The Fulbright-BEST: Silicon Valley Immersion Program has been promoted by the US ambassador in Italy Ronald Spogli and is aimed to stimulate a new enterpreneurial spirit among young Italian PhD students. With the support of business organizations such as BAIA, the first team of five lucky Italians arrived in Silicon Valley a few months ago (see their blog.) The famous and promising pioneers of the BEST (Business Exchange and Student Training) program are Abramo Barbaresi, Elisabetta Capezio, Valentina Coccoli, Micol Macellari, and Emanuele Orgiu. In Italy they are quite popular and are getting a lot of of media coverage: l'Espresso, TG5, TG3, Corriere della Sera, Il Sole 24 Ore, Il Giornale, etc. After meeting the BEST team on a few occasions, I asked them for a collective interview to share their American experience with us. Here is that interview.
Abramo, Elisabetta, Valentina, Micol, and Emanuele: thanks to the BEST program, you are the pioneers of a stream of young Italian researchers and aspiring entrepreneurs coming to California to be trained and to bring back to Italy a little bit of the Silicon Valley success. Having been through this program, do you have any suggestions for the ones that will follow you?
Do your “BEST” in taking advantage of every single experience in the Silicon Valley.
Life here never stops! Don’t loose any chance to build your network among the important local entrepreneurs and VCs. Join as many events as possible, such as seminars, conferences and networking meetings hosted by universities (Santa Clara, Stanford, and Berkeley) and US-Italy business associations such as BAIA. Last but not the least: enjoys yourself in California!
Abramo, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
My name is Abramo Barbaresi; I received a degree in Mechanical Engineering at the Politecnico di Milano University in 2000 with a thesis focused in measurement without contacts based on vision systems. After working briefly, I continued my research in the field of 3D measurement without contact at the Politecnico di Milano University, obtaining my Ph D in 2004.
Afterwards I decided to continue my research privately, sponsoring it through obtaining private grants. In this period I invented a new methodology that I patented. This technique allows the making of measures of the surface of 3D moving objects.
At the end of 2006 I applied to the BEST-Fulbright Silicon Valley Immersion program with the aim to acquire entrepreneurial skills and also with the expectation to find a partnership and/or alliance with other companies here in US.
Actually I am currently studying at Santa Clara University and working at Digital Persona, a company involved with the security field. I am also involved with an intense networking activity.
Abramo, what differences between the entrepreneurial environment in California and that of Italy impressed you the most?
For sure, the several possibilities that an entrepreneur has to access funding once he has a good idea. In Italy, if you have a good idea you are considered a poor dreamer. In the United States you are simply an entrepreneur who needs money to realize his dream. In other words you are a benefit for the society. There’s a big difference!
Another fundamental difference is the possibility to fail. This is something that impressed me most. In Italy if an entrepreneur fails he will never have a second chance. No bank or any other institution will trust him for rest of his professional life. Here it is different no one want to fail; however, if it happens, it’s seen like experience. It is part of his background, and it’s seen positively because obviously no one wants to make an error twice. For a VC that entrepreneur is preferable to who has never failed since he has more experience and more probability of success in the next venture.
This is a very important lesson for me to learn. I obviously don’t want to fail, but working with in this state of mind helps a lot because it gives you more freedom from worrying about the risks I may take and this allow you to concentrate in trying to mitigate them, facing and overcoming all the problems that your business present every day.
Elisabetta, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
Hello everybody! My name's Elisabetta Capezio and I come from a small town in the South of Italy, Venosa, but before coming here I had been living in Milan, where I attended University. Last November I got my Master Degree in Pharmaceutical Biotechnology at University Vita-Salute San Raffaele. There I performed my Master Thesis working in the research department of BioXell, a biotech company born as a Roche spin-off. In October I applied for the Fulbright-BEST program, presenting an innovative treatment for cancer therapy developed at San Raffaele Science Park by Professor Blasi.
So far, I have really appreciated this experience because if you wanna enjoy the business side of biotech context, here in Silicon Valley you are in the right place!
[Elisabetta is currently working at Comentis, a biotech company in South San Francisco, CA.]
You are working in an area that requires large capital, skilled management, and top notch researchers. Elisabetta, how do you plan to combine everything together into a new company?
Italian researchers are well known all over the world for their skills and their excellent activities, so I think it will be proportionally easy to get the right scientific support in my project. Moreover I come from a scientific institute, the San Raffaele Science Park which is one of the largest scientific park in Europe with a definitively top notch scientists team. Italy, in addition, has a strong tradition in pharmaceutical industry and this has provided a skilled management class, which can be possibly involved into the creation of new start up companies. For sure, the most challenging issue will be capital raising, but the increasing number of european VCs investing in US companies demonstrates that innovative and competitive projects are just what they are looking for!
Emanuele, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
I received the M.S. degree in electronic engineering from the University of Cagliari in 2004 and immediately afterwards I enrolled on the PhD program of the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (DIEE), University of Cagliari, as Ph.D. student. Currently, my research is focused on innovative electronic devices, in particular Organic semiconductors based devices. From January to May 2006, I worked as a researcher in Konarka Austria (Forschungs und Entwicklungs) GmbH (based in Linz, Austria) a company leader in the world for research on organic solar cells. Its chief scientist and co-founder is Dr. Alan J. Heeger, Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2000. I'm defending my PhD dissertation on February 2008. I work on a new generation of sensoristic systems in the field of Biotechnologies, Biomedicine and environmental monitoring using organic materials (polymers and plastic) because they are low cost and permit to achieve better performances (if compared to those ones of the silicon). I applied for the BEST-Fulbright Silicon Valley Immersion program, sponsored by the Italy-US Embassy, a program focused on the acquiring of entrepreneurial skills and principles to create a spin-off company along with my research team. The spin-off will be focused on the development of organic sensors.
[Emanuele is currently working at BioIdent, a biotech company in Menlopark, CA.]
Before coming to California we all have our own image of the Silicon Valley. Emanuele, what favorable or disappointing impressions did you have after living here a few months?
Well, I guess in a few months I could not have gone deep into American culture but anyway I think that everything and everybody rushes! This point have either positive and negative implications. First of all everything works: at work everything works well, at the supermarket everything is very efficient, everybody is kind, everybody helps you. This is what you see at the top whereas at the bottom... it's difficult to create friendship with people, everybody is continuously competing with you... Nobody seems to be interested in you as you are.. but if you are interesting because you're a good manager, a brilliant researcher or whatever then they are. After asking you your name then the second question is “what you do”? A short story: I invited a classmate to go for a drink and his reply was... “well, I'll be booked over the next weeks but...if you have a myspace.com account, add me”.
Micol, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
I come from Voghera, a small town in the countryside near Milan and I took my Master Degree in Medical and Molecular Biotechnology at the San Raffaele Univesity in Milan. I applied for the Fulbright-BEST program because my professional objective is to integrate my scientific skills with experiences that allow me to effort my entrepreneurial spirit. What’s a better place than the Silicon Valley for achieving my goal! This is not my first time in the US, because I came here before for study tour but is my first time away from home for such a long time! Arrive here with the other Italian guys, make everything easier! Moreover thanks to the US Embassy and the Fulbright Association we got in touch with a lot of people living here and that helped us so much in familiarizing with one’s surrounding!
[Micol is currently working at Panomics, a biotech company in Fremont, CA.]
After enjoying the exciting business environment of the Silicon Valley you will be headed back to Italy. Micol, have you considered the possibility of coming back after you are done with your PhD? Does Italy still provide opportunities for people like you?
The final aim of this Fulbright-BEST program is to give the chance to young people to try to discover the secret of the Silicon Valley business environment for bringing back home as much as possible of this powerful know-how. We cannot deny that the Italian reality is very different from here, as many countries in the world are, but I think that even if we cannot think to chance the world, once in Italy we can try to share with other people and students the insightful experience we are having in this unique reality. This could be a first step in trying to change people mindset and way of thinking!
Valentina, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
I received my Master Degree in Materials Engineering from the University of Naples "Federico II" in July 2004. In November 2004 I won a PhD Program scholarship in Materials and Structural Engineering, focused on Biomaterials at the Department of Materials and Production Engineering of the University of Naples "Federico II". I am scheduled to finish my PhD Program in November 2007. For my doctoral studies I was mainly interested on the development and manufacture of tissue regeneration scaffolds. The main goal of my project is to obtain products that provide surgeons with a practical, reproducible and adaptable means of improving the outcome of existing surgical procedures for the regenerative repair of tissues and organs. I applied for the BEST-Fulbright Silicon Valley Immersion Program to acquire entrepreneurial skills and principles to create a spin-off company from my university research group. My challenge is to find funds to create a tissue and organ substitutes company in Italy. This company would be a leading global provider of TE scaffolds that allow patients to continue living healthy and active lifestyles.
[Valentina is currently working at FivePrime, a biotech company in San Francisco, CA.]
In Silicon Valley the social and business network is a crucial factor for success. Valentina, how do you compare the Italian and Silicon Valley attitudes toward social networking? How do you think your experience here in the US will impact your approach to networking?
When I arrived in the Silicon Valley, I didn’t have any idea of the social and business networking value and influence. Since the beginning of this experience, we have been involved in a lot of networking events sponsored by US-Italy associations such as BAIA, SVIEC, Urania, etc. During this kind of events, people have the opportunity to meet and share opinions with very important businessmen. In the Silicon Valley, networking has become almost as natural as breathing, probably because it’s simply an extension of being friendly, outgoing, and active in the communities and professional groups. In Italy, I don’t think there are a lot of professional networking events, or at least, they are not common and mainly not opened to young people!
However, to me networking is all about building relationships and it’s absolutely a two-way street: “You might know someone who can help someone else”. This is the right way to build a good network that can help you for everything such as finding the right job, the best physician as well as a good deal. When I go back to Italy, I don’t want to loose the networking skills I am learning here and, absolutely, I will go on to build and strengthen my network.
I would like to thank Abramo, Elisabetta, Valentina, Micol, and Emanuele for taking the time to speak with me today. I also wish all of them the best for their new professional future once they will be back to Italy. If you have any questions for them or for BAIA, please leave a comment below and we will be glad to answer.