“Innovation is never conventional”. It is with this slogan that Pasqua Vini, a historic Veronese winery specializing in the production of quality Venetian and Italian wines, has built a project to pay homage to 33 innovative women who have changed the rules of the game in the world of innovation. Among these 33 women also our Chief Scientist Offer and Founder Silvia Scaglione.
The project was born “to promote the empowerment of women and spread the knowledge of talent. A journey into the feminine dimension of innovation, told with the passionate gaze of researchers, entrepreneurs, artists, startuppers and many other professionals. All through the life stories of those who – with their work and their intuition – have done extraordinary things, in Italy or elsewhere in the world “, as you can read from the page of the site https://www.ceciliaberetta.it/it / projects
The Pasqua Vini project is aimed at celebrating the female universe innovation through the stories of 33 talents who embody the contemporary vision of women.
In the publication “Femininity without compromise. Innovation is never conventional”, the 33 interviews conducted by the editorial staff of Wired, the CondeNast newspaper that chronicle the changes in technology, science and contemporary lifestyles, are collected. The illustrations of the protagonists were drawn by the talented artist Clorophilla.
We thank Pasqua Vini for involving Silvia in this beautiful initiative.
Thanks also to Chlorophilla’s creative pencil who concentrated Silvia’s vivacity, humility and enthusiasm in one figure.
Co-Founder and Chief Research Officer React4life
Silvia, a Ligurian bioengineer, is focused on identifying clinical applications for her scientific studies. Following a long career as a researcher (initially on temporary contracts and then in permanent employment) she became a ‘start-upper’, specializing in tissue regeneration for use in laboratory testing. Age 40 she went back to studying and now works on translating innovation into valuable and tangible benefits. – Silvia had always wanted to do scientific research. Her priority was research in industry rather than academia so that results could find practical applications instead of being confined to a university laboratory. She was told, however, that in Italy research in companies was in a class by itself and at the very least after graduation she would need to obtain a research doctorate. So, on becoming a bioengineer at the University of Genoa, Silvia carried on in the same field in Basel in Switzerland. During her year spent at the hospital there, she worked on developing regenerative medical solutions and on tissue engineering. “You are and always will be an engineer”, her medical supervisor, an expert in cellular engineering, continually reminded her, “but you have to learn to work alongside other professionals, to understand how they work, what needs they have and how technology can help them”. Silvia therefore did not sneer at feeding the rats in animal facilities, and carefully observing the work of doctors and biologists, to develop a very practical approach toward the sector of research in which she was specializing. She also came to understand why, in international work groups, many of the management positions were held by Italians. “First and foremost, the level of education in Italy is excellent”, explains Silvia, “and in Italy while studying you already learn how to manage emergencies. Often things do not work, there are hitches and glitches, so you are forced to think on your feet and improvise in order to solve problems”. Then when you move to where everything is managed efficiently, your Italian preparation makes all the difference because you have acquired the capacity to manage things much better than your peers.
There is one episode that Silvia mentions frequently which serves as a prime example. In Basel on her first day at work, her nameplate was already hanging on her office door. In Italy it can sometimes take years for people to actually realize you exist. Once Silvia returned to Liguria, she was met with a period of job insecurity. Compared to most of her peers, who expect to be house owners or at least have a permanent job before starting a family, Silvia not yet thirty was already married with two daughters. “I am extremely pleased with my choice”, she stresses, “biological factors mean it is better to have children early, and when you are young you have more energy, and the rest is a question of fate”. After a few ups and downs, she won a place as a researcher for the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (National Research Council -CNR).
This, however, was not enough for her. She had a burning desire to apply her research to something concrete and immediately useful. For this reason, she converted her full-time research contract to short-term, and in December 2016 she became one of the founders of React4life. The company mission is to develop customized technologies and bioreactors to create living tissue, human organs, and portions of the human body to provide a useful platform for lab testing. The supply of in vitro tissue responds to the practical needs of oncological, nutraceutical and pharma applications to carry out lab testing in a way that is simpler, duplicable and systematic, thus reducing the need for animal testing while maintaining the scientific validity of the experiments. Most importantly, the start-up was founded based on a clear understanding of the real needs of scientists. The bioreactor called MIVO® (Multi in vitro organ) designed by Silvia and her colleagues has an efficiency that has been attested to in scientific publications. Its performance is comparable to that which is obtained using animal models like rats, but with a 70% reduction in the duration of each experiment.
React4life’s results aroused much interest in the pharma world, receiving hundreds of thousands of euros in grant funding, recognition from the European Commission, several awards at both Italian and international competitions for start-ups and for Silvia an award for the best Italian female innovator of 2019 from the Associazione Itwiin (Italian Association for Female Inventors and Innovators). “This start-up experience made clear to me that Italy is home to many great successes in the scientific world”, says Silvia, “but at the same time it is a great pity that there remains a big gap between the world of science and that of industrial entrepreneurship”. If on the one hand excellent scientists do a great job and obtain impressive patents, on the other hand they often remain in academia and are not interested in any practical application or of providing benefit to the end user. As far as Silvia is concerned, industry continues to do business without paying any attention to innovation. “only the world of start-ups is able to bridge the gap”, adds Silvia. In her opinion the transition from pure researcher to a hybrid straddling entrepreneurship is for no reason banal. She well understands the merits of a multidisciplinary approach, from moving away from your comfort zone and forcing yourself to find a common language between different professions and managing to get them talking to each other. This step must be mandatory if you want to develop a technology that is useful to the market and applicable in clinical contexts.
This is not something that suits everyone. You must be able to play the game, to delve into unknown territory, throw yourself into study and prep yourself on topics that have never been previously tackled. At the age of 40 then, with a long career in research behind her, Silvia went back to her studies. Armed with pen and paper, as well as a big dose of humility, she attended a course in business, stepping back into her student shoes since there were topics she had yet to master. “In a certain sense it is quite a shock going back to school after having led a research project for the European Union”, confesses Silvia, “but I found this new path stimulating and useful, and above all necessary to be able to make a success of the start-up”. She adds: “the infrastructure to help grow start-ups, in Milan as in many other Italian cities is excellent. Teaching the basics of a business model to a scientist is not easy, but the tutoring system works very well, and with React4life we got the best out of it”.
Today the company has eight co-workers between employees and consultants, and has a multi-disciplinary team covering skills from biology to theoretical physics with Silvia head of research and development. Between Genoa (where she works at the CNR and where the start-up’s offices are located) and Milan (where the biological and chemical research laboratories are located), Silvia manages to create a successful synergy between her two occupations: on the one hand she engages in regular research, and on the other she concentrates on the commercialization of the product and selling it in the market place. Two very different tasks, but in a certain sense links on the same chain. “Innovation has to start with an awareness of market needs because all too often you come across what are called false innovations, in other words, advancements in knowledge that stay put and are sterile”.
She concludes: “A classic example are app creators for restaurant bookings. Their objective is to eliminate the line out the door, but often having people waiting outside acts as an enticement and restaurant owners actually do not want to change the status quo, because from their point of view they do not perceive waiting customers to be a problem”. The importance of being in sync with the end user of technology has been very clear to Silvia from the start. Right from the very moment when, as a student, she asked an orthopedic surgeon if she could sit in on his operations to see how he worked. Seemingly it was not her field, but one day it would become just that.