Pisa University's observatory

The Observatory on innovative SMEs is the first and only initiative in this sector and operates thanks to the collaboration between Grant Thornton professionals and the Economics and Management Department of the University of Pisa.

The scientific representative is Federica De Santis, professor of the Economics and Management Department of the University of Pisa.

The aim of the Observatory is to constantly monitor and analyse innovative SMEs, in order to identify their demographic, economic, wealth, organizational and strategic dynamics. The Observatory shares the results of its research through reports, conferences, articles and presentations.

The 2021 report was presented during the Conference and the Award Ceremony held on 11 November 2021, at the CNR headquarters in Rome.



The 2021 edition of the Open Innovative PMI Observatory showed a slight decrease in the registrations in the proper register of innovative SMES, with 525 new companies registered between October 2020 and September 2021, compared to 567 registered in the previous period (October 2019-September 2020). This figure suggests that the number of innovative SMES registered with the Ministry register is still low compared to the potential actual number and that eh measures introduced for this kind of companies are not yet acting as strong incentives. Among such measures, we point out, in particular, the tax incentives introduced for investment in start ups and innovative SMEs under the Decree dated 7 May 2019 and the further provisions aimed at strenthening and supporting the Start-up/SME system, introduced by “Rilancio” Decree in April 2020 to respond to the crisis caused by the Covid-19 health emergency. However, it must be pointed out that innovative SMEs have maintained a good growth trend over the years, particularly in the period 2019-2021, also considering the widespread impact of the pandemic on the domestic economic and entrepreneurial system.

The PMI Observatory research shows an increase in the average size of innovative SMEs, although not to an extent that reverses the trends already highlighted in the previous Reports. For the sake of brevity, only the parameter relating to turnover is analyzed here and reference is made to the 2021 Report for considerations relating to the other dimensional parameters (number of employees and value of capital). The new SMEs belonging to the micro-enterprises category, with a turnover below the threshold of two million euros, although decreasing, still represent almost two thirds of the reference population. About a quarter of the new Innovative SMEs surveyed are small businesses (turnover between 2 and 10 million euros), showing an increase compared to the 2020 data. Companies that qualify as medium-sized enterprises (turnover of more than 10 million and less than 50), though remaining below 10%, show a significant increase compared to the previous observation period and, for the first time, a company with a turnover higher than 59 million euros compared among newly registered companies.

The average seniority, among the new members, is just under 9 years and shows a slight decrease compared to the previous observation periods. This datum and its evolution trend, are fully consistent with the eligibility requirements to access tax incentives for investments in startups and innovative SMEs set up by the legislator with the Decree dated 7 May 2019. In fact, this provides that those innovative SMEs that have been operating on the market for less than 7 years or that, after this time limit, demonstrate that they are still in their expansion phase or in their initial growth phases are eligible. In particular, innovative SMEs that have been operating on the market for more than 7 years but for less than 10 years, for which an external expert can certify that they have not yet expressed their return potential, are considered as eligible, as well as innovative SMEs that, regardless of their seniority, have invested in risk capital for the launch of a new product or for entering a new geographic market that exceeds 50 per cent of the average annual turnover of the previous five years. In the near future it will therefore be interesting to observe not only the dynamics of new registrations, but also that of exits from the register.

Among the other “demographic” elements, it is interesting to observe how a growing percentage of new Innovative SMEs, equal to about 65% of the companies observed, have patents or software in their portfolio. Although this is the most represented requirement, there is also a considerable decrease in the frequency of firms investing in research and development. The prevalence of women in the ownership structure (7.05%) as well as of foreign members (7.05%) is scarce and decreasing compared to the previous observation period, which however shows a growth by 0.5% compared to 2020. The almost total absence of foreign ownership is still confirmed, with a share lower than 2%.

As regards the business industries, among the new members, the data collected in the period October 2020 – September 2021 confirm that the services sector is the most represented, with SMEs particularly active in software production, IT consultancy, scientific research and development, consulting, trade, electronics, and chemical products manufacturing. The analysis of the business industries largely confirms the results of the previous observation periods. These sectors, which together represent about 75% of the innovative SMEs observed in 2021, are among the sectors that had been identified as the most able to respond to the profound crisis triggered by the COVID 19 health emergency, also on the basis of the assumptions made by the Cerved Industry Forecast in May 2020. By analyzing the data available one year after the start of the pandemic and comparing them with those highlighted by the Observatory in 2020 financial statements prepared by Cerved Group SpA, it is possible to identify some significant results.

The economic and financial analyses on Innovative SMEs for which financial statements were available in 2019 and 2020 were conducted for a larger sample of companies than the one analyzed in the previous observation periods (1,485 companies), which includes both newly registered and already existing companies. The results of the analyzes show a high variability in the levels of turnover, depending on the size of the companies. In fact, a comparison between data for FY 2019 and those for FY 2020 shows that smaller companies have suffered more substantial losses in turnover than larger ones. While SMEs with turnover volumes of up to one million euros suffered an average decrease by around 36%, those with turnover volumes higher than 5 million euros recorded an average increase by around 21.71%. If we only consider innovative SMEs that had an increase in turnover, regardless of their size, the average increase is + 27%. These results appear in contrast to those highlighted by the Observatory on the financial statements of Cerved Group SpA, referring to 227 thousand financial statements of Italian companies, which for 2020 show, on an aggregate level, an average decrease in turnover by around 10.7 %, with a more consistent deterioration for larger companies.

In terms of income, at the aggregate level, we can see a deterioration in the performance of innovative SMEs compared to 2019, with a decrease in the average EBIT value and a corresponding decrease in the EBIT/Turnover indicator. On an analytical level, consistently with what has been observed in reference to turnover volumes, different trends are observed based on the size of the companies considered. While smaller companies (micro and small enterprises) suffer a significant worsening of average EBIT, which shows negative values ​​for 2020, medium-sized companies confirm the trends observed in 2019. Lastly, companies with a turnover volume higher than 50 million euros even achieved an improvement in their income performance.

From an equity point of view, an average value of shareholders’ equity of approximately 2 million euros is observed, showing an increase compared to the previous year. This trend is consistent with the legislative measures aimed at encouraging the capitalization of Innovative SMEs.

Although the entry into force of the business crisis code was further postponed, in the 2021 Report it was decided to simulate the application of the crisis and insolvency warning and prevention system. This is a completely innovative analysis, based on the calculation of four out of five warning indicators proposed in the document prepared by the CNDCEC in application of the new business crisis code. The analysis carried out in this sense concerned a significant sample of Innovative SMEs, consisting of 1,389 companies for which the data necessary to set up the considered system of indicators were available.

The first of these indicators refers to the sustainability of financial charges, i.e., the ratio between financial charges and turnover, compared with the relative industry benchmark identified by CNDCEC. On an analytical level, 7 of the 17 sectors analysed show a warning signal in reference to the ability to bear the burden of debt capital, among which the agricultural, transport and entertainment industries are particularly relevant. These results are largely consistent with the impact of the restrictions imposed by the measures to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. At an aggregate level, the industry data processed by the Observatory show an average improvement in this indicator, from 3.44% in 2019 to 2.74% in 2020. Also in this case, the trend analysed is in line with the support measures adopted by the legislator in terms of guaranteed loans at subsidized rates for businesses.

Innovative SMEs also show a good level of capital adequacy, meant as the ratio between equity and third-party assets, although the aggregate average figure shows a significant worsening of the indicator. Also in this case, the high value of the levels of capitalization proves to be consistent with the aforementioned measures to support investments in risk capital in Startups and Innovative SMEs. These considerations are also confirmed by the fact that only 40 of the 1389 Innovative SMEs analyzed present a situation of capital deficit, an imbalance condition strongly highlighting a state of crisis and possible insolvency.

The data relating to the financial and capital solidity of Innovative SMEs are also consistent with what is highlighted at domestic level by the Observatory in 2020 financial statements prepared by Cerved Group SpA, which notes a general improvement in both the financial sustainability and the levels of capitalization of Italian companies, also consistent with the availability of guaranteed loans and incentives for corporate capitalization.

The third warning indicator calculated with reference to innovative SMEs concerns the companies’ ability to generate cash flows through the use of its own resources (cash flows to total assets ratio). In this case, only with reference to some industries (5 out of 17 analyzed) the data highlighted a difficulty for companies to generate cash through their assets, while in the remaining cases the cash flows on invested capital is well above the industry average.

Finally, the quick ratio was analyzed, which expresses the company’s ability to meet its short-term debts through current assets. Again, data show a very positive situation, with a single industry in a warning condition (moreover, represented by a single company in the sample).

In conclusion, the analysis conducted on warning indicators applied to Innovative SMEs highlights an absolute majority of companies in a good state of health and this is even more encouraging considering the context of the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic.

2021 Observatory Report

2021 Report presentation