You have a Ph.D. in Bioinformatics from Cambridge; in 2015, you founded Solenica, a company based in San Diego that created “CAIA” a “natural lighting robot” that brings real sunlight into one’s home, you’re an entrepreneur, you have been listed on Forbes 50 “Top women in tech,” and you’re the former director for Italy of EIT Digital. You are currently the Investment Director for Information Technologies at ENEA Tech. After years as an entrepreneur, working in the private sector, what has it been like to move to the public sector?
Moving from private to public is a world of difference; [the two sectors offer] two lenses through which you can look at impact: you can try and have an impact as an entrepreneur with your vision, trying to implement that vision through a company, or you can try to have an impact on the systems that give structure to society, and that deliver, in theory, impact but that impact is usually not state of the art technologically speaking. [The public sector] is always lagging a little behind. In a way, I think of myself as coming from the public sector because when you do research in academia, you’re always following grants, writing up reports, trying to get money, and that’s a lot more public than it is private. When I started my career as an entrepreneur, that’s what I was trying to get away from, to get a breath of fresh air and have a feeling of control that I didn’t feel I had in the public sector, but the private sector has a whole other set of challenges: it’s very hard to try to make it alongside thousands of other entrepreneurs without anything supporting you.
I am in the public sector now, and it’s a constant battle between trying to do things efficiently and productively and meet your goals while having to also carry out redundant and non-meaningful activities that you just have to do because that’s what the process entails and you have to follow it. I think it’s possible to find a sweet spot where you can navigate a complex system with the energy and determination you would have as an entrepreneur. If you instead sit down and go at the speed that the system comfortably allows, then you’re not doing anybody any favors, including yourself.
What does your current position as the Investment Director for Information Technology at ENEA Tech entail?
ENEA Tech is a real experiment for Italy; it’s what in America or an Anglo-Saxon cultural innovation paradigm you would call a “funding agency”; its money that the state puts in a fund that is managed privately but invests directly into companies ie, startups that have a very high tech potential, or it creates startups out of universities that are working on a specific technology. Investing directly, that’s the key. In this way, we are actively selecting something that we think strategically aligns with the development and growth of the country, and so far, this hasn’t really happened for Italy; it’s always been indirect investments like funds of funds. The relationship between the entity that invests and the company that gets invested in has never historically been very direct, and that adds layers of administration and bureaucracy that are not helpful in an innovative environment in which you want companies to thrive. So that’s the very big difference and huge responsibility that each of the four directors of ENEA Tech feels on our shoulders. The four of us are all quite similar in terms of our profiles: we are relatively young, we have very international experiences, and this is not what you expect to see in Italy normally when you think of someone taking leadership of something this big; it’s quite an innovative recipe. We will see!
According to the ENEA Tech website, “ENEA Tech manages the Technology Transfer Fund of the Italian Ministry of Economic Development, a 500-million-euro fund for investments in innovative technologies of strategic national interest on a global scale.”
Yes, it’s a 500 million euro fund that will be worth over one billion by the end of 2035.
ENEA Tech invests in medical technology and green energy, and the circular economy, among other things. As a history teacher, I have to ask, does Enea Tech also invest in smaller, less technologically savvy sectors such as the cultural field, for example?
There are four verticals in ENEA Tech, which are four investment areas defined for each of the directors: healthcare, the green, and circular economy, deep tech, and information technology. My area is information technology. Information technology is a very transversal sector because it involves data, computational power, and connectivity, very large platforms from which you can build in any direction. You can pick any field, really, you can look at climate tech, you can look at health tech or digitalization of old infrastructure, you can do so many things. One way that I’ve strategically chosen to align the investment sectors I am interested in is by making sure we also focus on two of Italy’s greatest assets: its cultural and educational [fields]. Edtech encompasses many of the technologies and the new platforms that will enable Italy’s historical and cultural to be more widely distributed but [investing in Edtech] is not just a question of distributing information more widely; it is also important, through technology, to make sense of human processes that start with knowing what has happened in the past. It is important for us to know what we are a part of, and technology should help us maintain a state of awareness of the present as well as the past. History, for example, helps us learn from what has been done in the past, and it also helps us contextualize who we are and gives us an identity. By being a part of the present and, [at the same time], knowing the past, we can project a different future. Technology can help us streamline this process and make it a circular one where that’s a constant feedback loop that you can activate in a virtuous way, giving you more and more knowledge, more and more data, and helping you adapt better.
Virtual reality, augmented reality, and new digital platforms will help us. Think of Wikipedia: it’s so simple, it’s “web 1.0”, it’s not web 5.0--the emotional web that will happen only through virtual reality--no, we are talking about static pages that are hyperlinked, enabling you to move from one page to another easily but how much has that project enriched our lives as a whole? A huge amount. That’s an example of a very straightforward technological advance, and, [in my job], I try to think, how much can we do and how much of an impact can we have if we use technology to build upon that experience? This is one of the areas that I will focus on as an Investment Director.
As the Investment Director, something you would do, for example, would be to find an educational technology start-up that the fund could invest in?
Yes, that’s one example.
What do you consider your greatest achievement so far?
I don’t think I have one yet. If we’re just talking about me and my personal life, I consider not giving up on my startup, not giving up after years of hardship, and seeing it through, as a successful achievement for me because it showed me who I am; I didn’t know that I had it in me.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
I get to have face time with a number of entrepreneurs, wannabe entrepreneurs, professors, and researchers, and I get to speak to brilliant minds that are the most accomplished in certain fields. And it’s not just one way; they tell me all that they want to do, all that they know, and I am blown away, and then my experience kicks in, and I can give something to them that they don’t already have: it's a synergic sharing of experiences that makes them better through my experience. I love that I can save them some time by telling them what they should be thinking about or what has happened to me, [thereby] enrich[ing] their experience directly through mine. I think that’s the basis of “giving back” to your community. If everybody did a little bit of this, the entire ecosystem in Italy would thrive at a much faster pace. I love that reciprocity; the fact that I get to support and stimulate incredible minds is fantastic.
Why is it important to have more women in technology and, in particular, in artificial intelligence?
I never know how to answer this question; to me, it’s obvious that there should be more women [in technology] because it’s a win-win for everyone. We can have two different conversations in answering this question: one is about the right to participate; women have a right to be there, have a voice, and be represented. And that’s absolutely true. On the other hand, what I see a lot of is, looking at this through the lens of productivity, involving women makes you make more money because diversity increases productivity. That’s a very economical discussion [which argues that] you should do it not because it’s fair but because it helps you generate more revenue. I don’t know about this argument because even though it’s true, it’s true because of a more fundamental principle: the world is split in half, and both halves should always be represented and have an equal voice; that’s the only way to have a discussion that enriches everyone. Yes, having more women in board seats makes it better for everyone because you’re diversifying the perspectives in the room, and therefore you are adding value through difference, but I feel like the people who make the productivity argument do so because they are not ready to say that it should be done for the other reason.
Has it been a straight path for you, or do you feel you have been tested along the way to achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself? Can you talk about what some of those challenges have been and how you’ve surmounted them?
Most of the things I have done in the past ten years, since 2011 onwards, could be best characterized as “jumping in the dark,” having no data to support my decisions, only very strong instincts. The first time this happened was when I had to decide whether to go on as a postdoc--I had three offers from important research institutions in London-- or try becoming an entrepreneur, something I had not studied for. I went to NASA for four months and did a deep dive into what it meant to be a tech entrepreneur, but I didn’t have any more experience than that so, when I had to decide, I tried to put myself in front of a decision; that helps me a lot when I have to choose something that’s very important, and I don’t have the tools already in my belt to know what to do. For example, when this happened, my instinct was, “I really want to try and see if I can make this start-up work,” but, on the other hand, I knew that because I had done a Ph.D. my next step would be to do a postdoc and then pursue an academic career, so I interviewed for post-doc positions, I got three offer letters, and then I put them in front of me, and I weighed them against this completely new, untested path of becoming an entrepreneur through this startup [which became “Solenica”]. Once I had it laid out in front of me, my instinct was so strong I couldn’t say “it’s something else,” I realized there were no other variables, I had all my variables in front of me, and I had a very strong feeling for one of them. And that’s how I knew. This is very personal, it’s how I work: I have to put myself in the position of actually making a decision, not in theory making a decision, thinking “I could do interviews and pursue this career,” but I needed to have it in front of me as an opportunity that I rejected. That [process] helps me make hard decisions.
What are some of the most important lessons from your professional experience that you would like to share with the next generation of St. Stephen’s graduates?
I think in the long run, what I’ve seen is that you’re always going to have a social context in which you are integrated and those people are going to share their opinions about what they think you should be doing, and that’s certainly something you need to take into account, but it cannot be the decision-maker. You have to be your own decision-maker; what I just shared is what I do [to make a difficult decision]; you have to do whatever it takes in order to put yourself in the condition to make a decision, not have others make it for you because, no matter the outcome, you will regret that choice and that’s a certainty you don’t want in your life.
You need to be able to make your own decisions. That means different things for different people; it applies individually in a very different way for each one of us. My best advice is to never give in to pressure and always have a strong opinion of who you are and know that you can make your own decisions and whatever the decision might be, even if it’s wrong, it will help you make a different decision in the future. Letting others make decisions for you is never the winning strategy, no matter who it is: your mom, your dad, it doesn’t matter; it’s just you and the rest of the world, and you are more important because it’s your life, you get to live it, you get to make the decisions. This seems very obvious, but it’s really not. When you’re confronted with potentially life-altering decisions or situations that are not aligned with “what you should be doing,” then this comes out, and giving in is not the right answer. This is the best advice I can give, based on my experience.
Photo credits: Ilaria Magliocchetti.