Tightrope Walker

Most scientists have probably considered leaving academia to set up a company, only to find that one of the key ingredients to making it--a good idea, a market for it, and perhaps above all, a willingness to take some risks--was missing. But some people--and some scientists--are born businessmen. Back in the second year of his Ph.D., Italian computer scientist Fabrizio Capobianco (pictured left) set off to launch a software company. His idea, he decided, was just too good to resist, and there was even a market for it.

It was the early days of the World Wide Web and "I had the impression that the Internet was going to be something big," he says. As for the risks, they were calculated and Capobianco didn’t dwell on them. "If you are an entrepreneur and see a great opportunity," says Capobianco, "you jump on it; it’s an attitude that you [either] have or don’t have," he says.

After completing his Ph.D., Capobianco fully left academia for business and now, 10 years later, he is the chief executive officer of his third Internet company--this one called Funambol, or “tightrope walker” in Italian--which he runs from Silicon Valley in the United States.

An Academic Background

Capobianco graduated in 1994 from the University of Pavia, near Milan, with an engineering degree. During his final-year project, he started working on software that would extract information from various databases on the internet and distribute it across a network of computers via an easy-to-use interface. After graduation, his supervisor asked him to stay on for a Ph.D. to complete the project. This was a very exciting time, says Capobianco--the Web was still in its infancy, and he and his colleagues were able to see how big and useful the Internet was likely to become.

First Steps Outside Academia

Setting up a company is something that Capobianco had in mind early on. "I was attracted by the idea that I could build something and give it to millions of users," he says. The Internet and its growing potential seemed an ideal platform for his aspirations, so in the second year of his Ph.D., he decided to start, along with a friend in the same lab, what would become the first Web company in Italy. He received help from his brother--a lawyer--and from one of his best friends--a professor in business administration--to deal with the non-technical aspects of setting up a company. Capobianco didn’t really worry about the risks; he was too excited about launching his own company. Besides, he knew he wouldn't starve. "I am lucky; I knew that my parents could support me."

Called Internet Graffiti, Capobianco’s first company focused mainly on creating dynamic Web sites, which, in those days, was a topic of research. "On one side we were doing research, on the other we were trying to apply it to a real market, and to see the challenges of that was very interesting," he says. "We were trying to convince companies in Italy that they needed a Web site. It was fascinating because not too many of them were listening."

A Head for Business

The experience convinced Capobianco that he enjoyed doing business, and that the gratification he gained from working in a company was much greater than the one he could see people getting in academia. "Sometimes I was not too excited about the idea that my work in academia was to publish papers in a magazine, depending on two or three people" who may decide to publish or not to publish, he says. "In business, if they are paying you, it means that they are happy; you have very palpable results."

Capobianco finished his Ph.D. in 1997 and left both academia and Graffiti. Even though the concept of a Web site did attract early adopters and the company was doing well, says Capobianco, "we lacked capital to grow fast; therefore, I moved the technical team to Stigma, founding Stigma Online." Stigma Online was focused on creating intranet portals-- again, a topic of research at that time. "It was really successful; we grew the team from five people to almost forty, with large companies as customers," which included Novartis, Kraft, the Italian Broadcasting Television, and the Italian Stock Exchange.

Capobianco then decided to try his luck in the United States. "I wanted to bring the product and the company to Silicon Valley," he says. But this was 1999, and the Internet bubble was beginning to burst. "My partner felt it was too big a jump. I decided to leave anyway." He knew Silicon Valley by having spent 3 months in the picture-programming lab of Hewlett-Packard as an invited scientist, and the place had made quite an impression on him.

Capobianco first worked as a finance executive for Reuters, and "then I received my green card; I was a permanent resident in the United States, and I started a company with the people I was working with in Italy before." It was around 2002, and the popularity of mobile devices like mobile phones and iPods was increasing. "I saw the next wave coming," says Capobianco. Funambol, his third and current company, writes open-source software for mobile devices, "because you need a community effort to be able to test your software on billions of devices." Where did the name come from? "Funambol,"--tightrope walker--"is the balance between open source and business, between a community effort and the need to pay salaries at the end of the month."

Whereas in his first company Capobianco had mainly been working on the technical side of things, in his second he became more involved in business. As CEO of Funambol, it is business that fills his days. Still, he continues to put his technical background to good use. "My background allows me to see the big picture of technology," he says. Doing a Ph.D. on visual interfaces and usability is particularly useful, he believes, because it allows him to understand what the consumers would like to use and to guess whether a new product would succeed or fail. His training also gives him the ability to adapt to rapid changes of technology, which is important in his role as CEO of a tech company, he says. "Information technology is full of acronyms to make sure that people will not understand what engineers do. If you have a technical background, you will not be scared by new acronyms."

An International Company

With its headquarters in Silicon Valley, its technological development team close to the University of Pavia, and a sales office in Milan, Funambol is truly international. This allows Capobianco to enjoy the best of what the United States and Europe have to offer. "Silicon Valley is phenomenal because it has plenty of capital; it is moving very fast, and you can find here the best minds I have ever seen," he says. "But for developing software, it is too expensive and the qualification of your engineers is not necessarily higher" than in Europe. Europe, on the other hand, has good engineers, but the business climate in Italy is not ideal.

Growth and New Challenges

One of the great rewards of entrepreneurship, says Capobianco, is watching a company grow. "I love creating a group, and being able to find the right people to achieve the goals that you set up and make sure that they are happy." Currently the company’s staff numbers 20, but it should rise to 30 or so in the next 3 months. "We keep reorganising the company" as new people get hired, he says. "Everyone takes responsibility for somebody new and starts a new set of tasks." Growth presents challenges for any company. CEOs, says Capobianco, must deal with those problems while "manag[ing] the expectations of investors and employees."

Business Skills

Things worked out well for Capobianco, but looking back "a formal education like an MBA is what I would recommend for people wanting to make the jump from a technological background." He made up for the lack of formal business training by reading books and learning from experience, and, most importantly, by starting his first company with somebody with business expertise. "Otherwise it is a big jump; there are a lot of complexities and you make mistakes along the way."

What one needs to make it in business, he says, is "a good idea and a technology you believe in." And while a would-be entrepreneur should not be put off by calculated risks, entrepreneurial young scientists should be aware of the tradeoffs; even now he hopes someday to go back to where he came from. "My dream in the long term is to go back to academia, maybe in Italy," he says.

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South and West Europe.

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