“I can't wait to be here in five years.” From the meeting room on the fourth floor of Palazzo Italia, Patrick Vincent shares his enthusiasm. Despite having important scientific expertise around the world (in France, for example, he was appointed CEO of ESA, the largest French institute of higher education for agriculture and life sciences; in Japan, he contributed to the birth of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology), the engineer-manager does not contain his great excitement for the official launch of the new center that sees him as a key player. We are in the area of the former Expo 2015, in Milan, Italy, inside the building that was its symbol: now, this same building will become the headquarters of Human Technopole, what will soon be one of the largest medical and scientific research centers in Europe. A hub that will bring together researchers, universities and hospitals, studying treatments for cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's, through the most sophisticated technologies available in science today.
“This is a unique opportunity,” Vincent, who is head of operations here, in charge of managing administrative staff and HumanTechnopole's operations at an operational level, explains. Incredible work, given the size of the project: a total of seven top-notch research centres, equipped with the most cutting-edge equipment and able to attract and host researchers and scientists from all over Europe, if not from all over the world. Through the contamination between academia, scientific realities and hospital institutions, the goal is in fact to bring medicine into the future, qualifying Milan as a center of excellence for the whole country. Genomics, large data analysis, innovative diagnostics and the processing of new therapies are at the heart of the activities that will take place in this new innovation hub, whose aim is to change the medical paradigm towards increasingly personalized treatments, accessible to everyone everywhere.
The centres will be led by scientists from established institutions such as the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, the Institute of Cancer Research in London and the Wellcome Genome Institute in Cambridge. “Identifying the directors of the research centres is the greatest effort,” Vincent says. From the windows of Palazzo Italia you can see the meadows where the research centers will be located. Because Human Technopole is, for the moment, above all a great effort of imagination. Cleared of the old Expo pavilions, the microscopy buildings (works will start in January), a data center of 10 petabytes that will reach up to 100 petabytes will be built in this area of 30 thousand square kilometers and around the Tree of Life (another symbol of Expo 2015) the first temporal laboratories. And yes, work will start before the facilities are completed.
Human Technopole is part of a larger project called the Milan Innovation District (MIND), a science, knowledge and innovation park on the Expo area that aims to become “an ecosystem of innovation, a catalyst of opportunities for the socio-economic growth of the country” but also “a real city within the city that looks to the future with a vision that combines the scientific, academic and care for the environment aspects”. Together with the four main buildings of Human Technopole, here the new campus of the University of Milan, the new headquarters of the Galeazzi Hospital, spaces for companies and also a Lab-Hub for Social Innovation and Sustainable Development, developed by theTriulza Foundation, exploiting and integrating the structure of the old site, will also come to life. The decumano of Expo, the great avenue that connected the pavilions, for example, will become one of the longest green parks in Europe,1.5 kilometers long. A space that will be totally open to citizens, consisting of a system of public and semi-public courts that will ensure the social aggregation and development of places for sport and play, urban gardens and market areas, “all in a technologically advanced and innovative environment”, the MIND website explains. There will also be a driverless and light-mobility district: the first one that will offer visible innovation and reach for everyone.
From the terrace of Palazzo Italia you can clearly see the construction site of the new headquarters of the Galeazzi hospital: the workers are just reaching the fourth floor, in total there will be 16 – with room for 680 doctors, 140 clinics, 33 operating rooms, 338 inpatient rooms and 430 teachers and university students. It will open in 2021, followed by the scientific faculties of the State University in 2024-2025. In just five years, the area has seen the construction of the buildings, an Expo that welcomed millions of visitors, the decision of how to reinvent the site and the complete restoration of the interior of Palazzo Italia. “Record-breaking timelines that challenge the best international excellence,” as Marco Simoni, president of the Human Technopole Foundation, also noted.
To date, 40 people work in Palazzo Italia, but by the end of the year there will be 135: here the summits of Human Technopole and the admnistration, which will soon be followed by 150 data scientists, are already hosted. The average age is 42 years old and there is already a good representation of women. For each new position that opens, between 80 and 100 applications are received. Despite the very high level of specialization, there are already many researchers from all over Europe who submit their candidacy to Human Technopole. The final team will be 100% international and attentive to gender balance, “because these are factors that are crucial to success,” Vincent explains.
Each will be offered a five-year employment contract, renewable for up to ten years. To encourage the movement and integration of new young families, the building will also host a company nursery. “Whole projects were born inside the nurseries,” the manager says with a smile. The challenge is all about international mobility (researchers are used to constantly moving; by definition their craft is global) and on the ability to ride it to enable people, and therefore research, to progress as smoothly as possible. “We need to look at the barriers and abolish them one by one,” Vincent explains. The aim is both to allow Italian researchers who have emigrated abroad to return to Italy, and also to give the chance to international scientists to come to Milan for the first time. A real 'brain circulation', Simoni himself recalled.
People, in fact, “are and will be at the heart of our work,” Vincent explains. “It's not just about equipping ourselves with the best equipment, it's all about attracting the best researchers and talent.” The context already promises to be attractive to any researcher: Human Technopole has already equipped itself with a Crio-M microscope, 8 meters wide, capable of seeing the atomic structure of a protein. “In Europe there are nine, there will be two here: they can be used by any Italian researcher who needs them, applying for projects,” Simoni explained. To manage a similar mechanism, Vincent has already begun to surround himself with the professional profiles that will help him in the development of the plan. In order for researchers to work well, an equally large and qualified administrative team is needed. Not only in the design phase, but also after: since Human Technopole will be open to everyone, and to allow maximum exchange with the university and the hospital, the administrative machine will have to be well oiled. “The biggest challenge for operations is to enable this potential to develop at its best,” Vincent says. “Operations require special profiles, because you work halfway between a private reality and an academic environment, so you have to find a balance. The same operations will have to develop very closely and in sync with the work of the researchers. Once this is done, we are sure that the spin-off effect on businesses and industry will come by itself,” Vincent points out. Each research centre will have up to 10 researchers, including technicians, postdocs, engineers and scientists, each of them, with a total of 100 people in each centre. “2020 is going to be an incredible year,” Vincent says. “We will continue to hire until 2025, then there will be the official opening of the key building.”
As research is already becoming a pillar of Milan's economy, the road appears to be paved. “Milan is the ideal context to create this idea,” Vincent says. “I can imagine that someone might think ‘it's too ambitious a project, it takes too long’, but it always is. Any administration has limits and obligations, but the vision of the municipal administration and the government has made it possible.”