"Italy will punch above its weight." Fernando Napolitano, 47, founder and number one at Why Italy Matters Corp., a company under US law founded last spring to promote the best in Italian high-tech industries overseas, borrows a boxing metaphor to explain his project: to make sure that Italy punches above its weight on the international scene. Way above it. "Some people think Italy is just a bundle of tarantellas, scams and shaky governments. There are problems, no question about it. But what is important is allowing talent to emerge. Putting money on start-ups and the most-promising small- and medium-sized companies."
The name of the project is the Italian Business & Investment Initiative (www.italianbusiness.org) and it capitalizes on its partnership with the first Italian web magazine written in English, panoramaeconomy.com, created by the weekly, Panorama Economy, aimed at the 2 billion people in the world who read English and are interested in learning about Made in Italy business from Italians themselves. The idea behind it all is very simple: select the best business opportunities Italy has to offer and put them in contact with potential American backers or business partners. "But for this to happen, we need to sift through hundreds, if not thousands, of high-tech companies," Napolitano explains, and for this he has brought together the best talent scouts in Italy. Starting with Innogest sgr, the largest fund for start-ups with a patrimony of over 90 million euros. Plus Intesa Sanpaolo, which with its Start-up Initiative project and Atlante Ventures funds has access to a virtually limitless portfolio of budding companies.
Also involved in the project are Italian Angels for Growth (IAG), the main group of business angels in Italy; H-Farm, the technological incubator led by Riccardo Danadon with over 30 companies financed and a survival rate of over 90 percent; M31, the Veneto-based accelerator specialized in bio-technologies and led by Ruggero Frezza; the Dpixel fund created by the whiz-kid of Italian hi-tech Gianluca Dettori (father of Vitaminic); 360° Capital Partners, the venture capital company of Emanuele Levi, Fausto Boni, Diana Saraceni and François Tison who are among the backers of Yoox and MutuiOnline; and a number of superangels - entrepreneurs ready to personally put their own money into enterprises they deem promising. "The best are with us," Napolitano recapitulates, including the Italian scholarship program of Fulbright Best (www.bestprogram.it).
Among the partners of Why Italy Matters Corp. are Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe (one of the biggest American legal practices, with clients such as Facebook), Finsbury (a pocket-sized financial-economic communications multinational with offices in New York, London, Brussels, Abu Dhabi and Dubai which also guarantees assistance to our start-ups), and Booz&Co., a consulting company quoted on Wall Street whose business in 2010 was over 6 billion dollars and near-and-dear to Napolitano because for a couple of years, he was head of the Italian office. Among major US passport-toting figures who support the initiative are Ronald Spogli, former US ambassador to Italy who bought up 10 percent of Innogest sgr, and Mike McCollough, a Booz&Co. partner and former head of the National Security Agency. "It was McCollough himself who met with the young members of the Milan-based Hacking Team, specialists in eavesdropping software used by police forces, the purpose of the meeting being to help them break into the tough US market," Napolitano notes, in mentioning just one of the numerous examples of contacts with top executives created by his group for those who really deserve it.
"Our strength lies in networking," he adds, noting that initiative supporters also include former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and former president Gerald Ford. On the Italian side, pledges of support have come from some of the country's top companies, including Rocco Sabelli (Alitalia), Giovanni Perissinotto (Generali), Fulvio Conti (ENEL), Paolo Scaroni (ENI), Corrado Passera (Intesa Sanpaolo), Giancarlo Innocenzi (Invitalia), Fedele Confalonieri (Mediaset), Maurizio Costa (Mondadori, the publishing house of this magazine) and Ossama Bessada (Wind). "With many of them there is a relationship of friendship and mutual respect," Napolitano stresses. And he also reminds us of the public sector bodies involved. For example, Invitalia which is part of the Ministry of Economic Development, and the Italian Consulate General and Italian Trade Commission, both headquartered in New York.
Bessada of Wind calls the initiative "unique. And it could also be a great opportunity for those involved in the Wind Business Factor", an online platform created together with TheBlogTV with the goal of supporting the best in innovative start-ups. "The connection with the Italian Business & Investment Initiative is natural and I would also say strategic," Bessada adds.
But what does the Why Italy Matters Corp. do exactly? Simple. It selects the best and introduces them to the people that matter in one-to-one meetings throughout the year that are geared to the specific needs of each company, or in regular gatherings organized every 6 months. The first was held on May 5 and the second is scheduled for November 14 in the heart of the Big Apple at the headquarters of Bloomberg L.P. at 731 Lexington Avenue.
The person who made sure it would take place there was the top man at that economic-financial information colossus, Dan Doctoroff who is also a supporter of Why Italy Matters Corp. "We have brought together 13 companies, all financed by one or more venture capitalists," says Livio Scalvini, head of innovation & marketing for Intesa Sanpaolo, head of the Start-Up Initiative and one of those involved in selecting who will be present at the event. They include ADmantX that was "created from a spin-off of the Bologna-based Expert System and it offers an avant-garde platform for on-line advertising," explains Davide Turco, head of the Intesa Sanpaolo funds, Atlante Ventures and Atlante Ventures Mezzogiorno, each with 25 million euros in available funds (which, among others, has put its money on ADmantX). "There will also be Cascaad with its application that filters social network messages and files them on the basis of an individual's preferences," adds Claudio Giuliano, managing director of Innogest sgr who will see four of the companies in which it has a share at the New York meeting, including Cascaad (for a complete list, see page 110). And he adds, "For weeks I have been hearing that if the father of Apple, Steve Jobs, had been born in Italy, he wouldn't have become Steve Jobs. I don't agree. OK, our general situation is less-favorable than in other places, but it is also true that there are not many young people willing to make the necessary sacrifice."
And, backed by the statistics, he notes that of the 500-600 start-ups examined each year, only 3 or 4 pass muster and receive funds from Innogest sgr. Because one thing is certain: just having a good idea is not enough. To become a real entrepreneur means rolling up your sleeves and working virtually day and night. "Americans, despite the fact they're not lean and hungry, know how to do this," Giuliano notes, repeating Jobs' "Stay hungry, stay foolish" as the indispensible recipe for success. About Why Italy Matters Corp. he is categorical: "It is an invaluable initiative for all of us because it provides unique contacts with a world that is otherwise difficult to penetrate."
Scalvini believes the same thing. "Real business is done in the US, where you can shift from words into action in a very short time." Monitoring everything first-person is Napolitano himself who has moved his entire family to the United States: his wife, Matilde, and their three children, aged 12, 10 and 2. "They have a stake in it all, too."