Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) represent the engine of the worldwide economy, with a significant contribution to the growth and development of the country. However, to maintain long-term competitiveness and sustainability, it is essential that these companies are innovative and able to adapt to the new challenges of the global market.
In Italy, innovative SMEs play a key role in creating jobs, increasing productivity, and developing new technologies and solutions. These companies are often characterized by a strong entrepreneurial culture, high flexibility, and a high capacity to adapt to market changes.
But what needs to be done to be considered an innovative SME? What are the requirements? What are the possible aids and what specifically are the advantages that can be acquired? And above all, what are the technologies thanks to which a company can be supported in its digital transition path to fully exploit the technologies available today, such as artificial intelligence applications?
Let’s start by describing what exactly it means to be an innovative SME and when it is therefore possible to define oneself as such.
Innovative SME: what are the requirements?
In Italy, an innovative SME must satisfy some requirements established by the Ministry of Economic Development (MISE), creating the conditions for being registered in the register of innovative SMEs. Firstly, the company must be a limited liability company, with registered and operational headquarters in Italy. Furthermore, it must have an annual turnover not exceeding 50 million euros and a total number of employees not exceeding 250. In addition, the company must demonstrate that it has an innovative idea and a development project that could generate a significant economic impact and social. This can be demonstrated through patent filings, licensing agreements, research contracts with research institutions, or participation in acceleration or incubation programs.
For startups, there is a register of innovative startups, for which registration is subject to the following company requirements:
- Must be new or established no more than 5 years ago
- Has residence in Italy, or in another country of the European Economic Area but with a production site or branch in Italy
- Has an annual turnover of less than 5 million euros;
- Not listed on a regulated market or MTF;
- Does not distribute and has not distributed profits;
- Has as its exclusive or prevalent corporate purpose the development, production and marketing of a product or service with high technological value;
- It is not the result of a merger, demerger or sale of a business unit;
- Incurs R&D expenses equal to at least 15% of the higher value between cost and total production value;
- Employs highly qualified personnel (at least 1/3 PhDs, doctoral students or researchers, or at least 2/3 with master’s degree);
- Is the owner, custodian, or licensee of at least one patent or registered software owner.
For innovative SMEs that meet these requirements, it is therefore possible to obtain numerous advantages. Let’s see them all.
Innovative SMEs: advantages and opportunities
Once registered in the register of innovative SMEs, the company can benefit from numerous tax and financial benefits, including exemption from corporate income tax for the first five years, easier access to credit and a reduction the cost of setting up the company. Furthermore, he can access funding programs and incentives to invest in innovation and research and development, and he can participate in training and mentoring programs to support the growth and development of the company.
One of the main challenges for innovative SMEs in Italy is accessing credit and finance to invest in new technologies and solutions. However, several opportunities have been created for innovative SMEs in recent years, including funding and incentive schemes for innovative businesses, incubation and acceleration programs, and training and mentoring programs. Among these tools, over the next three years, the measures envisaged in the Next-Generation EU Plan will assume particular importance.
This series of measures to support companies translate into a multitude of benefits that companies can benefit from in the short and long term such as, for example, tax advantages or increased competitiveness, to name a few.
The challenges of innovative SMEs in the world of digital technologies
Regardless of meeting the formal requirements, to be truly innovative, an SME must have a development project capable of generating a significant economic and social impact. It is also necessary for the company to have a strong entrepreneurial culture, high flexibility, and a high capacity to adapt to market changes. All this, together with a good financial base and a strong network of partnerships and collaborations with other companies and research institutions, makes the business idea sustainable, and allows the company to grow and develop, as well as increase its competitiveness in time.
Innovative SMEs are facing important market challenges, especially in the light of new and increasingly pervasive digital technologies. Among these challenges we can highlight:
- Global competition: Innovative SMEs are facing increasingly intense global competition, especially with the advent of new digital technologies. Technologically advanced companies from all over the world are expanding into new markets and offering new solutions, putting innovative SMEs in difficulty.
- Data protection: new digital technologies require greater attention to data protection, both in terms of IT security and in terms of protecting customer privacy. Innovative SMEs need to take appropriate security measures to protect their data and that of their customers.
- Continuous innovation: New digital technologies are evolving rapidly and innovative SMEs need to be able to continuously innovate to remain competitive. This means that innovative SMEs must constantly invest in research and development to develop new solutions and new products to meet market needs.
Innovative SMEs and Artificial Intelligence
Whatever the reference market sector, all innovative SMEs can face the challenges of the modern economy thanks to the use of new technologies deriving from Artificial Intelligence.
Below are some examples of artificial intelligence solutions that an SME could exploit to be innovative in reference to different sectors:
- Big Data Analytics: analyzing the data available can be useful for drawing deductions and making conscious choices thanks to precise and reliable information. Being supported by data means in fact being able to implement strategies useful for long-term growth;
- Quality Control: thanks to Computer Vision techniques it is possible to implement real-time monitoring of the quality of products or services and intervene quickly in case of problems;
- Workforce Scheduling: thanks to AI solutions capable of simplifying and speeding up the process of creating shifts;
- User profiling: thanks to Big Data Analytics techniques that allow the integration of data from heterogeneous sources, which translates into an excellent tool for digital marketing;
- Business Process Management: through which business and public administration can optimally manage large amounts of practices, automating the various purely manual activities;
- Optimization of customer relations management: thanks to Natural Language Processing and Artificial Intelligence techniques, that are able to allow, for example, call centers to better manage complaints;
- Energy management: thanks to the use of IoT technology to support electricity meters.
Today, an SME that really wants to be defined as “innovative” must be able to meet the formal requirements required by the MiSE, but above all it must have strong technological expertise and a deep understanding of Artificial Intelligence technologies and their applications, together with a solid experience in the reference sector and in understanding the needs and challenges of the market. It is only thanks to these ingredients that it is possible to face and overcome the challenges of an increasingly competitive global market!
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