Gianluca De Novi (Innovative professor and enterpreneur in Massachusetts)

Gianluca De Novi: un Italiano di successo dalla Basilicata ad Harvard per fare innovazione, ricerca, impresa

Feb 02, 2015 5573 ITA ENG

Innovation in America has always been synonymous with Silicon Valley, but recently Harvard surpassed the legendary Californian area regarding the biotech industry: indeed, thanks to a new huge campus dedicated to entrepreneurship that will rival that of MIT, the Boston/Cambridge area is likely to become the main center of attraction of investments in the United States.

In this area works Gianluca De Novi: a young Italian native of Bernalda, a small village in Basilicata, who is another excellent example of those young successful Italians in America we always meet with great pleasure and interest, hoping to be able to contribute, telling their stories, to promote more and more the collaboration between Italy and the United States.

Gianluca, at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston you do research and teaching in the areas of surgical simulation and robotic surgery. Please, help us non-experts to understand better what you do ...

The surgical simulation serves primarily to two things. The first is the training and the maintenance of the manual skills of the surgeon, because there are practices that are not as recurrent, of which the surgeon tends to forget dexterity and protocol. The trainer allows him to maintain this kind of skills. The other application is the pre-operative planning: we virtually reconstruct the body of a patient and using these technology we can set the intervention in order to minimize trauma and maximize the results.

I then work on other contexts related to the military world, because these projects are sponsored by the American Department of Defense: I am working a lot in the simulation of surgical gesture recognition. It is a system that tracks the movements of the surgeon and allows to do a quality check on his performance, identifying if the surgeon forgets a part of the procedure, if he is not entirely precise, if maybe he is under stress, and then must rest.

How did you get to the US?

Thanks to my stubbornness. When I was in Bologna I did a PhD in robotics applied to surgery and there I started to deal with these topics. After my doctorate I came to the US for six months to complete my journey of research and to meet my American colleagues; after a while I began receiving the first proposals to stay. Coming here was a bit complicated because I had to come to terms with my Italian advisor who did not want me to come here: he used to say "You're not made shaped to go to the United States, you will miserably fail". I balked a bit, and at the end I managed to win.

Are there many Italians at Harvard, either students or teachers?

I know many of them, almost all are researchers with a quite robust scientific background: I have met very few low profile people, at Harvard. There are also several Italian students, who come through people like me who are committed to seek students from Italy and bring them here; there are those who do it sporadically, I do it intensively, because I take them here continuously.

You started from a small town in Basilicata. Are you are in touch with many people emigrated to America with their roots in your region?

I generally spend time with Italians who live here, but only two or three of them are from Basilicata: most of the Italians here come from Campania or Sicily. I always try to follow projects that will help them to come and learn and develop their careers here, even temporarily, possibly to get back to Italy bringing back something. I am also working to create here in Boston a chapter of UNICO, the national association dedicated to Italian Americans.

The Made in Italy sectors most known in America are those of the classic "4F": food, furniture, fashion, Ferrari. But you're an Italian excellence in the field of high-level technology. How is Italy considered, regarding this sector, by the American professionals?

In the United States there are many Italian professionals and scientists. Italian technology is definitely pretty cutting edge. I don't think that in this sector we are considered as leaders as in the others mentioned by you; however, we're very strong in mechanics. Lately we are also doing very well in the field of the creative application of existing technologies. But our process of assimilation of the new technologies is still too slow, in my opinion. I don't think this is due to reasons related to training or to our capability; instead, I think the reason is more related to our current economy, because beyond this, I repeat, our engineers and scientists are very competitive and appreciated.

Do you agree or not with those who think that if you live in a society that gives you many problems, such as the ones your advisor created to you, or the many other bureaucratic obstacles that we have here in Italy, in the end this makes you become good at finding solutions?

I don't think it is entirely true. Sometimes it seems more a justification: even in not very hostile environments you have very tenacious people, America is an example. Perhaps a more complicated environment selects: in less difficult situations, the number of those who succeed is smaller.
In an environment like mine, which is a bit comparable to Silicon Valley, I see everywhere startup, projects, guys who get together and create new things: I realize how much an environment like this substantially increases the speed with which you can figure out if a project is good or not, and so this makes all the entrepreneurial process faster. You can quickly learn the mechanisms that allow to come to market, but definitely an environment like this is not only a privilege: it is also harder, very competitive.

So we the Italians would be masters of creativity even without those annoying problems that we basically create by ourselves?

I am convinced so. If we were strong in the 4F means that when we were in the period of our industrial boom and we had not the problems we have today, we were still at the top. Today, however, we are losing all that previous generations have created.

Of the many differences between the American academic system and the and Italian one, the relationship between the university and the business world is one of those with the largest gap. You are engaged on both fronts: can you describe how it works in America, and what in this practice we in Italy could learn and introduce?

First of all, the world of the Italian university should finally understand the concept of customer care, because today it is absolutely unknown. In the Italian universities there are professors who pose as "barons" - as we call them in Italy - while they do not realize that they are there to provide a service to students: they should prioritize the goal of forming good students and not to hold them or stretch their paths. Italian students should be helped to be more flexible, to try to create connections with other countries, with industry, with other universities, instead of being kept in a box.

Here in the US, if a teacher behaves like these barons he or she would be immediately thrown out: it is vital that no one should complain about the service that you offer. If you do a survey in Italy, you will find that 90% of students will complain about their professors: not about programs, or lesson plans, or teaching quality; but about the quality of the service, the relationship. The service is not only what you teach in the classroom, but also mentoring the student: you have to have the student to love the subject you are teaching.

Another thing is that in Italy the salaries of professors come from contracts with the university, so they are there regardless of the results of the teacher as a researcher; while here in the United States is absolutely different. Here you have the title, if your resume allows you to: but this has nothing to do with your salary, which instead comes from your ability to get finance to your projects ... so it really is about the quality of your projects. If you do not bring anything, after a couple of years you're out.

Who finances the projects, universities or companies?

It depends: research institutions (as I said, the projects I am working at are funded by the American Department of Defense), companies, even universities, minimally.

And how does the relationship with companies and universities work?

Companies simply sponsor the research: they co-own a small part of it, but must pay for the licensing of patents that are possibly created by the conducted research.

I understand that those who come out the American Universities do not know lots and lots of theory while knowing almost nothing about practice, as happens here in Italy ...

It is absolutely the opposite. The fact that in Italy you know that much theory is definitely not a bad thing, in fact: the Italian students who come here and show that they are able to easily solve difficult theoretical problems, leave everyone speechless, and this is definitely a good thing. But first of all the Italian university should do more to try to help the students in creating connections: it is very rare to have teachers who create their students the right contacts, helping them to enter the work world. Moreover, it absolutely needs more practical training.

When Italy reformed its university system, we tried to copy the Anglo-Saxon model by introducing the concept of bachelor and master degree: before we had five years graduations, we now have the 3 + 2. But we forgot that the system works as a whole: the Anglo-Saxon system is based on a large amount of practice through internship and many hours of laboratory, while in Italy we have continued to do almost just theory. So when you come out you are more competitive in the research market, because it is more theoretical, but you are definitively less competitive in the labor market, because you have way less practical experience.

Then, there is another big problem: the demonization of the will of doing business. A student who wants to do business is not seen as someone who wants to do more, as it should be; instead, this student is seen as someone who spends most of his time doing other things rather than study. It is a big mistake. Here, on the contrary, this is encouraged: 30/40% of the students here have a startup, they get together with others and actually realize projects. In Italy, in this case the student is hindered, as it happened to me. In 2003 I created my first company when I was a PhD. My entrepreneurial activity made me earn very well, much more than what I earned doing my doctorate, because I won a scholarship; but I was considered negatively because I could afford things that other graduate students could not afford, as if I were stealing to someone. In America, however, is very different: here I've just met the lawyers of the institutions for which I work, we cleared out what I do in the institutions and what I do outside of them, how much time I spend doing something for them and how much doing something else, we all agreed, we signed, They even wished me well, telling me " we hope that your plans will turn into big hits".

Let's talk about your activities on behalf of Italian students and entrepreneurs: many activities, and very meritorious ...

I care very much about this. I'm not a fugitive, I did not run away from Italy to forget it, because I have a family and many friends who live there: I am very attached to my country, especially to my region. But I realized that being here I could do much more than what I could remaining there. So I started to move on two fronts. First, I asked myself what is missing nowadays in Italy in specific areas, for example in Basilicata, in southern Italy: and I realized that the culture of doing business among young people is quite missing, because there are few guys who jump in the entrepreneurship world and then there are many problems related to the economy.

In the matter of helping Italian students, therefore, I bring them here in the US to have an experience in these big universities, which are located in areas where there are many many startup and incubators, a very lively and creative entrepreneurial environment. When they come here, in addition of doing a training in the laboratory and in the university, they find themselves meeting and getting together with other students who have followed a different path in life that led them to do business, and then they begin to understand that they can do the same. My goal is to hope that at least some of these guys, when they get back home after six months, may bring back a more open-minded legacy, more projected towards the business world. There's a scene in the movie "The Social Network", in which the Dean of the University says "Harvard undergraduates believe that inventing a job is better than finding a job": that's exactly the message I try to share.

The Italian students I host are here to develop their thesis: now I'm also trying to have scholarships allocated by some regions to sponsor some students for their six months here, because right now they are almost all at their expense and the universities here give them only a visa, after which they will have to arrange for the rest. So far I have only managed to bring students from northern or central Italy. But then I happen to go in southern Italy and find kids, families who would like to have this experience, but cannot afford it. Then I asked the Basilicata region to allocate a small scholarship of € 100,000 a year to sponsor at least 10 of their students each year. I also am in contact with the Politecnico di Bari to do the same with their territory. These two are for now only attempts, I'm not sure that they get to success, but I'm trying. It would be nice, because it could create a flow, encouraging other southern Italian institutions to do the same.

The other front on which I'm working is that of business. I understand that small and medium-sized Italian companies have the absolute need to strengthen their export, but many of them do not know how. Getting to the US market involves a number of technical and practical requirements: they need a supporting infrastructure, and for this I created a consortium company called Triotech Ventures. In this experience I have with me two Italian friends, who have had success in their careers here: Andre DiMino and Leonardo Zangani.

The consortium finds Italian companies that have a great product but are not able to get here: we create at our expense an affiliated American company, to which are transferred the rights to sales and product assembly in the North American market. We provide office, secretarial and technical support, all the infrastructure they need, all at our expense: the Italian company does not face any cost.

Obviously we take a share of this American company, but lower than the majority, because we want to ensure control to the Italian company and do only a transfer of the business side, while research and development of the products must stay in Italy. In this way we ensure that the know-how remains in Italy, protected. Moreover, we maintain the share only if the result is achieved, ie the company get certifications and all that is promised: this way the Italian company risks nothing and finds itself an infrastructure in America since the day one and at zero cost. Triotech Venture is headquartered in the Boston area: however, the market in which we take the licensing covers is the entire United States and Canada.

We started in the biomedical field, because that's what we three partners know best: but now we are moving towards other sectors. It all depends on the kind of partner that we can find. The consortium was created in 2014, we have already founded and incubated several companies that are in the path of obtaining certifications and anything else needed, and if all goes well this summer we should be on the market with the products of the first companies, while to proceed working with new ones and repeating this cycle every year.

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