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The Mirandola-based biotech cluster comes back even stronger after the earthquake

by Natascia Ronchetti

In the biotech cluster of Mirandola, in the province of Modena, devastation has given way to innovation. The destruction of nearly two-thirds of the area’s businesses brought on by an earthquake nearly three years ago was followed by an aggressive reconstruction effort that’s catapulted the biggest groups back onto the scene and created a boom in exports.

A few numbers are all it takes to recognize the international expansion: last year, exports surged to more than €293 million, almost 10% more than the previous year. In the words of Alberto Nicolini, editor of Plastico della vita (The Plastic of Life), the trade periodical serving the cluster of Modena-area biotech firms, “companies in Mirandola are now even stronger than they were before.”

The publication’s web site provides a good overview of the sector in a study that included 84% of companies, out of a total of 104. It shows how well the sector managed to rebuild, and put a collapse in exports in 2012 (by more than 20%) well in its past. Two-thirds of companies were hit either very or somewhat severely, with damages covered entirely in just over 27% of cases.

In an area of multinationals (including big names like B. Braun or Gambro), major players were able to draw on insurance to rebuild. That explains why the percentage of companies that have already obtained public aid falls shy of 17%, while more than 18% have no intention of asking for them, not even in the final rush before the deadline for requests expires on June 30 of this year.

The larger groups preferred to rebuild first - affirming their ties with the district - then start along the path of public financing. As for small and mid-sized companies, about 35% of businesses have already obtained financing or will shortly.

But what’s astonishing is how quickly the cluster - the second most important in Europe with nearly 4,000 employees and sales of around €1 billion - got back on its feet.

“In reality, it never stopped operating,” said Palma Costi, the commissioner for economic production of Emilia Romagna region.

It managed this by temporarily relocating offices, and by self-financing. Then it drew on public funds for research - €19 million made available by the region through a public award process that 44 companies participated in.

It benefitted from Tecnopolo, an advanced technology network of Emilia Romagna that was planned and completed in record time to support the recovery of the corridor.

“We will use structural funds to focus on growing internationally and on research and innovation,” said Costi. The strategy is also backed by a portion of the €140 million in European funds earmarked for corporate growth.

There is one complication - the area’s smallest companies are having a hard time managing in a overseas markets.

“Small and mid-sized businesses can’t go abroad alone,” says Mario Veronesi, founder father of the Mirandola cluster.

That’s the next challenge: establishing a corporate network to grow in foreign markets, following the footsteps of the main European competitors, which participate in major trade shows, from Dubai to Dusseldorf, not individually, but as a cluster.

The most potent weapon of companies in Mirandola is still - in Europe and in the rest of the world - innovation. “We can’t compete with China or Vietnam, which have development strategies based on price. We can only compete by focusing on quality,” said Veronesi.