VITA Accelerator – celebrating start-up innovation’s spark

VITA's Anastasiya Markvarde

On Friday, 3rd February, pharmaphorum travelled to Casa Angelini, Angelini Ventures HQ in Rome – the corporate venture vessel of Angelini Industries – for the inaugural Demo Day of VITA Accelerator, a programme promoting the inspiring innovation that start-ups can bring to this industry, and to the patients that they essentially seek to help.

VITA is the digital health accelerator of CDP Venture Capital’s national accelerator network. The Demo Day marked the final day of the first accelerator, entirely dedicated to digital health. A hybrid event, taking place both at Casa Angelini and online, the programme was realised together with Healthware Group and Accelerace, both of which manage the operations. Casa Angelini was proffered as the location, as Angelini Ventures supports the acceleration programme as part of the broad network of ‘ecosystem partners’ in the institutional, scientific, and venture capital space. 

Meanwhile, Zambon’s research venture, Zcube, is its innovation partner; Petrone Group and SIFI Group are its corporate partners; and Orrick is its legal advisory and technical partner.

Promoting digital health solutions

The five start-ups presenting ‘solutions’ were Evotion, HuCare, InGeno, Linari Medical, and Paperbox Health. From 120 applications from 20 different countries, the five start-ups had successfully completed the first edition of the VITA programme – a four-month journey – receiving an initial investment of €110,000 and with the opportunity now to receive follow-on funding of up to €400,000. What they provide – their innovative substances – are digital health solutions, ranging from technologies for visual rehabilitation to devices for monitoring children’s health, and systems for screening and treating cognitive disorders, such as dyslexia.

Thanks to the support of more than 50 experts and professionals from the digital health world, who engaged with them in coaching sessions, business training workshops, networking events, and working sessions with both corporate and innovation partners in order to create pilot projects to be tested in the market – these five start-ups were the best of the crop.

The programme alternates between online sessions and in-person meetings at both Palazzo Innovazione, the Italian headquarters of Healthware Group and the new coworking space in the historic centre of Salerno, and OpenZone, Zambon’s scientific campus entirely dedicated to health in Bresso, Milan. the VITA accelerator Demo Day also marked the official announcement of a new call for Italian and international digital health start-ups interested in opening a registered office in Italy. Entries close 17th April and the upcoming programme will commence in June this year.

Reaching for the spark of innovation

Attended by over 100 guests, from investors and other start-ups to life sciences companies, and industry experts and professionals, speakers included: Sergio Marullo di Condojanni, CEO of Angelini Industries; Stefano Molino, head of accelerators fund at CDP Venture Capital; and Roberto Ascione, CEO and founder of Healthware Group.

Preluded by quiet demos in the lobby of the Angelini building, those in attendance shifted place and attention to the auditorium, its stage encased by bookend screens displaying the graphic of a hand reaching for the spark of innovation – towards a veritable galaxy of exciting and energetic ideas, and brilliant digital ingenuity. 

The demonstration afternoon – a moment to which the winners had been travelling since the launch of the VITA Accelerator in October 2022 – progressed with interest and aplomb, its three-hour trip through “the ecosystem as it stands” moderated by Francesco Cerruti, general director of Italian Tech Alliance.

Digital health, Cerruti told attendees, is a fact of the life sciences industry now, especially in Italy. In 2022, he said, over €150 million was invested into start-ups in the life sciences. The future looks bright when it comes to innovation in Italy, Cerruti continued, investment into start-ups and particularly start-ups active in the life sciences – but, he caveated, Italy is not a leading country in this respect. The third economy of the European Union, the fourth if one includes the UK – in 2022, €1.8 billion was invested into start-ups, up 48% compared to 2021. Cerruti didn’t want to be overly optimistic, but the new interest, he said, suggests the page can turn and Italy ascend.

Acceleration in Italy

Running through the agenda to come, Cerruti welcomed to the stage Filippo Piazza, associate at Angelini Ventures, who described himself as ‘excited’ to host “the first batch coming out of the one and only digital health accelerator in Italy”. 

Piazza noted Angelini’s own commitment to shaping the future of care, to being active players within the Italian ecosystem, and shaping innovation in terms of start-ups, accelerators, and sustaining the innovation ecosystem overall. He mentioned, also, how HQ itself reflected in terms of architectural design an interest in innovation and sustainability. After brief footage that presented the diversity of Angelini – taking care of people’s health for over 100 years, specialising in brain health – Piazza told the audience how Angelini Ventures looks at the care models of the future, at the technologies for improving processes, and is, in short, an industry of care.

Next to the stage was Sergio Marullo di Condojanni, CEO of Angelini Industries, who began by stating to attendees that the fact they were there was “a tangible sign of commitment to innovation; a more tangible sign than any introductory speech”.

Reiterating that Angelini has always been at the forefront of innovation – from the early understanding of paracetamol and trazodone efficacy to the commercialisation of high-quality hygiene products for babies and women, and CNS treatments in the last few years, as well as robotics, particularly in logistics – Condojanni said that Angelini Ventures is an “additional eye in the future”, permitting investment in early-stage companies driving innovation.

“Innovation is not something that can be labelled or hyped, but invested in for the future,” he explained.

With its main focus on biotech, digital is the new paradigm to be navigated, Condojanni said, leveraging synergies and cross-fertilisation with existing pharma businesses.

“There’s no future without innovation: it’s a mindset more than anything else,” he concluded.

At this juncture, Cerruti welcomed to the stage Stefano Molino, senior partner at CDP Venture Capital SGR, who announced that government and private investment totalling €5 billion would eventually benefit the Italian start-up ecosystem, up to the very late stage, and with scale-up and growth not just nationally, but internationally as well. Infrastructure funds, territorial funds – this is where the accelerator fund operates, he said. And now, it is working vertically, with its roots in Italy.

There are currently 16 accelerators in Italy, with two more to be launched in the next few weeks. They cover the main areas of innovation: robotics and mobility, aerospace and sustainability, fintech and proptech, and – of course – digital health. With more than €80 million of investment okayed, now is the moment of the start-ups, Molino declared.

The enterprise not of tomorrow, but today

However, no write-up on the VITA Accelerator would be complete without mention of its senior programme manager, Anastasiya Markvarde, who opened her presentation with some research. Having found that funders complain that good advice is often “like networking on steroids”, Markvarde structured her deck as a feedback point, to reflect and analyse what is done within VITA to address those points.

To start with, Markvarde said, almost 70% of funders lamented the quality of mentoring available. As regards this, VITA’s differentiation point is real, she said, offering practical, hands-on digital health support, enabled by leveraging over 50 mentors and experts (over 15 of which are international, based in Finland, the UK, The Netherlands, and the US). Including digital health innovators and tech experts, business mentors and start-up and scale-up founders, all of whom were willing to share their stories, the format also allows for plenty of one-to-one sessions. 
Indeed, all five of the final start-ups had sung the praises of the VITA process, Markvarde noted, and investors value it, also. At this point, she shared quotes from figures such as Elizabeth Robinson, co-founder and vice chairman of Indaco Venture Partners, as well as Hana Besbes, investment manager at Heal Capital.

Digital health has enormous potential, Markvarde continued. However, it is important to discuss the fact that it is not perfect, and to raise awareness about its difficulties. Sharing what didn’t go their way, she mentioned that they had underestimated the legal requirements necessary to localise international teams, complexities which took too much time to finalise before the Demo Day for certain start-ups. This, she said, is something VITA is looking to ameliorate in the future with its purpose of supporting a new generation of digital health start-ups, and overall promotion of the Italian health ecosystem.

The start-ups themselves, from infancy up

CEO and co-founder of Evotion, Alessio Pietracupa – a Caserta-based start-up – was the first of the finalists to pitch, kicking things off with a question: How many in the room had children? Many hands rose into the air, by which he was pleased, prompting a declaration that parental problems are a case of “safety, sickness, and trade-off”.

Nonetheless, their product – Momi – exists to ease the parental burden of worry. Made and designed in Italy (of course), Momi is – in Pietracupa’s words – not only the smartest wearable device for babies, but also the smallest.

Evotion is also presently working on a dashboard for doctors that is compatible with the device. Although the market already exists, Pietracupa said, Momi is set apart by its use of data, providing clinically validated information and avoiding false alerts.

A fast-growing market, the start-up’s niche primary focus group is mothers of children with cardiorespiratory problems and immune disorders. Having achieved an agreement with the IRCSS Network for a clinical trial, Evotion wants to go to market by the close of 2023 and has opened a €400,000 investment round to grow the product ready for commercialisation.

Audience questions enquired whether a parent of such a child wouldn’t already be hyper-vigilant and asked after the clinical validation of the predictive capabilities. To which Pietracupa replied that such a product is desired by paediatrics hospitals and doesn’t currently exist on the market, working on the primary parameters of temperature, heartbeat, oxygen saturation, movement, breathing, and sleep monitoring.

Next up was Francesco Trovato, CEO and co-founder of Paperbox Health, a Torino-based company, who announced that his start-up sought to break down the barriers to early cognitive issues identification and treatment, including dyslexia and dysorthography. Currently, around 60% of children do not receive a timely enough diagnosis.

Not neuroscientists, physicians, or medical professionals, the start-up identified, researched, and tried to understand the direction the world was taking in respect of these issues. So it was that they conceived of DINO, a videogame for the purpose of early identification and treatment of learning disorders. DINO is able to identify such issues from the age of five years old, as opposed to the baseline of seven years of age that schools have traditionally been working with.

The time is right, Trovato believes, given that cultural stigma against such disorders is diminishing and that there is a growing trend for accessible solutions for identification and treatment. While not yet released, Paperbox Health has received over 150 parental requests already, as well as a waiting list now numbering 25, and eight schools in the pipeline to employ the software. Only begun a year ago, it is clearly growing fast, and has been selected by Microsoft for start-ups. Indeed, the release of DINO beta is scheduled for dyslexia this month.

A €600,000 investment round has therefore opened, with an expected runway of 11 months.

From a physician’s day-to-day, to hemianopia correction

Giacomo Sebregondi, CEO of HuCare, next took to the stage, admitting that they were not looking for investment right now, but just wanted to advise of their plans, ambitions, and next steps.

A platform to assist doctors themselves, HuCare’s premise it empowering patients by optimising the health system. Having discovered via a survey in 2021 that 79% of GPs communicate with patients through WhatsApp, HuCare seeks to provide those doctors with appointment agendas, a patient register (on average, there are around 1,500 patients per physician), patient requests, and so on. The aim is to reduce extra clinical activities by 30%, be GDPR compliant, and reduce overhead costs by 15%, among other things.

A competitive market, future goals include specialist physicians next. Outside of Italy, Spain and Germany, being similar to the Italian health system, could be on the horizon.

To follow was the inspiring Stefano Linari, CTO of Linari Medical, which provides neuro-visual rehabilitation in telemedicine through AI.
Linari Medical was founded in Pisa in 2018 to produce and commercialise AvDesk to flight Hemianopia - loss of half the visual field for adults and children due to brain injuries, also resulting in reduced reading speed, depression from limited autonomy, including difficulty in crossing the street and loss of working abilities.

AvDesk leverages neuroplasticity to improve visual abilities – just one hour a day for 20 days shows improvement. Having evaluated over 200 patients, stimulating with sounds and lights over a 180-degree view in front of the patient, it has been found to increase cognitive ability, opening the path to expansion into uses in dementia and hearing deficit care. Over 50 neurologists, ophthalmologists and therapists engaged with AvDesk, Linari stated, offering as it does an alternative to traditional practices, such as prismatic lenses – which are tolerated in less than 20% of patients – or transcranial stimulation, which is invasive and has few scientific evidential points, he said.

Genetics and closing remarks

The final start-up to present at the Demo Day was InGeno, a platform that combines DNA testing with proprietary algorithms to create personalised solutions to health problems, as well as beauty and wellness needs. InGeno had been at Frontiers Health in Milan in 2022, as well.

The science behind the start-up is based on 15 years of research in the field and a database that has grown in that time. Genetic testing, of course, takes many different forms, and InGeno’s remit is relatively broad – from scalp cell issues to skincare. Therefore, and as a B2B2C model company, the potential for scalability seems likely. Still, for now, InGeno has its sights firmly based in Italy, due in part to the incredible difficulty of moving biological samples across borders.

The demonstrations finished, CEO and managing director of Angelini Ventures, Paolo Di Giorgio, spoke afterwards, noting that it was clear that future care would positively impact human health. By investing in, shaping, and creating companies that aim to change care and the care paradigm, he said, the healthcare ecosystem can be transformed.

The purpose of the VITA Accelerator, he stated, is to empower visionary entrepreneurs. Yet, what is important to bear in mind when it comes to digital health start-ups, he cautioned, is the potential for scaling up and commercialisation.

VITA’s managing director, Paolo Borella – brought onto the stage with high praise indeed from moderator Cerruti – noted that it was a case of bringing the best of both sides together to bring value. At which point, he provided further details on the 2023 accelerator, successful applicants to which will be at Frontiers Health in Rome in November. As well as digital health, categories for entry include telemedicine and telepharmacy, pharmacy distribution, dentistry and oral medicine, rare diseases, and off-shelf diagnostics and devices for rehabilitation.

Borella reminded those in attendance that VITA itself had been a start-up, starting a journey. That journey now complete – inclusive of its first alumni – they have learnings with which to leverage and develop further themselves, focusing on speed and rolling review of submissions for better efficiency.

Following Borella’s thanks, CEO and founder of Healthware Group, Roberto Ascione, stepped on stage to share his reflections and congratulations – notably the philosophy that none can enact change in the healthcare system on their own, and that it is only by identifying existing problems therein that the most valuable start-ups can be brought into being.

A veritable transformation of medicine, then, Ascione said. From acute to preventative, observational to data-driven, from one-to-one to crowdsourced, retrospective to predictive, and fragmented to integrated – now is the moment for predictive medicine, and it is digital that will permit that. There is, he said, no way back.

As the Healthware Group motto states, “Future health is for those who can envision it.”