Sharon Cittone - Italy Innovation
Photo courtesy of Sharon Cittone.

Talking Innovation With The Unsinkable Sharon Cittone

Cittone is one of Forbes Magazine’s Powerful Women Shaping the Future of Food, and has become a mentor to startups and entrepreneurs.

“Italy has a lot of potential, but we can do better”

Sharon Cittone always seems to find herself in the thick of it. Sometimes that means being in the right place, at the very best possible time. During her tenure as Chief Content Officer at Seeds&Chips, the Milan based food innovation ecosystem, she was shoulder to shoulder with Barack Obama in his first appearance after his presidency. She was also instrumental in creating the Global Food Innovation Summit, which brought thousands of startups, corporations, and international organizations together to work on solutions for the global food system. Other times, she’s been in the eye of the storm: she lived in New York during the September 11 attacks in 2001, and was working in her native Milan when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the city in February.

If you point out these highs and lows, however, she laughs it off. “Well, mediocrity is pretty boring, isn’t it?”

Boring is most certainly not a feature of Cittone’s life. A native of Milan, she moved to New York as a teenager and was soon thereafter diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, a debilitating autoimmune condition that directly affects the body’s ability to process nutrients. True to form, her response was to find a way through her sickness while at the same time navigating her way through a new world. “I believe in resilience, because we are all faced with a choice of what and how we’re going to fight,” she says. “Human beings have tremendous resilience, as does the planet. But we still need to nurture both.”

Cittone has become a global authority on innovation by creating a dialogue between consumers, producers, and young people about the food system and their place in it, as well as their power to affect change. She is one of Forbes Magazine’s Powerful Women Shaping the Future of Food, and has become a mentor to startups and entrepreneurs, particularly young people and women looking to build a better planet. She is an advisor for WFP Italia and several VCs, a mentor for the FoodTech Accelerator, Rockstart, and a Managing Consultant at the Deloitte Officine Innovazione. As she puts it, “I want to ‘make a dent’ and help make this a better place, not just for my own daughter but for future generations. If that sounds corny, well, I can live with that.”

In the wake of the pandemic, the Conte government has proposed a wave of funding and initiatives for startups and entrepreneurs to help rebuild the Italian economy. However, Italy has a lot of ground to cover if it wants to catch up to the rest of the world: the country has failed to list in the top innovation hubs and has even sent startups abroad rather than nurture them at home. But a global crisis has a way of leveling the playing field, and the state seems more willing than ever to invest in new technologies. Can Italy enter the race and turn the crisis into an opportunity? If ever there was a person who would know how to turn lemons into lemonade it’s Sharon Cittone, and she is cautiously optimistic about how Italy might (and should) embrace innovation.

*The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

In the “Decreto Rilancio”, the government adopted the “Misure per l’Innovazione Tecnologica” (art.239) in which 50 million euro were allocated to the Fondo per l’Innovazione Tecnologica e la Digitalizzazione and another 500 million for the Fondo per il Trasferimento Tecnologico (art. 42). What does this mean for startups, and are there programs that are being set up to help distribute these funds?

So, Pre-COVID, there were already some important avenues in place and the funds that the government has allocated can strengthen them. Invitalia is a government agency that has a variety of initiatives to support startups: those in different phases of growth, those from the South, as well as early age startups. Of these, 44% of the startups that are financed are in the North, the South has 31% and the center has 25%. Of their investments, 50% have focused on the digital economy, 22% on processing, and 28% on research. The great thing about the program is that they have specific initiatives for all the areas of Italy and the Rilancio funds will expand and improve these programs.

But look, Italy is still so fragmented, and that hurts us. It’s a big ask for Italians, especially young people, to have faith in the state to follow through on its promises. The Italian government hasn’t traditionally inspired much hope. And startups are about having hope, having a dream, and believing that you have the support to realize that dream. They are the future, and you need to give them the security and opportunity to be open and to take risks. You also need to make it attractive to stay here in Italy and build, by investing time, energy, and resources to build this capacity. We need to start giving those opportunities to our young people that France or Germany or the UK are providing, and to let them drive innovation.

We need to start giving those opportunities to our young people that France or Germany or the UK are providing, and to let them drive innovation.

Is the potential there to really create an Italian ecosystem, in particular with the funds that the Rilancio has earmarked?

That’s the plan, and in the wake of the COVID crisis it’s become a really important conversation. The “Sistema Invitalia Startup” was created to foster the kind of synergy and collaboration that we really need in Italy to try to catch up with what other countries have already been cultivating. Invitalia Ventures is working on a program to link international and national co-investors who are committed to developing the culture of innovation here. Now, will they succeed? That’s the question. Italy needs to become a truly collaborative ecosystem, and if we want to be an innovation hub (which I think we should be), then we have to grow within the country but also attract startups and entrepreneurs from around the world to bring their ideas here. We need to be on par with London, Berlin, and Paris, and we’re still a long way from there. We need to reverse the brain drain in a significant way.

So really, the entire Italian economy, and particularly young people entering the workforce, who could benefit.

Yes, absolutely. For example, the “nuove imprese, tasse zero” program focuses on companies that are less than a year old. The founders have to be aged 18-35 and they are eligible for investments of up to 1,5 million euro to launch their project in 24 months. This program focuses on artisanal and local agriculture products with an emphasis on services, commerce, and tourism.

Smart and Start looks for small, innovative startups that have been created less than 60 months ago with a significant technological project, and they’re eligible for investments from 100,000 to 1,5 million euro for services, equipment, software, hardware, licensing, consulting, marketing, or certification. To date they’ve received almost 3,500 business plans and have financed over 1000 startups, including Dante Labs, one of the largest European centers for advanced genomics. Investments have been split between digital and web technology (38%), tourism (40%), smart cities and services (10%), and IT infrastructure (7%).

Resto al Sud is designed to sustain entrepreneurs who created a startup after 21 June 2017 and anyone 18-46 years old is eligible to apply. You have to reside and the company has to be located in the south, from Abruzzo to Sicily. The funds are capped at 50k per person with a maximum of 200k for a workforce of four people. You can use the funds to do maintenance, to restructure, to buy machinery,  software and hardware to launch your company. This program isn’t focused on agriculture or commerce, but it is a huge step towards developing a more dynamic economy in the South, where there is a desperate need.

So you see, Italy has a lot of potential but it needs to be united in supporting young people and giving them the same opportunities that they’re going abroad to find. It’s changing slightly, but that 80s mentality where you can only become a senior executive if you’re over 60, it’s still there and it’s damaging. The “fuga di cervelli” (brain drain) is a big problem that we need to seriously examine, especially now. Italy’s beauty and quality of life is not enough for a lot of young people. If they’re really passionate about building a life for themselves and a career, they’ll go where they’re given the tools to make that happen. We need to give them those tools here, and that’s what innovation can do, offer those opportunities not just to enter the existing workforce but to change the nature of work itself in Italy. We need that, we need innovation to support these young minds.

It’s changing slightly, but that 80s mentality where you can only become a senior executive if you’re over 60, it’s still there and it’s damaging.

You mentioned tourism, which has been hit particularly hard as a result of the pandemic and many small business owners are struggling to survive. Are there innovative solutions that can be integrated into these sectors to support their businesses?

Before I answer that, did you know that according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, COVID 19 could cut about 50 million jobs globally?

Wait, 15 or 50?

50. 5-0.

Wow, shit.

Indeed. That’s the data, and the obvious implication is that small businesses are going to be hit the hardest. However, there are great startups both globally and in Italy that are focused specifically on the post-COVID crisis.

Internationally there are some important projects that could really help Italy. Rubiq is a Tel Aviv startup that helps airlines reduce significant overload on call centers and streamline passengers rebooking and refund process, which is key in a time like this. They use an AI digital assistant called Aircules which keeps passengers updated and allows them to rebook based on their needs. This is going to be a great tool for all those people that want to book a trip but are scared that they’re going to lose their money. Considering that losses are expected to be between 113 to 252 billion dollars for the airline industry, this is pretty significant.

Another company called Bespoke is already helping the Japanese government to effectively communicate with travelers in Japan in multiple languages, and it acts as a kind of AI concierge, called a BeBot. Then there is Face ++, a Chinese company that places infrared cameras and computer based technologies in airports or subways to basically track someone who has a fever. I know it sounds a little intimidating, but these will all be things that will find their way into the tourism industry because it will make people feel safer and allow them to travel again.

Domestically, Italy really is working on innovative solutions for tourism. There was recently a hackathon called “Hack for the Travel Industry” which had over 1000 people participate with the goal of finding solutions for tour operators, destinations, museums and cultural institutions. More than 90 projects were submitted by the teams with the Italian market in mind, and the funds that the government is putting into startups could go directly to some of these solutions if they are viable. Up2You, which is the Assocazione Startup Turismo, is also another important movement happening in Italy that is focused specifically on this sector. So there really is a boom in Italians thinking of solutions that could revolutionize the industry and protect them from the kinds of disruptions and loss that this crisis has shown are possible. And it’s been very collaborative, which I think is a critical element of our future success.

An Italian startup that I recently discovered is called Hyris, and I think their solution could really be a game changer for the tourism and hospitality sectors. They’ve developed a hospital quality test that is very accurate and can certify that a structure is COVID free. It doesn’t compromise privacy because it tests surfaces rather than people. Imagine that if you can test your lobby or elevator and find that someone with the virus has come into contact with it, you can contain it and certify your business. And you can test as often as you need to.  You might have to test your lobby three times a day, and you can test every room once people check in and out. Certifiable results will give people a real sense of security that is going to be critical if we want to revive the tourism industry.

If every comune could provide something like what Hyris offers they would be able to test and certify their businesses ,and then safely reopen. The initial costs may not be insignificant, but think of how many bookings a business could retain with this kind of technology.

That sounds incredible, and it sounds like people will look at it like it’s from another planet. How hard do you think it will be to get small and medium sized businesses in the tourism sector to embrace innovation and technology as a protective measure for their businesses?

Look, if we do it right, domestic tourism could explode this year. I don’t think Italians are capable of not going somewhere on holiday, it just isn’t in our nature. Plus I think a lot of people do really want to help Italy rebuild and they’ll do that by spending their holidays and whatever money they have within the country. So, if you can certify that your rooms are completely sanitized and can test the lobby or entrance of a hotel or B&B multiple times a day, people will start to feel at ease. You can still go places, and you won’t have to get on a plane (for what it’s worth, the one industry that may not recover is the airline industry). But domestic travel can work here in Italy, people will feel comfortable if we do it right.

Ultimately, it’s all about the approach. People need to embrace technology and not turn it into the enemy, because that will just slow everything down. If you can’t accept that we need to use technology to move us forward, then how can we get past this crisis?

It seems like we need to find a way to bring tradition and innovation together. You’re a big believer in synergy, and in creating those collaborations that drive innovation in productive ways, both economically and ethically. Why is Italy so far behind the curve on this?

Italy is behind the curve on innovation in large part because our investment capabilities, especially the all important medium sized investments that startups need, is significantly behind other European countries. I won’t even compare it to the US or Israel, who are the top two investor countries. But the need is being recognized, particularly now.

We’re finally seeing the growth of innovation programs in Italy. The FoodTech Accelerator, powered by Deloitte’s Officine Innovazione, is a pilot driven, corporate accelerator where corporations and startups can actually work together to test out solutions in a 15 week program. If the products are viable, they can be integrated and industrialized. The key is to see the value chain as a whole and not just bits and pieces, which Italian companies are starting to do. They’re seeing the relationship between agriculture and retail for example, that they are steps in the same process.

Companies like Cereal Docks or Amadori, Birra Peroni, and Italia Zuccheri, are all working on sustainable solutions with international startups, and CIR food will soon begin to do so as well. This helps to expand the global ecosystem and better position Italian companies within it. It’s a good example to follow but it’s just the start. But I’m confident, and the work that is happening to see food as a holistic system and to try to make that better through innovation, is really important.

Italy is behind the curve on innovation in large part because our investment capabilities, especially the all important medium sized investments that startups need, is significantly behind other European countries.

You’ve devoted much of your career building an ecosystem that was particularly focused on food and ag tech, and trying to communicate the urgency of rethinking the global supply chain to the Italian market. How has this crisis changed the way that people think about the food and agriculture supply chain in Italy?

I mean, overall we’ve had to rapidly accelerate digitization in this crisis, and not all of it has gone so smoothly. Just look at how the internet at Palazzo Chigi couldn’t sustain Zoom calls for press conferences. But let’s focus on food, as that’s one of my favorite indicators of society.

As far as Italy is concerned, this crisis has taught us two things about the food system that we must address immediately. First we desperately need to strengthen the digital infrastructure in the country in order to innovate the food chain. Before the quarantine, over 50% of Italians said that they were not willing to use e-commerce, which placed Italy among the lowest countries in Europe in terms of online consumption compared to Germany, France or the UK. But the crisis has shifted this behavior dramatically. The value of the e-commerce market in Italy post-COVID could rise by more than 50% in less than a year. There’s been a huge boost on online grocery shopping, click and collect, and home delivery, as well as home cooking and baking.

That said, people had to stay up until 2 am to place their orders and often still couldn’t, because these platforms were not ready to sustain a whole city trying to go digital all at once. But they saw that it could work, and that it’s actually easy to get stuff delivered to your home and to integrate technology into our lives. So these past few months have been, in a way, a chance for these companies to pilot and experiment on ways to digitize and create partnerships, and add the flexibility that is necessary to create what we call an omnichannel strategy for the future. In many ways, the pre-COVID barriers have been largely broken.

We’ve also seen an incredible rise of delivery services. Importantly, these partnerships really help out the elderly, which is absolutely essential. We have to reduce the risks for elderly people not just as it relates to COVID but in general. You see, innovation isn’t just about the cool new thing to get kids into. It really can help the most vulnerable populations. As we’ve seen throughout this crisis very clearly, the elderly population needs support and solutions to their specific challenges, and we need to think about that seriously if we want to keep them healthy.

It’s interesting that within the supply chain, we didn’t necessarily suffer the same shortages that we saw in other countries. People didn’t really run out of goods en masse, which is a credit to the Italian system, despite its lack of digitization.

Yes, we were in large part able to manage demand despite the lack of infrastructure, mostly due to a lot of ingenuity and creativity. But we need to build this capacity because now even small retailers and businesses want to shore up their digital presence. They now see the benefit of it, especially when they are looking at the prospect of losing significant revenue when they won’t be able to allow more than a certain amount of people into their stores. People’s habits have shifted and that’s something we should accommodate rather than discourage, because it could make the whole supply chain a lot more sustainable. We need to remove the barriers for entry into the digital age.

You mentioned two things. What is the second thing we learned?

That our supply chain is, in significant ways, dependent on the exploitation of laborers. I mean, in 2020 we still have slavery in agriculture. Is that what a just society looks like? We have undocumented workers living in indentured servitude. Really?

It’s interesting that you say that, as the government’s decision to grant temporary residency to undocumented farm workers caused a considerable amount of controversy, and was held by some as an arbitrary move in response to the pandemic. But as you see it, they are related.

Apart from what should be the basic human desire to not want people enslaved and indentured to criminal organizations, it’s not sustainable. Working in industrial agriculture right now means that you have no safety regulations, no protections, no housing regulations, and spend long hours under the sun to pick fruits and vegetables for pitiful wages. How many Italians do you know who would do that? Yet our system is dependent upon this labor, and that’s deeply disturbing.

How many of us volunteered to go out into the fields and help the harvest here in Italy (or anywhere else for that matter)? I don’t know anyone who did. And here’s the real problem: the fact that those jobs are looked down upon so much tells us a lot about the way our global economy is structured, and how we regard the work that really keeps us alive. We need to make these jobs legal, safe, and give people fair wages and benefits.

Working in industrial agriculture right now means that you have no safety regulations, no protections, no housing regulations, and spend long hours under the sun to pick fruits and vegetables for pitiful wages. How many Italians do you know who would do that? Yet our system is dependent upon this labor, and that’s deeply disturbing.

Especially in a pandemic.

We’re in a damn pandemic! You have to look at this and say that if we want to innovate, if we want to create a climate where young people, entrepreneurs, and corporations can flourish, the two things can’t exist at the same time. We can’t meaningfully improve the global economy while still leaving a large population invisibile, exploited, and vulnerable. It’s just not logical. There’s a profound dissonance in our food chain and we need to address it. And let’s be self interested if we can’t be empathetic: if we don’t regulate undocumented workers and they get sick, they will spread COVID (or other diseases) because they won’t be able to seek treatment and they won’t have help. If clusters start appearing and these people can’t work, our supply chain crumbles. We need to take care of people not just because it’s the moral thing to do, but because it is the responsible thing to do. We need a structured program, we need a plan, and we need to start seeing the interconnectedness of our most advanced technologies and our most primitive practices.

If Italy wants to realize its potential and stop living at the mercy of criminal organizations, isn’t it a logical conclusion?

But then again, it’s logical that men and women should be paid equally for the same jobs and they aren’t, so what do I know?

Just so. It wasn’t lost on many that Teresa Bellanova was criticized for her emotional reaction to the passage of the regularization act, a fairly common critique of women in leadership roles (or women in general). It didn’t help that the Task Force that the Conte government first assembled to handle the recovery was entirely composed of men (they have since added women). You were one of Food Tank’s 14 Women Changing Food Around the World, so this is an issue that you know intimately.

Gender inequality in 2020 is an embarrassment to a civilized society. Whether in institutions, corporations, or innovation, women are still paid less than men and promoted ahead of highly capable women who could fill the same positions. Women have figured out that if they wanted to do something they had to create their own companies, because inequality is still such a reprehensible problem. And what’s more, it stops us from realizing our potential as a society.

Yes, the Task Force eventually added women, but it was only as an afterthought. It’s always an afterthought. If we really want to create a more equitable and sustainable society, women can’t be an afterthought. If this experience has taught us anything it’s that women kick ass. Look at the facts: countries led by women are handling the COVID crisis significantly better than those led by men. What more do we need? New Zealand has treated their constituency with honesty and empathy, and that creates an environment where creativity and innovation can really flourish. As resilient as Italy is, there is so much more that we could do, and now we really need to start thinking about what it means to have dignity and respect regardless of your age, gender, or race.

So how do you get people on the ground to really make that link between dignified labor, agriculture, innovation, and sustainability?

Innovation has to be democratic in any sector, and it has to recognize and respond to our common humanity. This makes all the difference. And there are some companies already working on this that deserve our attention. One early stage company called BitBlocks is a great example. The founder is amazing and has, shall we say, a very sentimental vision that really resonated with me. They work on blockchain but do so in a way that greatly reduces the expense of it, which has always been my biggest issue. It’s easy for a big company to decide that they want to use blockchain but it has to start with producers, with local farmers in order to be viable. And to teach blockchain to a farmer in Puglia, for example, is no easy task.

Bits4Blocks offers a cheap and accessible open platform for local producers and farmers to implement blockchain that can be integrated all the way through the value chain. The fact that they are offering an inexpensive way to get these tools to people who really should be the first line of food safety is incredible. The vision of the founder is really to create an equitable system that gives everyone access to blockchain for a really low fee, and that has really impressed me. And I am not the only one: their first project was the winner of the FAO Agrifood Initiative, a major award from a global organization.

Innovation has to be democratic in any sector, and it has to recognize and respond to our common humanity.

With all this in mind, what do you see as the future of Italian innovation?

If there is one thing we can take away from COVID, it may be that it allowed us to stop and see that what we are doing to our planet is much more perilous than the disease itself. We won’t have a planet if we continue the way that we’re going. Whether it’s through more sustainable tourism or more sustainable food production, more sustainable energy and automobiles, using smart technologies, car sharing, bikes, or any of the myriad technology we have available, the world needs to wake up to this.

Look at the satellite imagery one week after the lockdown, over China, over Italy. The skies were clear for the first time in who knows how long. That’s what we should focus on, because the reality is that COVID might not have spread to the extent that it did if we had focused more on climate change and sustainability from the beginning. Deforestation does not help the spread of a virus, and the contact that people living in these areas have with different species means that we’re going to see more diseases that are unknown to humans and have the potential to do us incredible harm unless we start really changing our habits and our needs. The lockdown taught a lot of us that we can lead simpler lives. What we need to understand now is that innovation can actually help us to simplify and indeed improve our lives.

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