An Interview with Massimo Scognamiglio, CEO of D-Helix

Article posted on the Official BAIA Blog on October 10, 2007

Massimo Scognamiglio is the founder and CEO of D-Helix a new biotech company based in San Francisco with strong roots in Italy. Massimo is approaching business with an angle that is quite unusual in Italy: he is trying to combine the best academic resources with a solid business structure and plan. While Silicon Valley success is based on this kind of connection, in the Italian business landscape Massimo is still an exception. In order to learn more about Massimo’s entrepreneurial adventure I invited him for an interview. Enjoy!

Massimo, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your company?

In my opinion the most important part of life is curiosity. When it doesn’t kill the cat. It is an extraordinary source of knowledge that you first learn as a little kid. And if you can retain that curiosity, it can become the most important source of knowledge. Obviously that’s not enough – you also need to study and have some luck. My curiosity led me to try to understand the mechanism that governs the world around us. I guess “curiosity” it’s part of my DNA. However, what explains my actions best is the concept of multitasking: my life is multitasking. Everybody knows that you have only one life that has to be shared with your friends, your love, your society and your professional life… so for this reason you can’t sleep too much and you have to live your life to the fullest. And the most important part of that life is to maintain your integrity.
Talking about my company, it’s difficult to start a biotech company, but it’s possible if you can see the business opportunity. I have this opportunity and I turned it into reality, much the same way as my first venture. In 1996 I founded a multimedia company in Italy at a time when the market was not quite ready even for the concept of the internet. However, I was successful in convincing the market. It also gave me the opportunity to grow as entrepreneur. I understood that you have to risk your own money, your stable job, the most precious years of your life, and all your passion. In 2000 I sold my first company (xmedia) to the most important media group in Italy. Years later, here I am in California. D-Helix, my company, was incorporated in San Francisco in April, 2006: It is the project that builds the bridge between academic discoveries and the industry. You don’t realize how many great discoveries never see daylight because they are hiding in the university. Our main business is to fill this gap by sponsoring early stage research in many biotech areas. Even thought the risk is greater, so is the payoff. At the same time, we think that we are on an important mission for society: transforming these groundbreaking technologies for the real world.

With your company you are building a business bridge between Italy and California. Can you explain the reason behind this choice?

Italy is so beautiful, the perfect place to live but it’s not the right place to be an entrepreneur. California is the perfect place to start up a global company based on a global network between universities and research labs all around the world, between United States, Spain and Japan.

San Francisco, the Silicon Valley, and the Bay Area are becoming key places for the biotech industry. How favorable is the business environment in Italy for biotech startups?

As I said before, Italy, today, is not a simple place to work like entrepreneur, and the university research environment is even worst: we have some great university and great scientists but absolutely no entrepreneurial culture… for too many years (and probably also today) research has been considered a loss of money and not a gasoline for new companies and for the Country.

Starting up a company is a difficult job. Based on your experience what are the most common errors new entrepreneurs should avoid?

The one billion dollar question… the first answer that comes to mind is avoid arriving too soon: you risk being not understood, and you must have a “marketable idea.” The second error is to choose bad associates: do not trust from the very beginning, build the trust day by day… You must remember that even the greatest idea needs a great team and great marketing to reach the market. For these reason I believe that D-Helix could be a winner: biotechnology is becoming mature, from the business and scientific side, and, at the same time, our associates are strongly committed to the company. When I present my company to an audience, I emphasize not only the business/scientific side but also my spirit, my vision, my very personal way of seeing the world, and my commitment.

You are a strong supporter of the connection between academia and business. How do you manage the bureaucracy of the Italian academia in a way that makes sense from the business point of view?

We are currently working in the United States. D-Helix is active in scouting, acquiring, developing, and commercializing groundbreaking intellectual property licensed from a number of universities and research institutes in particular areas of biotechnology (with current focus on environmental stress plant tolerance, biofuels, and antiviral treatment possibilities.) The company’s business model is represented by an independent innovative platform (made of a strong research world wide network of leading scientists with a deep pipeline of development), able to accelerate the research value creation time to market and reduce related direct costs. We will soon begin collaborating with some Italian universities, so wish us good luck! The bureaucracy is awful and it’s still one of the most important difficulties when working with universities. You can’t manage bureaucracy. If you are a very lucky boy, you can just survive bureaucracy!

Fundraising is one of the most critical steps for new entrepreneurs. Any recommendations?

A very good Business Plan, a short Time to Market, and a clear competitive advantage. Then great imagination and luck.

BAIA has plans to promote on Italian land the Silicon Valley open approach to business network. What will Italians have to change in order to fully benefit from those types of social relationships?

The network is the most important issue, more than the money. In Italy the network is always a closed network, you can’t talk directly to anybody. The Californian way is the opposite: it’s not a matter of friendship, it’s just business.


I would like to thank Massimo Scognamiglio for taking the time to speak with me today. If you have any questions for Massimo or for BAIA, please leave a comment below and we will be glad to answer.