Please see the Guidelines for thesis to express your interest for a thesis opportunity.

Innovation in the life science sector

Innovation is the engine of growth but how does innovation unfold within firms and industries? Innovation often goes hand in hand with technological and demand uncertainty and typically recombines diverse knowledge domains and knowledge bases both of larger and small or young firms.

This project aims to investigate firms’ innovation strategies in the life science sector that best describe innovative activities’ challenges and opportunities. Bringing new drugs to market is in fact a long journey for firms operating in this industry, typically 8 to 10 years. There is therefore a high technological and demand uncertainty, with extensive costs, and risks that complicate even further the chances of translating R&D projects into commercialized drugs. Typically, only 22% of compounds that are tested in clinical trials conclude with a successful market launch (DiMasi et al., 2003) with enormous investments in the late clinical trials phases. On top of this, complementary assets play a key role in this industry, as shown by the recent race for the Covid-19 vaccines. Several heterogeneous parties (e.g., pharmaceutical firms, small biotech startups, and research centers) engage in inter-organizational collaborations through alliances and M&A, which are expected to reach a collective value of more than 200US$ billion in 2023 (Pwc forecasts). The sector is also characterized by strong appropriability regimes that push firms to invest in R&D with blockbuster drugs generating annual sales of more than 1$ billion (e.g., Lecanemab by Biogen and Eisai for Alzheimer). This sector, therefore, enables us to unfold intriguing competitive and collaborative dynamics in pursuing innovation activities among individuals, firms, markets, and institutions.

Students can rely on this empirical context to answer several intriguing research questions. To name a few:

  • Which type of players (e.g., biotech startups, incumbent firms, universities) jump into a race for developing products into highly promising research trajectories?
  • What is the knowledge base of investing firms in a new market? In which market segment do they try to enter? What occurs to possible non-entrants?
  • What are possible factors affecting the firms’ investment timing in new product-markets? And what are possible consequences?
  • What factors affect firms’ decision to rely on external sources (complementary assets and other resource sourcing through alliances or acquisition) versus going solo in developing and/or manufacturing new products?
  • At which stage of the process do firms undertake collaborative agreements (e.g., alliances, joint ventures), and with whom?
  • What are the effects of M&A on scientists and inventors?
  • What are the possible roles of research centers in establishing industry-science collaboration?
  • …..

It is possible to rely on patent, publication, and project-level data to answer these questions. In particular, each firm owns a portfolio of patents – which provides rich information about the technologies these companies work on, the inventors and the countries where the invention is protected. Moreover, it is possible to leverage project-level data tracing over time the development of the product from the early phases to its commercialization, something that is very challenging to do in other industries. Publication data enrich even further the picture since typically scientists tend to publish the results of their research.

The student(s) interested in this project will:

  • Get familiar with the main innovation trends in the life science industry
  • Revise and advance the existing literature on firms’ innovation strategies in this industry
  • Draw from secondary sources to develop a tailor-made database. Students will trace the strategic actions taken by pharmaceutical firms by having the possibility to rely on different data sources together or focusing on one of these sources (e.g., publication data, patent data, and project data from clinical trials)
  • Use statistical and econometric techniques to investigate this topic through descriptives and basic econometric analysis

Supervisor: Daniela Silvestri

Co-supervisors: Fabio Busicchia

Technological competition and nascent industries dynamics: the mRNA case

Nascent industries are characterized by high technology and demand uncertainty. The pre-commercialization period, known as incubation stage (Moeen and Agarwal, 2017), is typically characterized by intense experimentation where firms attempt to build the industry knowledge base. Following a trigger event (e.g., scientific discoveries), investing firms try to resolve technological and demand uncertainty leading the industry to emerge (or not).

The emergence of the mRNA-based vaccine industry is a case in point useful to explore the dynamics of a nascent industry. The mRNA discovery dates back to 1960 when firms actually experimented with this technology not for Covid or Sars vaccine but for other diseases. Back in time, high production costs, demand, and technology uncertainty, restrain firms from exploiting immediately the mRNA technology preferring the adoption of other conventional techniques. The development and public procurement of mRNA-based Covid-19 vaccines provided firms with the right economic incentives to invest more heavily in this technique leading to the emergence of this industry with many pharmaceutical firms jumping into the race experimenting with the mRNA technique. Apart from the economic incentives that have facilitated the emergence of this industry, it is interesting to explore the trajectory that firms undertook to develop the mRNA vaccine for example whether and how they insource knowledge and complementary assets through different collaboration modes. This thesis aims to provide a systematic descriptive analysis of the Covid vaccine race using vaccine project data.

By analyzing this data, fascinating patterns can be uncovered ranging from firms’ innovation practices to competition among incumbents and startups, including firms’ collaboration trends (e.g., Mergers and Acquisitions, alliances).

Possible angles to explore (only indicative, do not feel restricted by these examples):

  • Which type of players joined the race for Covid-19 vaccine (e.g., biotech startups, incumbent firms, universities)?
  • What type of technological trajectories (e.g., mRNA, traditional techniques) did firms undertake to develop Covid-19 vaccines? What were the consequences?
  • To what extent have firms formed alliances or collaborate versus going solo in developing and/or manufacturing a Covid-19 vaccine?
  • At which stage of the process did firms enter into an alliance and with whom?
  • What were the main motivations for collaborating or acquiring other firms (e.g., complementary asset, resource sourcing)?

The student(s) interested in this project will:

  • Get familiar with the main innovation trends in the life science industry
  • Revise and advance the existing literature on nascent industries and firms’ innovation strategies
  • Draw from multiple secondary sources to develop a tailor-made database. Students will trace the strategic actions taken by investing firms that incurred in clinical trials for Covid-19 vaccines, both through mRNA-based and conventional techniques.
  • Use statistical and econometric techniques to investigate this topic

Supervisor: Daniela Silvestri

Co-supervisors: Fabio Busicchia

European Support Schemes and high-tech SMEs’ development: an empirical comparison with Venture Capital initiatives

European Support Schemes and high-tech SMEs’ development: an empirical comparison with Venture Capital initiatives

High-tech SMEs often suffer from limited resources and legitimacy, while fore-fronting fundamental
uncertainty about the outcome of their innovative activities. Entrepreneurs and their backers therefore
seek ways to either become successfully viable and/or cash-out on their efforts.
Sponsoring organizations, either public or private (e.g., Venture Capital), for-profit or not-for-profit
(e.g., accelerators), can play an essential role in shaping the evolutive patterns of high-tech SMEs.
First, they can improve their bargaining power. Second, they provide new resources or can marshal
additional ones. Finally, sponsoring organizations lend SMEs a certification of quality, which lessens
the effect of information asymmetry for potential acquirers. Therefore, the backing from sponsorship
organization like VCs may play a crucial role in mitigating the hurdles high-tech SMEs face in M&A
markets, for example by improving their valuations or avoiding forced premature sales.
This project aims to empirically investigate the effect of sponsorship from various organizations on
the Italian SMEs’ likelihood of successfully exiting via M&A or IPO. Various forms of sponsorship
are considered, based on the types of organization, the extent and nature of the support provided, and
certification effect.
The student(s) interested in this thesis project will:
• Review the literature on Venture Capital financing and supporting schemes. Explore the
main features of Italian VC organizations, such as their categorization, main trends, and
potential differences relative to the EU markets;
• Contribute to the data collection efforts of an ongoing project, using sources like for
example Lexis Nexis or Crunchbase;
• Use statistical and/or econometric techniques to study the impact of VC
certification/sponsorship role. Prior knowledge is not required.

Type of thesis: Both with and without discussant; joint theses are also available.

Thesis abroad may eventually be organized at the University of Sheffield (this is not a mandatory
activity and it is subject to the availability of the university abroad to host master thesis students.
Eventually refer to the call for the “thesis abroad” in the polimi online service).

Supervisors: Daniela Silvestri, Alessandro Lucini Paioni

How incumbent organizations enter in a nascent industry through platform-based servitization and business model innovation
Incumbent organizations operating in the traditional space industry are sensing new market opportunities in the nascent industry of space economy. The space economy is the commercial extension and the evolution of the traditional (government-based) space industry, which leverages on a combination of space and digital technologies to provide several services for public institutions, and private organizations. To enter such nascent industry, incumbent organizations need to embrace a change at strategic level, moving from offering new products to creating and offering new platform-based services. Despite the relevance and urgency of the problem, few studies investigate how incumbent organization should organize and evolve, what are the successful practices, processes, and decision-making activities to make innovation happen.
Full Thesis
Supervisor: Prof. Angelo Cavallo

Thesis opportunities within the Drones and Advanced Air Mobility Observatory

Starting from January/February 2024, thesis opportunities will be available within the Drones and Advanced Air Mobility Observatory (Osservatorio Droni e Mobilità Aerea Avanzata):

These theses will be practice-oriented. The student(s) will work together with a university supervisor, the Observatory, and the companies linked to it. Examples of currently investigated topics are:
• Analysis of the Italian Drones and Advanced Air Mobility market
• Growth of Drones and Advanced Air Mobility firms in Italy
• Sustainability of Advanced Air Mobility
• Applications of these technologies in different sectors

Theses can be both quantitative and qualitative, analysing either database, case-studies, or interviews. Different thesis formats can be accommodated.

For further information please contact Prof. Alessandro Lucini Paioni (

Gender and inventions: European evidence from a comparison between fields stereotypically associated with men and women

Gender in science matters: many scholars studied this field and observed women are typically disadvantaged, observing that gender affects innovation too. The student should review the literature on gender and innovation, specifically about patent activity. We suggest reviewing the literature by executing a systematic literature review. Our proposal aims to investigate whether gender affects men and women differently (or equally) in fields associated with their gender stereotypes. Moreover, to empirically investigate this issue, we propose to use the European Patent Office; the data are public and available online at By the International Patent Classification (IPC), we will choose two or more fields to compare. For instance, the student can compare the field of computing, stereotypically associated with men, to the field of cosmetics, stereotypically associated with women [Computing; calculating or counting – Section G – class 06 – subclass Q; Specific use of cosmetics or similar toiletry preparations – Section A – class 61 – subclass Q].

If you are interested in this thesis proposal, please email Omar Mazzucchelli [], cc Cristina Rossi-Lamastra [], and Daniela Silvestri [].