Italian small- and medium-sized companies are seeking opportunities to forge cooperation and partnerships with Israeli companies to find additional growth engines amid the global economic crisis. "Israel is a world leader in research and development and first in terms of number of engineers relative to the number of inhabitants, but Israel is less good in turning R&D into an industrial product. Italy is not a leader in R&D but a leader in applying R&D and the transformation of industrial products," Italian Undersecretary for Economic Development Adolfo Urso said Wednesday in Tel Aviv at the inauguration of the two-day Italy-Israel Business Forum. "We can grow together, even in a year of recession, by bringing together Italy's valuable industrial capability and the advanced technologies developed by Israeli companies." The Italian business delegation consists of 98 representatives from companies and business organizations, including the Confederation of Italian Industry, the Italian Institute for Foreign Trade (ICE) and the Italian Banking Association (ABI). It will be meeting with 338 Israeli companies to discuss cooperation in the areas of infrastructure, hi-tech, agriculture, consumer goods and alternative energy. As part of the mission, the delegation will visit industrial parks, technical incubators and local industry, including Iscar Ltd., Intel and the Volcani Center. From 2000 to 2003, Israel and Italy signed two agreements for industrial, scientific and technological cooperation. Italy is Israel's fifth-largest export country. In 2007, Israeli exports to Italy amounted to â‚¬1.8 billion, representing an increase of 9 percent over the previous year. "In the first six months of the year, exports grew by 10%, while imports rose 19%," Urso said. "By the end of the year, trade volume between the two countries is expected to amount to â‚¬3 billion. Despite the fact that many large Italian companies and banks such as Fiat or the Generali Group are represented in Israel, investments have been very low, and therefore we now see great growth opportunities." Urso said tariff quotas and tax barriers were obstacles for Italian exports to Israel. "It is still difficult for us to bring Italian cheese and wine to Israel," he said. "We need to break down those barriers. But I am confident that we will be able to advance a free-trade agreement until 2010 to solve this issue." Urso said Italy's government, which was elected in July, has allocated â‚¬16.6b. for investment into large infrastructure projects. "There is a lot of infrastructure work in both countries, out of which large projects could evolve," he said. "Furthermore, the new government has put itself a target to focus on the environment and become a mixed-energy country by 2020: 50% electrical fossils, 25% nuclear energy and 25% renewable energy." Italian Banking Association general manager Domenico Santececca said Italian banks were interested in expanding activities in Israel. "The business delegation includes representatives of six Italian banks who represent 70% of the Italian banking sector," he said. "The reason they are here is that they believe in the development of industry and trade relations between Italian and Israeli companies. The presentation of Italian banks in Israel is not very big and there is room for development, mainly in the area of investment banking."