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I Think, I Act and I Construct: Scientists, The Pioneers of Entrepreneurship

From the Renaissance to the first industrial revolution, scientists are themselves business creators

Entrepreneurial scientists help to transform the most complex problems in the world of research into businesses. To raise the number of scientists setting up businesses and find equal interests in research work and its entrepreneurial translation, a country must be equipped with laboratories where scientists can combine thought with action.

As research, investigation and cognition, history is a messenger of memory. Dipping into history between the Renaissance and the first industrial revolution, we can seize some examples of the distinctive features of the scientists who promote entrepreneurship and sometimes are themselves business creators. Their motto is ‘I think, I act and therefore I construct’.

Science and the various forms of art are united by the ability to surprise people, to stimulate fantasies and passions within them. In science, as in art, imaginative minds draw models that must adopt a second nature in order to have a practical effect. This ‘second nature’ is the attitude to entrepreneurship.

Leonardo da Vinci

At the dawn of the Renaissance artists and scientists began the work of dismantling everything that for centuries had been taken for granted. In 1482, and for the next 15 years, Milan stood on the shoulders of a giant at the service of Ludovico il Moro. Described by Giorgio Vasari as a ‘truly admirable painter, sculptor, art theorist, musician, writer, mechanical engineer, architect, scenographer, master metal-worker, artillery expert, inventor, scientist’, Leonardo da Vinci – this is our giant, acknowledged as a universal genius – not only gave Milan and its surroundings an artistic identity, but also helped to mark the transition from the feudal to the capitalist mode of production. Thus a new era began in Milan and its surroundings, introducing the profile of what would become the modern manufacturing entrepreneur.

In England, during the reign of Elizabeth I, distinguished scientists such as the mathematician Robert Recorde, controller of the Royal Mint, advocated the applied sciences as a means by which people could have full control over the course of their lives. From that time, a window opened on entrepreneurial spill-overs arising from scientific findings; so much so that, jumping ahead some 400 years, in the USA since 1995 more than 75% of the increase in productivity has been due to investments in science which resulted in new businesses.

At the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Bengal was the renaissance counterpoint to Medici Florence. In the course of nearly a century and a half the Bengali renaissance was an innovative milieu of social and religious reformers, giants of letters and scientists. Illustrious personalities such as Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, the multilingual physicist, biologist, botanist, archaeologist and writer of science fiction, and the physicist Satyendra Nath Bose, with their pioneering research that ranged from quantum mechanics (Nath Bose) to radio waves and experimental science (Chandra Bose) tilled the territory on which start-ups were then seeded and grew and which now enrich the landscape of the digital economy.

In the early days of the industrial revolution, Giovanni Aldini, a scientist from the University of Bologna and nephew of the physicist Luigi Galvani, renowned for the discover of animal electricity, visited together with the economist Luigi Valeriani, professor in the same university, the new technical and professional schools in France, Great Britain, Germany and Belgium, learning the best practice of the new technical education and training on offer in Europe. The fruit of their travel was first the gestation and then the foundation of a technical school. A self-sustained trend of new firm formation was the outcome of a cross-fertilisation process between in-company learning by doing training and formal education at the technical school for new mechanical qualifications. The encounter between the scientist and the economist and their intellectual nomadism led to the regeneration of the preindustrial revolution experience in promoting the link between education and entrepreneurship as an essential condition of development in the wool and silk textile manufacturing for which Bologna was at that time renowned in Europe. The entrepreneurial spill-overs of the actions pursued by the entrepreneur scientist show a long queue. We have to wait until the 1920s for the birth in Bologna of the packaging machinery industry – today, a world-leading industrial cluster.

Entrepreneurial scientists help to transform the most complex problems in the world of research into businesses. To raise the number of scientists setting up businesses and find equal interests in research work and its entrepreneurial translation, a country must be equipped with laboratories where scientists can combine thought with action.

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