Home to many of the world’s largest technology corporations as well as thousands of small startups, Silicon Valley is the place where the future is written. It is no accident that former Google manager and dynamic leader Marco Marinucci has decided to start his new (ad)venture – as he likes to call it – exactly from there. After more than 20 years spent between digital publishing, artificial intelligence research, VoIP, e-commerce, e-learning and ticketing, in 2007 he created Mind the Bridge, a non-profit foundation based in San Francisco, with the aim of connecting the most innovative Italian startups with Silicon Valley’s partners and investors. Today, Mind the Bridge is a successful startup accelerator and seed investment fund; it also runs a startup school, which graduates more than 50 entrepreneurs per year, and organizes tens of events attended by thousands. The annual Italian Innovation Day, a milestone of the Year of Italian Culture in the United States, is among its most successful initiatives, bringing together the best of Italian technology and innovation. Since 2013 Mind the Bridge has also been operating in other South- European countries, becoming the bridge to Silicon Valley for international founders.
LAURA GIACALONE: What inspired you to create Mind the Bridge?
MARCO MARINUCCI: The initial spark came from the awareness that a number of valuable people and projects in Italy struggle to emerge and fulfill their potential, whereas here in Silicon Valley there is an ecosystem that supports them and helps them succeed. A number of Italians who have moved here for professional reasons have become incredibly successful and are considered as the pillars of the history of innovation and technology in Silicon Valley and in the world, while in Italy they are totally invisible and unknown. Mind the Bridge came to life in 2007 as a place of aggregation for the Italian community in the United States, attracting exceptionally talented people who have made the most of both cultures. Permeated by a ‘give back’ spirit, the objective of this non-profit foundation was to make the dynamics existing in Silicon Valley available to Italian professionals and give some international inspiration to Italy – because today, if you want to develop a successful technological project, you necessarily have to come out of your local environment.”
LG: Mind the Bridge operates as an international scouting agent in a variety of Mediterranean countries, which are currently affected by a deep economic crisis. Is there a connection between the crisis and creativity of a country?
MM: Economics and history teach us that the periods of crisis are those in which the greatest ideas, projects and companies emerge, from Google to Yahoo. Crisis creates the conditions for entrepreneurial success – this is a fact. Today we are witnessing a polarization between two economies: that of South-European countries, deeply affected by economic recession, and that of Silicon Valley, which is registering the highest peak of the last 15 years. This gap is today particularly evident. On the one side, South-European countries need to find new opportunities for growth. In this context, it probably makes more sense for people to create their own job rather than look for one. Our motto, which we printed on thousands of T-shirts, is indeed ‘Job Creator’. On the other side, it is physiological for successful companies in Silicon Valley to look across the borders and find new talent. The bottleneck to the growth of leading companies such as Google, Facebook, Cisco or Twitter is exactly that: they have plenty of economic resources but need new highly skilled human resources, which are the key to success for any business in the marketplace today.”
LG: It is the opposite of what happens in Italy, a vast supply of unexploited talent and little economic resources…
MM: Exactly. That’s why these kinds of bridges are interesting for both economies: American startups find it difficult to attract highly skilled professionals, because most of them have already been absorbed by big companies. If you consider that the initial wage of a newly hired developer is 120 to 150 thousand dollars (before taxes) per year, it becomes clear how difficult it is, even for bigger companies, to have enough personnel of such kind. That’s why it is important to create structures and projects that serve as a bridge between the companies in Silicon Valley and talented professionals from countries such as Spain, Italy or Greece. That’s our added value today.
LG: In a moment when startups find it increasingly difficult to access capital, do you think that non-traditional financing channels, such as crowdfunding, might be a suitable solution?
MM: The idea that there is no access to capital is unfounded. There are a lot of private capitals in Italy, most of which are actually not invested in technological startups. The problem in Italy, and Europe in general, is that companies do not invest in innovation. Investors are not willing to employ their funds in technological startups unable to provide them with short- or medium-term returns. Why should they do it? They are not philanthropists. In Italy, even venture capital funds, which are more likely to invest in early stage companies, are hardly interested in doing so, because they have little potential for economic return. That’s largely because, among Italian companies, there is not a strong culture of acquisition. A company like Google acquires hundreds of companies a year, and most of them are one- to three-year-old startups. That’s exactly what creates a return on investment. Instruments like crowdsourcing and crowdfunding are becoming increasingly popular, because they lower the barriers to entry for ‘passionate’ rather than professional investors. This has pros and cons. Market observers often divide investors into ‘smart money’ and ‘dumb money.’ Ideally, companies look for ‘smart money’ – that is, investors providing not only financial support, but also access to opportunities and business networks: smart money can introduce you to buyers, customers and other investors. This is something that crowdfunding cannot offer, because it exclusively relies on small contributions from a multitude of individuals. This is all you can get. Both things can actually work together, so they are not mutually exclusive. There are innovative platforms today, such as AngelList, that allow non-professional investors to discover and compare the best available investment options by ‘following’ the activities of professional investors. You see what deals they are doing and, if you are interested, you can jump in. This is a revolutionary investment process.
LG: As the 2012 Survey of Italian startups shows, both in Italy and the United States, female entrepreneurship is less developed than male, although women have the highest educational levels. What is it possible to do to help women develop their projects?
MM: This is a problem in Italy as well as in other countries. In a multicultural society such as the United States, not only women but also minorities are sadly underrepresented at the entrepreneurial level, even if there are no explicit cultural barriers to their businesses. There are however organizations supporting female and minority entrepreneurship. One of the most relevant is Women 2.0, a media company whose mission is to increase the number of female founders of technology startups, providing them with inspiration, information and education through their network.”
LG: In the post-war Italy, innovation was a powerful driver of economic growth and involved sectors that would later become the symbols of “Made in Italy”, from the design to the automobile industries. Today, the leading fields of innovation are mobile and web technologies. Where do you think innovation is going to take us in the future?
MM:Today there is an overproduction of startups in the mobile and web sectors, because the cost of starting a business in these fields is almost zero. Top startup accelerators such as 500 Startups or Y Combinator launch up to 400 startups every year. Today, you don’t have to wait years: six months are more than enough to decide whether it is worth it to go on with your business or it is better to start all over again with another one. And you do it quite easily, because the sum you have invested is relatively small. However, when it comes to getting more significant investments, the so-called ‘Series A round’, things become more difficult. To develop your business on a larger scale it might be necessary to have a capital of 3 to 5 million dollars, which is not easy to come by. That’s why investors are more interested in products with a very low innovation level rather than focusing on highly innovative sectors, such as biomedical research. There’s a quick return on investment and the financial risk involved is kept to a minimum.”
LG: Innovating without innovating… What’s the challenge then?
MM: The real challenge today is to look for projects able to ‘change the world’, focusing on social ventures designed to achieve not financial but social return on investment. There is, for example, a project that brings text-messaging services into rural areas of Africa where doctors are only concentrated in a small number of hospitals. This application can save millions of lives. Another interesting example is Singularity University, a non-profit learning institution in Silicon Valley that looks for the most brilliant minds in the world, from Ethiopia to Bangladesh or Stanford, and brings them together for 3 months – people with different backgrounds and skill sets, from politics to neuroscience or aerospace engineering. With the support of top thinkers in Silicon Valley, such as Larry Page from Google or Peter Thiel from PayPal, this multicultural team focuses on a number of pre-established research areas in a variety of sectors (food industry, aerospace, medicine, and so on) to bring out the technological projects that will change the world in the next 15 years, having an impact on at least a billion people. The future of technology and innovation is therefore to address humanity’s grand challenges.
Laura Giacalone is the Associate Editor for the Italian Journal.