The Kids are All Right
2014 is drawing to a close. In Puglia, snow flurries blanket the cone-shaped roofs of this region’s iconic stone houses. The air is brisk as the sun sinks low in the sky, limestone-paved alleyways glow with the reflected light of wrought-iron streetlights and residents settle in for winter as they have always done. But there is disquiet here, a growing sense that so much of Italy’s infrastructure, the modus operandi that touches all aspects of life, is profoundly troubled. From the morning caffè chat in the local bar to the increasingly gloomy headlines in evening news, there is collective acknowledgement that years of “crisi,” the pervasive economic stagnation that is crippling Italy’s younger generation, is here to stay. But amidst the endless stories of despair, there is reason to hope.
Since we started Pascarosa, our olive oil export and Puglia tour business here a little over two years ago, we have cast a wide net in our efforts to meet and cultivate people who see possibilities for the future. And we’ve found that there is still a wellspring of ingenuity, creativity and innovation fairly bubbling over with enthusiasm for what is possible. Most of the drivers are young, but they aren’t idealistic. With feet planted firmly in the rich, red earth of the Pugliese countryside, they’re reaching for the moon. From time to time, I’ll share their stories with you, confident that you’ll feel their passion and support their initiative. These Pugliese entrepreneurs merit a civic support system that helps launch their ideas into the world, which is Italy’s real challenge moving forward. We’ll be standing by, cheering them on.
We met Domenico Colucci and his cousin, Giovanni, through Katia Grilletti and Davide Argentieri, an entrepreneurial couple in Cisternino who founded Giardini 36, a hip new Pugliese tapas bar in Cisternino last year. Pascarosa’s design team at GFC Associati in Martina Franca created a stunning logo and overall look for our organic olive oil, but their practice didn’t offer the sophisticated e-commerce platform we required. Enter Domenico and Giovanni, recent university graduates from nearby Noci. They determined our needs, developed a project plan and set to work immediately to get us up and running in time for the arrival of our first olive oil shipment in early 2013. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. The state of e-commerce knowledge in particular and product marketing in general in Italy is woefully inadequate, with little common knowledge and fewer resources, so Domenico and Giovanni’s “can-do” approach caused us to swoon with relief. And they delivered on time, on budget and with great attention to detail when our system went live. The guys continue to support us, but perhaps more meaningfully, they care deeply about our success.
All of this sounds pretty routine, any maybe it would be in the U.S. But during our launch, Domenico was hard at work on another, potentially life-changing launch of his own. Along with several University of Bari colleagues, Domenico recently developed an indoor global positioning system (GPS) that uses advanced techniques of artificial intelligence to receive, categorize and analyze signals and identify end users’ positions in the room with an accuracy of about a foot and a half. All this happens without a network connection. Why is this important? Unlike iBeacon, another indoor positioning utility, Nextome uses iBeacon along with its own proprietary technology to facilitate indoor positioning and navigation, provide proximity notifications, execute pedestrian flow analysis and other analytics, develop targeted advertising and couponing opportunities, offer advanced search capability for points of interest and responsive maps and facilitate offline usage. With Nextome, museums, trade fairs, shopping malls, office buildings and other large indoor spaces can render their environments infinitely navigable to clients, presenting relevant information to end users in a meaningful way.
Since its launch early this year, Nextome’s five developers have deployed their system at Vinitaly, Italy’s international wine trade show in Verona, visited California’s Silicon Valley to meet with potential venture capitalists and other supporters, deployed Nextome in a San Francisco art museum, been named Start-Up of the Year at Dublin’s Web Summit this November, beating out 2,000 other competitors, and one of its founders has been singled out among the 15 people to watch in 2015 by editors at Italy’s Panorama magazine. And Domenico is still coaching us at Pascarosa with infinite patience as we modify our website or troubleshoot an order, as responsive and enthusiastic as the day we met him.
What does the future hold for Domenico and his Nextome colleagues? With a government innovation grant, they wouldn’t have to seek additional development and launch funding from outside Italy. With tax incentives, they could retain their intellectual property without seeking additional partners. In partnership with equally forward-thinking retail and cultural entrepreneurs, they could deploy Nextome in state-owned and private buildings, further refining their technology and broadening their reach. While they have received some seed funding from Italian angel investor Marco Bicocchi Pichi, none of these things are happening in a coherent, purposeful way. Without business incubation support, these fledgling entrepreneurs may be compelled to take their innovation to a more reception environment like the U.S. It remains to be seen if the Italian entrepreneurial landscape and its governmental counterparts can match this young team’s reach. In the meantime, the team is full of hope and overflowing with energy, which may just be enough to shake Italy from the inertia that has contributed to its stagnation.
So here’s to a new year that ushers in a new spirit of optimism and possibility in all endeavors, both here in Italy and in the deeply divided United States, too. Our children deserve our good will, not our cynicism, and young entrepreneurs like the Nextome team need us to care that they succeed. Their success invites new opportunity for future generations of dreamers, with positive impacts on all of our lives.