe. This richness brought us high quality products, stimulated a flourishing local food industry, and therefore supports a network of companies producing machines and plants for food processing. We are talking about small and medium companies making high quality products, and structurally unable to compete at the price level. Their products, coming from the rich local tradition, have specific features that were intended for a market and consumers that don’t exist anymore. The current effort is to evolve those products that were not designed for large distribution or for a global market, in order to adapt them to the new markets and to make them more competitive. We are working on technologies, packaging, logistics, and branding. For these reasons our local business model is significantly different from the one used in Silicon Valley. We share the need for continuous innovation in order to sustain our economic growth.

Franco: Market globalization is a huge opportunity for Parma to expand its economy on a planetary scale. What is the role of the University of Parma in this new scenario?
Gino: I believe that global competition forces the scientific research, the scientific institutions, and our “capability to innovate” into a central and strategic position. Therefore the University has an important role to play, both indirectly preparing people and directly collaborating with enterprises. For this reason we are currently working on a new scientific park to host spin-offs from the academia and research labs shared with outside business enterprises.

Franco: In 2004 Parma was appointed the seat of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). What is the University’s relationship with the EFSA?
Gino: EFSA is an institution that works in the same way as a scientific institution. We have a contact group and together we organize conferences and seminars. Several of our labs at the University have been accredited to provide consultancies and support for the EFSA. We are creating with them a Media Center for scientific communication. We have also to consider that EFSA hasn’t yet fully deployed all of its activities in Parma.

Franco: In recent years the University of Parma started programs to foster spin-offs and new businesses. What has been your experience so far, and what are your expectations for the future?
Gino: The Italian academic world is not yet used to mapping its knowledge into business opportunities, though the situation is quickly changing. Some of our most recent spin-offs are achieving great results as businesses and we are determined, as a University, to further develop this approach in the coming years.

Sigillo Università degli Studi di Parma
Sigillo Università degli Studi di Parma

Franco: Thanks to the Internet, several Italian entrepreneurs in California are starting to look at Italy as a viable source of a highly qualified and relatively inexpensive work force. How can an association like BAIA be more effective in establishing these kinds of reciprocally beneficial connections?
Gino: I don’t know your association and the way you work well enough to give you a specific answer. The best way to start a collaboration could be to jointly approach a specific problem from the legal and technical point of view. For example, I see opportunities to work together on topics such as the legal aspects of the import/export of food products in Italy and California. The reference person for those topics is Barbara Panciroli (barbara.panciroli1@unipr.it), from our Technology Transfer Center.

I would like to thank Gino Ferretti for taking the time to speak with me today. If you have any questions for Prof. Ferretti or for BAIA, please leave a comment below and we will be glad to answer.

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