The city of Milan hosted Expo 2015 to much fanfare, attracting 20 million visitors, despite the lead-up to the event being characterised by a major corruption scandal and construction delays. Now, the 100-hectare stretch of land on the city’s northwestern outskirts is set to welcome an innovation hub — the first of its kind in Italy.

Based on a London model, the Milan Innovation District (Mind) is a partnership between Arexpo, an amalgam of different Italian public entities, and Australian-based multinational real estate company Lendlease. 

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Igor de Biasio, CEO of Arexpo, tells fDi that the idea was born from looking at other examples of innovation districts with a view to bringing that into an Italian and Milanese context. 

London model

“We were struck by several European examples of innovation hubs, such as the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London post-2012 Olympic Games, which could bring together the public, private and the third sectors, along with research centres, to bring social and economic benefits to our country,” he says.

Complete with a forthcoming metro station, Mind is set to be easily reached from Milan’s city centre, other cities in Italy and nearby airports. “The area leant itself easily to the development of an innovation district,” Mr de Biasio says. “Plus, Lombardy is already a leader in life sciences.”

Arexpo is the public owner of the whole district, while Lendlease is on a 99-year lease and manages half the area.

Mr de Biasio is keen to stress the novelty and non-Italian nature of the public–private partnership agreement that underpins the new innovation district. “This is the first time this has happened in Italy,” he adds.

There are three public institutions in the pipeline that anchor the Mind district: the Human Technopole, a new research institute for life sciences; a science faculty campus of the University of Milan; and the research and treatment hospital, the Ospedale Galeazzi, which will be open from autumn 2022. Lendlease manages the other half of the district, which it is developing into a mixed-use area comprising residential, commercial and research spaces.

In total, Mind has an estimated value of €4bn with private and public sector investments has two main pillars of interest:: the future of health and the city of the future. The district counts US pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, Switzerland-based multinational ABB, South Korea-based Samsung and Germany-based E.ON among its private collaborators. In February, the University of California, Berkeley’s accelerator SkyDeck announced that the location for its Europe-focused fund, SkyDeck Europe, will be at Mind.

Overcoming bureaucracy 

Between the years 2016 and 2022, Italy ranked 11th in Europe in attracting greenfield foreign direct investment projects, according to fDi Markets, and Milan ranked 16th out of European cities. 

“It’s not as if I’m saying something unknown, but bureaucracy is one of the key hurdles Italy has in terms of attracting foreign investment,” Mr de Biasio says.

Last year, Canadian Pension Plan Investments and Lendlease agreed to jointly invest roughly €400m into the latter’s half of the district.

“This is a testament to the investor confidence in the project and illustrates that [big institutional investors] can invest in Italy in a simple, fast and functional way,” Mr de Biasio adds. “We can easily imagine that there will be other phases of the project that will attract similar sorts of investors.”

He is confident that, thanks to the nature of the public-private partnership, Mind will not suffer setbacks similar to other large-scale real estate developments, like Westfield Milano, whose completion date has been delayed several times.

“A real hurdle, however, is the rising construction prices which everyone is facing, not just us,” he says. “While this is the real question mark over our project, we can say that we have a model to follow and, in my opinion, this may well become a national model for other regions and cities in Italy.” 

This article first appeared in the June/July 2022 edition of fDi Intelligence. Read the online edition of the magazine here.