Livio Valenti, from Tuscany, is the only Italian named by Forbes Magazine’s ‘30 under 30’ list as one of the most influential leaders in the science and healthcare category (2014).
Livio, born in Arezzo, is the co-founder of Vaxess Technologies, an innovative life sciences start-up established in 2012 in the Boston area.
After an initial $150K grant obtained in start-ups competitions, Vaxess has raised about $4 million in venture capital (Norwich Ventures) and angel investors, and $1 million from the State of Massachusetts.
The company is based on technology that stabilizes vaccines in a silk matrix, eliminating the need for cold chain and lowering the cost of distribution and storage for all vaccines, while also expanding access in areas with poor cold chain infrastructure.
Vassex R&D is strongly linked to the Tuscany. There is indeed the Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics research center (in Siena), one of the most important worldwide.
We have interviewed Livio from his office in Boston.
Could a Vaxess like enterprise start in Tuscany?
The most eminent worldwide vaccine expert is Rino Rappuoli, Global Head of Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics Research, based in Siena. We consider Rino, when he comes to visit us, one of our mentors. The presence in the heart of Tuscany of a big company like Novartis is fundamental to create a favourable ecosystem for new biotech companies. Such an environment allows a possible “exit” for new companies, which cannot go public. As it happens in the US, Tuscany could identify specific specializations for different areas and could focus on pharmaceutical and biotech as the most promising opportunities to launch successful start-up.
Other basic requirements for a start-up are technology availability – usually from the University environment – and the possibility to raise private funds and to obtain public grants.
Is it easier to find such opportunities in the USA?
I don’t think that fundraising is the major issue. In Massachusetts there are certainly more investors in the Boston area than in the whole of Tuscany. But there are also more universities as well as more technologies to be financed. Even at Vaxess, with a great team and a promising technology, we experienced some initial difficulties to raise capitals.
It is essential, for a start-up in a sophisticated sector, to get tips from those who have had success or, at least , who have tried. In Boston, you can find such people everywhere. It happened that I took lessons in the same building where Mark Zuckerberg -Facebook founder- was going. This made me think that if a “normal” guy like him has succeeded in building an empire like the one he has, anyone could.
Another important factor is the ability of a University to transform scientific research into business. In the US, professors who succeed in transforming research outcomes into business are very popular. Robert Langer, for example, a professor at MIT who has created 30 start-ups and listed 15 companies on the stock exchange (IPO), is venerated as an idol.
In the US, finally, substantial public financing to University basic research (which is then transformed in applied research and technological transfer to enterprises) dramatically encourages the development of new companies.