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Interview with a FET Innovator in the service of oncologic patients

Maurizio Aiello is an innovator, the CEO of the biotechnology company, React4life that helps scientists in the field of cancer research. He has been involved in several EU-funded projects: B2B, a Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) project and MOOD, which benefited from the European Innovation Council (EIC) Accelerator.

Picture of Maurizio Aiello

Maurizio Aiello

Picture of Maurizio Aiello

In this interview, we asked Maurizio about his career path, the challenges that start-up companies are facing with and his personal experience about how bold ideas can be turn into reality by the help of the European Commission in order to improve therapeutic methods and the life expectancy of oncologic patients.

What is your background and your professional path?

During the secondary school, I attended the most ancient military college in Europe, “Scuola Militare Nunziatella”. Then I obtained my degree in nuclear physics (summa cum laude), and then I immediately decided to live far from books, in contact with people!

For two years, I turned myself into an insurance consultant, and I learnt how to sell. After that experience, I went back to my original love, research, and I signed a contract with pharma company Glaxo Wellcome for modelling pharmacological molecules (dihydropiridines) and their interactions with cell membranes. Then I had the opportunity to become a system manager at Finmeccanica, the most important Italian company in the field of defence and security. In that period I founded my first company and worked both in the private and the public sector in the field of network management and security.

Finally, I dedicated the last 10 years to cybersecurity: I founded a spin-off company of the National Research Council of Italy, I was appointed as President of the most important Technological District in Liguria and leader of a cybersecurity research group in the field of cyberattacks. Then I met my co-founder Silvia Scaglione, and I began to work in bioengineering, which is connected with biophysics and modelling that I did 25 years ago.

How did you become the CEO of React4life?

In December 2016 Silvia and I decided to join our efforts and to found React4life. Initially we started slowly, participating in some contest and gaining prizes. We won the Ligurian Start Cup, then an Acceleration Path with Fabriq, the business incubator of Milan city. That event changed completely our vision of the world. We understood the fundamental process of business accelerating, which consisted in understanding the importance of what is essential apart from the idea itself. We gained a better understanding on business need and solution, intellectual property rights, market analysis, pricing, business plan, legal and financial aspects (cash flow, income, balance, etc.), supply chain, human resources development and recruiting. We learnt how to manage funding and investors and how to execute correctly an operational plan. Furthermore, we understood better the central role of communication and networking and the importance of a strong sales strategy. Then we realized how long the way is to build a company from zero.

I decided to dedicate all my efforts to React4life and I became the CEO of the company in October 2018. I realized that it was important to enlarge the team, but it has become very difficult. It is incredibly important that people you engage share the vision and strategy of the company, and it is crucial that they are very fast in execution, and able to pivot immediately as the business requires it. We have changed our business model and followed several market strategies, according to the feedback we obtained from our first customers and partners. Another important element is the commitment, which needs to be more than 100 %.

What is the goal of the FET B2B project and how does this fit in your future ambitions?

We are a biotechnology company, with the aim of creating tools for helping scientists to better execute their research. For this purpose, we “live” with final users, clinicians and biologists. Moreover, several times we make tests and experiments for them in our laboratories. This gives us additional advantage compared to our competitors, since we know the customer needs better.

Our background is basic research, and we continue to make further research because this is crucial for our strategy of delivering value to the customers. The FET-Open project B2B is a highly advanced research project in the field of bone metastatization of breast cancer, a typical process happening to oncologic patients. We are trying to recreate this process in the laboratory, to create a model that can be used by researchers and clinicians in the future to find better therapy methods, to understand basic molecular mechanisms, etc. If we are successful, this will be the most advanced platform for testing cancer metastases. Our ambition is to be the reference point for researchers who want to go further in their research, and to help them to transform their ideas and concepts into reality. We approach them, and not vice versa.

This EU funded project is a clear example of how the idea of an outstanding group of researchers can be transformed into a prototype with a clear path to become an industrial product, that can be reached for instance via the FET-Proactive Transition to Innovation initiative.

How do the FET Open/EIC Pathfinder project B2B and the EIC Accelerator (SME instrument) MOOD project contribute to achieve your dreams?

The SME InstrumentMOOD project has been a fundamental step for reaching the market. Now we have a better understanding on the market that we were targeting. We could clearly identify market segments and the different customers. We understood that we needed to invent separated strategies tailored to different type of clients.

As an example, reaching big pharma companies require different approaches than reaching a contact research organisation or a research institution, and it is equally different for testing companies. That was the case in our first product, MIVO(R).

With B2B we are doing a step forward in our technology, because the project allows us to experiment new methods that we could not try without funding. These methods will be taken to the market even outside the scope of B2B project, even if the final technology readiness level of the B2B is too low to be brought to the market. The coexistence with top-level scientists, like the ones we have in the consortium is a unique experience for an SME start-up to gain extra knowledge that give us competitive advantage on the market.

Is the EIC Pathfinder playing a decisive role in supporting yours and other stories of research and innovation?

EIC Pathfinder is a true value. Typically, it is not difficult for an Italian SME to have good ideas, because it is in our DNA and we are able to transform them into specific products. The difficulty is to have the ambition, the funding and the team to dare to set out significant goals.

Fulfilling the objective of future and emerging technologies is only possible with joint forces coming from: 1) a real need, typically coming from associations or big companies, 2) the research competences and capacity, 3) the wish of transforming ideas into a risky and innovative product which may to be brought to the market (typical for a start-up). The last ingredient is the funding, because such a venturesome project needs financing from its beginning. Emerging technologies have such an uncertain future that venture capital funds or firms would not finance it. Therefore, the only chance is the EIC Pathfinder.

Thank you, European Commission, for trusting the entire B2B consortium!


FET Open and FET Proactive are now part of the Enhanced European Innovation Council (EIC) Pilot (specifically the Pathfinder), the new home for deep-tech research and innovation in Horizon 2020, the EU funding programme for research and innovation.