As you might imagine, the Italian Embassy on Tiergartenstrasse – the city’s embassy row – is not only a grand building but a stylish one too. It was the setting for a day of discussions about how startup scenes in Germany and Italy can help each other out, but there was a wider topic as well.
While we are on Italian stereotypes, it was fair to say that the food provided for lunch was top notch, and the wine didn’t disappoint either. But while Italy doesn’t mind such positive stereotypes, it doesn’t want them to dominate. And so the event, dubbed ‘European Perspectives on Creativity and Technology’, was part of efforts to convince the Germans that Italy is not just pizza, Ferrari and da Vinci.
That’s might seem a self-evident truth to those who know the Berlin startup scene and its significant Italian contingent, with companies from Spreaker to Urlist and EvoMob to Ploonge boasting both partial or full Italian roots and a presence in the German capital.
And yet the image of Italy as a place brimming with innovation and engineering talent is not one which has managed to dislodge that of a country beset by economic and political turmoil.
That’s why it was great to see a series of interesting Italian startups pitching at the event on Monday, especially because of their diversity. There was techie community and conference startup Codemotion, open source hardware and software innovator Intoino, education platform iversity, Qurami, a service to make queuing easier, as well as biotech companies such as neuGRID, a web portal for brain research, and Planet, a biomimickry platform.
The various different facets of technological development were all well represented: There were plenty of attendees from investors as well as numerous research institutions.
There were also representatives from other embassies in Berlin at the event, which was organised by the Italian embassy together with the Technology Foundation Berlin (TSB) and the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Germany. After all, it wasn’t just about changing Italy’s image, but also about considering how to boost the ecosystem in Berlin.
The positives of deeper co-operation within Europe, then, are deep and run both ways. Italy and Germany in particular have cause to seek closer ties – as Italian Ambassador Elio Menzione pointed out in his opening speech, bilateral trade flows between the two countries were almost €105 billion in 2012.
But, he said, “Italian success in the lifestyle area sometimes overshadows the fact that Italy also has a broad and diversified industrial and manufacturing basis as well as flourishing technological and scientific production, in line with its standing among the G8 countries.”
The Italian government is putting into place measures to attract capital and talent to help startups develop under its Destinazione Italia (Destination Italy) initiative, while the ambassador hoped the event would act as a “catalyst for partnerships beneficial to economic growth both in Italy and Germay.”
The theme of changing the perception of Italy was taken up by Matteo Pardo, the scientific attaché at the Italian Embassy, afterwards. He told Silicon Allee that he believes it is extremely important to alter this public perception in Germany in particular: “Italy is perceived and also presents herself as a country with one of the world’s lifestyles: Fashion, food, music, art. These are fantastic things but they are just a part of reality. We want to show there is another part of Italy which is just as important.” Pardo emphasised Italy’s standing as an economic powerhouse, including being Europe’s second-largest manufacturing country. “There is an ingenuity in the tech and scientific scenes,” he added, “but nobody here knows this.”
The existing perception of Italy is one which continues be portrayed by the mainstream media, Pardo argued: “When they speak about us in the positive sense, it’s about our creativity in arts, not in science; apart maybe from Ferrari, but even that is seen in an artistic way.”
Nicolas Zimmer, head of the TSB, provided a German-centric point of view. He told Silicon Allee that it made sense to look to work together, both for the sake of the growing ecosystem in the German capital and for boosting international partnerships: “In Berlin we have a unique blend of creativity and tech talent. That’s what makes it successful when compared to other cities.” And, he added, in addition to its traditions in design and creativity, Italy “is a nation of engineers.”
That’s why Berlin has become such an attractive place for Italian entrepreneurs: “One of the basic truths is that Berlin is a very cheap place to live and build your company. That’s true when compared to Rome or Milan as well. When you want to have a combination of a high cultural life and low living costs, then it’s better to start in Berlin rather than Milan or Rome.”
But that in turn, Zimmer argued, can be beneficial for Italy as well, with those who are successful and make exits likely to invest back in their own countries. Building networks and communities, he said, is a great way to “make the whole European economy stronger.”
The event, then, proved to be more than just another embassy to tick off the list. If anything, it suggests that increasing numbers of people in Europe’s tech scene – and not just at a startup level – are beginning to get more serious about building stronger and closer bonds across the continent to create an entity more capable of competing at a global level.
That, and the Italians really know stylish. Erm, and engineering, of course…