Here’s a rough translation of what David Agazzi wrote on the Italian blog Che Futuro last October:
I want to tell you a little story about spending a workday with a group of young researchers at the University of Trento. A story about an Italy that works. A great story because it’s not that unusual.
It is the story of Francesco De Natale, Nicola Conci, Mattia Daldoss and Alfredo Armanini, set mainly in the Department of Computer Engineering and Information Technology, at the University of Trento. Francis, Nicholas, Matthew and Alfredo are developing Eye Assist, software that allows you to control a computer with eye movement and write using the gaze, instead of a keyboard or a pen.
There already exists commercial equipment able to be controlled in this way, but it is very expensive. Francis, Nicholas, Matthew and Alfredo got it into their heads to achieve the same results using hardware components that can found on the market for a few hundred Euros.
Their goal is simple: to make this technology accessible. And they want to do it because the customers for whom they are designing this product are first of all people who suffer from rare diseases, which prevents movement and speech. In Italy there are about 10,000 people who can not interact with the outside world due to degenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis and some forms of Locked-in syndrome.
Thanks to Eye Assist most of these people could acquire equipment at a low cost that would allow them to communicate again and share emotions, thoughts and experiences with their loved ones. The software, developed at the University of Trento, coupled with a camera and some infrared sensors, allows them to turn the monitor of a normal PC into a touch screen where the buttons are pressed with the eyes. To the average person this may seem a curious gadget. But imagine being immobilized on a bed or a chair and unable to speak.
In this case, the ability to write with your eyes would be the only channel of communication available to you. And who wants – or can afford – to spend thousands of Euros to buy expensive equipment? Or wait months before such a solution is made available by the National Health Service?
The desire to find a solution to problems like this is what has prompted Francis, Nicholas, Matthew and Alfred to try to bring to market solutions developed in the laboratory. And to do so as social entrepreneurs. But it’s not easy to find investors who believe in the project. There aren’t an enormous number of people with these diseases. And so it’s definitely not possible to make millions of Euros by providing these people with low-cost solutions. Investors and venture capitalists are not likely to come knocking on the door.
The initial funding came in the form of a donation. The project was awarded the Make a Change Prize, 30,000€ for the best social business project. Followed by additional grant funding provided by Trentino Spa Development.
This funding allowed the team to participate in the Make a Cube 3 program to help the Eye Assist team better define their mix of products and services, analyze the market and its competitive levers and generally speed up the process of defining and implementing their business strategy, thus reducing the time required to make this solution available to those who need it most.
What do we learn from this? That the basic elements of an innovation ecosystem already exists in Italy. But we need to strengthen it. We need to narrow the distance between university research and private investors, and to find the right tools to grow viable projects. Projects like this should take 3 months not 2 years. What comforts me though is that there are lots of us working every day to fill this gap. And knowing that you’re not alone when you face a challenge like this might just help you to be a little bit more optimistic.
Milan, October 20, 2012 ?DAVID AGAZZI