I do not know whether the stars aligned in the sky above Sardinia at the turn of the decade between the 1980s and the 1990s.
What I do know is that a period of unprecedented initiatives began, backed by a far-sighted management team, in the fields of innovative startups and R&D, which would leave a mark on the following decades; I believe it was the last season of visionary thinking in contemporary Sardinia.
The Business Innovation Center “Bic Sardegna” was founded, a node in the European network of innovation centres, with the goal of fostering the creation of innovative startups. Seed Invest Sardegna was also established, with the mission of supporting new fledgling enterprises take their first steps (today we would call it a Venture Capital company, a term that has become common currency, but that was thirty years ago).
After the creation of AILUN in Nuoro for research on optical technologies, promoted by Paolo Savona, a number of public-private consortia for applied research and technologies began to spring up, including Francesco Aimerich’s Cifra for ITs, Franco Meloni’s Promea for new materials, Carlo Muntoni’s Biotecne for biotechnology, Paolo La Colla’s Sarc for antiviral research, Gianluigi Gessa’s Neuroscienze for neurological research, and Porto Conte Ricerche, which superseded Corisa, for agrifood and environmental biotechnologies, to name but a few.
Those years also, and perhaps most importantly, saw the birth of Cr4s, later renamed CRS4 by its CEO to make it more English-sounding. The Centre started out as a part of CERN in Geneva but was soon transplanted to Sardinia to help bridge the island’s development gap and place it at the forefront of R&D in scientific computing and computer simulation applied to a wide range of fields and technologies.
The task of setting up CRS4 was entrusted to Consorzio 21. This was a public regional agency established barely a year earlier and still defining its organisation and operations. Its mission was to coordinate the various research consortia into a regional technology park. The Consorzio held 70% of the shares of CRS4 and managed its logistical, administrative and organisational start-up, but not the scientific side, of course.
It was the Consorzio, whose president served as CRS4’s VP of operations, which oversaw the first steps of the new research centre, in the late winter and early spring of 1991. The most immediate tasks were to hire the initial administrative team, select the premises, secure initial funding, manage relations with the Regional government and start liaising with the region’s economic and business system.
The scientific side was managed from the start by the spirited creative genius of Professor Carlo Rubbia, fresh from winning the Nobel prize for physics, and the calm determination of Professor Paolo Zanella, head of the Data Handling division at CERN, whose staff included Tim Berners Lee who, in those same weeks, was launching the world wide web.
While the headquarters in Via Sauro filled up with young researchers, including Sardinian returnees and scientists who had cut their teeth in the big IBM research centres, Rubbia and Zanella were busy building a network of relationships and projects. Thus, CRS4, with the prestigious backing of a technical-scientific committee of international standing, began to put Sardinia on the map as a hub of state-of-the-art research, often paralleled with the research led by Antonino Zichichi in Erice, Sicily.
After overcoming local resistance and ingrained inertia and finalising its institutional and organisational structure, CRS4 asserted itself as a modern, open research and development player of international standing. It became a place of reference for many talented local and international researchers, a flexible entity structured in teams and projects, capable of attracting industrial and technological companies. In short, a key player in the newly born regional technology park.
Of course, none of this was easily achieved. It was indeed a daunting task, fraught with responsibilities and challenges, nevertheless conducted with enthusiasm and determination by Consorzio 21, which had been charged with “raising” a much bigger and more complex creature than itself. The first challenge was working with Carlo Rubbia who, fresh from his role as Director-General of CERN, introduced contacts, corporate style and organisational and operational standards, not only scientific and not only within CRS4, on a par with those in Geneva.
So, for Consorzio 21 the challenge, at that time, was twofold: to help the fledgling Centre’s to navigate successfully the maze of the regional administrative, financial and legislative system, while also supporting, together with CRS4 and relying on its driving force, the system of Sardinia’s SMEs and their demand for innovation and research. In parallel, it could not lose sight of the ambitious goal of setting up the regional technology park, a hub and a facility for seamless cooperation between scientific and technological knowledge and businesses.
It was, above all, CRS4’s technology drive, which in the mid-1990s supported the visionary global business venture of ISP Video online, that marked the first coming-of-age of the Centre. The Centre offered a technology and knowledge transfer model that brought Sardinia to the world’s attention in the then still pioneering and little-known area of the web. This too, confirming CRS4’s strategic role within the future Sardinian technology park.
It was thanks to the Centre’s growth, strength and perspectives that, at the end of Nicola Cabibbo’s tenure as CEO, Carlo Rubbia and Paolo Zanella agreed to return to the helm of CRS4. Rubbia was also asked to chair the Strategic Advisory Committee of the technology park set up on 7 May 2002 (composed of Paolo Zanella, Renato Soru, Pasquale Mistretta, Amedeo Levorato, Edoardo Boncinelli, Patrizio Onida, Alessandro Maida and Andrea Saba). Zanella had just returned from its prestigious mission as founder and first director of the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, promoted by the European Union.
The next milestone was the inauguration of the science and technology park in Pula, Polaris, in July 2003. This was the end result of years of work to promote R&TD through projects, initiatives, the location marketing of Sardinia for international R&D investments, the activities of consortia and research centres, etc.. On the material level, Sardinia had been equipped with state-of-the-art and knowledge-intensive infrastructure including laboratories, research platforms and business hosting facilities.
The Park’s opening was followed by a period of consolidation and strengthening of CRS4’s areas of activity and scientific and technological expertise, which also saw expansion into new fields; in particular, research on renewable energy sources. This included the Sardinia-solar-hydrogen project proposed by Carlo Rubbia, which was unfortunately not taken up but remains highly relevant today. Another new area opened up through cooperation with the new a bioinformatics centre at the park led by leading scientist Anna Tramontano. This enabled CRS4 to apply computing, data and simulation to the life sciences.
Following the establishment at the park of a unit of the National Research Council led by Francesco Cucca, focusing on genetics and the DNA of the Sardinian population, activity in the life sciences field yielded major results: the creation of a world-level computing and sequencing centre, with ties to various American and British institutions; the sequencing in 2013 of the entire genome of over 3,500 Sardinians (an incredible number at that time) and the identification of many genes related to the onset of diseases. This work resulted in the distinction of an editorial being published in the Nature Genetics journal entitled “A new genomic Island”.
This is where my own direct, albeit subjective, recollections end. But it would be remiss of me not to add that those years ushered in a wind of change and initiative, encouraged many young people to engage with scientific research and business, enabled the creation of innovative startups and spin-offs, fostered widespread interest in scientific culture in Sardinia. And that Consorzio 21 and CRS4 played a central role in those achievements (the challenge had indeed been won).
Of course, many talented young people have continued to leave Sardinia, some following Rubbia and his international projects as is normal in research. Many initiatives have tapered off, not before generating scientific and technological expertise and know-how which was applied to other research and business areas in Sardinia as well. Many opportunities did not come to fruition due also to the objective limitations of the system (I will just mention the most striking example, that of a spin-off conceived at CRS4, but unfortunately generated and developed abroad before being purchased by a multinational pharmaceutical company at a cost of almost 4 billion, yes billion, Euros!).
There is no doubt that the seed sown, which gave rise to CRS4, was a hardy seed and that the tree that grew from it had solid roots. Despite the fact that it has unfortunately been physically separated from some of its very strong branches, it still maintains today, albeit not with quite the same spectacular force, specific skills, projects, human and professional resources, plus the determination and vision, to once again be at the forefront of an era of development for Sardinia. CRS4 may well relaunch the role and potential of the technology park. I hope, indeed I am convinced, that the Centre will join forces again with the top Sardinian scientist, who still today steadfastly forge ahead and place the island on the cover of Nature Genetics.