From students to founders of start-ups, the step is shorter and shorter: take the word of the #T-TeC 2022 mentor Professor Di Lizia for it

06 November 2023

Professor, mentor and, above all, the greatest fan of his students. Pierlugi Di Lizia teaches Aerospace Engineering at the Politecnico di Milano university. Last year, he supported the SunCubes team in their journey that led them to coming third in the #T-TeC 2022 competition.

SunCubes, now a start-up comprising only former Politecnico di Milano students, has set itself a particularly ambitious objective: to create an alternative to the current electricity supply system used by satellites. The project envisages the use of a network of small cubesats that can produce, accumulate and then transfer energy to recipient satellites using laser technology. It would be something like a power plant spread out in orbit. 

We have spoken to Professor Di Lizia about his role as SunCubes mentor in an Open Innovation contest such as #T-TeC, but also of the renewed interest in space of young students and the need for an increasingly close relationship between Academia and Industry.

Professor Di Lizia, today Space is recognised as essential for life on Earth. How is this perceived by the new generations of students?

Students who choose space-related subjects are always driven by a great and genuine passion for the sector. Furthermore, I am deeply impressed by how much the new generations are aware of the role of space research on society - far more than in the past. This, in turn, brings them closer and closer to space.

What was once perceived as a distant sector, too difficult to approach, is now becoming a challenge that students find they can deal with. The direct consequence of this is the clear rise in the number of Aerospace Engineering students worldwide; these students are more aware of the effects of space research on society and they are more and more motivated to find new useful applications..

Once they leave university, what are the young men and women currently studying STEM subjects expecting to find, especially if their subjects are related to the space sector?

Above all else, in my opinion, is the desire to continue learning, all the time. This may seem paradoxical, because a university degree is widely regarded as the culmination of a person’s education. However, it is fully understandable: although I graduated many years ago, I still have a deep desire to learn new things. I sincerely believe that many people in a situation like mine feel the same. There is no doubt that the first type of post-graduate professional development, after entering the labour world, is the precious practical experience offered by industry in specific sectors. It provides immediate satisfaction.

For companies like Telespazio, working on Open Innovation projects with universities such as the Politecnico di Milano means accessing the skills and knowledge that every big company needs. But what advantages does collaborating with businesses provide to universities?

It delivers double benefits, because universities have a double role in society. On the one side, they play an essential role in innovation through its research activities. In this sense, and speaking from personal experience, the opportunity to work with sector-specific companies such as Telespazio can define the role of industry and our University in meeting the current technological challenges and, as a result, the best way to channel our applied research activities..

Furthermore, universities play a crucial role in the education of the future generations of aerospace engineers. These will be the generations joining the companies and contributing to their development and to the advancement of the sector as a whole. Interacting with industry therefore helps us understand how the current technological challenges transform into education needs, which we try to meet daily by organising our teaching activities in the best possible way.

How could the virtuous cycle of university-business collaboration be valorised further? 

As I said earlier, the benefits of academia-industry interaction are reciprocal. However, it is important to stress that these benefits can be achieved only if the interaction is meaningful and extended, and not just one-offs for the sake of it. Let me say this more clearly: I believe that universities and companies must work in synergy, structuring this coordination as part of initiatives with medium- and long-term programmes. This applies both to training and education and to research and development plans.

In the field of research and development, the numerous initiatives deriving from the Next Generation EU programme, nationally and internationally, are very important, as is the participation of universities in ESA’s network of Business Incubation Centres.  Creating forums for the discussion of programme and technical matters would also be extremely useful, with the organisation of theme-based work groups to spread ideas and jointly come up with new ideas.

The importance of synergy between academia and industry is also evident in education. Planning wide breadth university education programmes must be based on the constant interaction of universities, research centres and businesses, but also on the direct contribution of businesses to the training and education activities in the universities.

For example, we are already moving in this direction at the Politecnico di Milano, with some courses being the result of collaborating with companies and having them directly involved in teaching activities.

The Politecnico di Milano has already taken part several times in #T-TeC, obtaining great results, such as the third place last year with the SunCubes team. How did the projects develop after the contest? What is your role as a mentor? 

I was impressed by the technical skills of the SunCubes team - and of all the other participating teams, I am keen to stress - but also by their creativity and enthusiasm. Today our relationship is far more than just tutoring, because I cannot deny that their enthusiasm is catching and they have been a source of inspiration for my activities at the university.

To begin with, my role was mainly technical: I had and still have regular meetings with the team to provide my opinion on objectives, requirements and the technical feasibility of the proposed solutions. However, we immediately realised that the interdisciplinary nature of the project required a broader range of skills in sectors not closely linked to aerospace engineering. So I helped the team in the initial phases of creating an adequate scientific support committee.

After this initial phase, we discussed how to make the idea scalable and I tried to help them create a first business plan, assessing business opportunities in the short, medium and long term. In this sense, participating in #T-TeC 2022 was essential, as was the success of the Switch2Product initiative, the innovation programme organised by PoliHub, the Technology Transfer Office of the Politecnico di Milano and the Deloitte Officine Innovazione [Innovation Workshops]. These results gave SunCubes the opportunity to receive support and training in the planning of the start-up’s activity and in promoting their idea among potential investors, customers and stakeholders.

All in all, the SunCubes experience has been a crescendo of activities and opportunities that led to more activities and opportunities, providing satisfaction and new results all the time. But it is the SunCubes team, their determination and skills, that deserve the credit for all this success. My contribution was to give some advice and, above all, to be their first fan!

What advice would you give to young people in their last year of secondary school, who are thinking of enrolling in a STEM university course?

The most important message I want to give students who plan a STEM career, particularly in the field of engineering, is to always be open-minded, to challenge their convictions and to consider the feasibility of ideas and project solutions other than their own, such as, for example, the ones proposed by other members of the team they will be working with.

It was this attitude that led to achieving the great milestones of the space industry we are all familiar with. But it is also the only approach that will prevent us from resting on our laurels, to rise to new challenges that, like in the past, will become new opportunities for the whole of society.

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