In the context of INBOTS Working group on market analyses & support to SMEs Nicola Vitiello, founding partner of IUVO, answers to our questions to know how they manage to create this successful exosqueletons spinoff that arose from the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna.
Who you are? Please describe briefly yourself.
Hello, I’m Nicola Vitiello and I’m an associate professor at the Bio Robotics Institute of Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna and I’m also one of the co-founders and advisor of IUVO that is a spinoff company of Scuola Sant’Anna. I’m a scientist in the field of wearable robotics for about 12 years and I really like do exoskeletons.
Which was your role in the company at the beginning and what is your role now?
When we started the initiative, we were six colleagues, then we became fourteen. And then, after the joint venture between Össur and Comau that invested in the company, I became an advisor. And I’m right now an advisor so I am quite interested in the business development of the company.
What was your vision of your company at the beginning and how this vision changed during the years?
The vision at the beginning I would say is still the vision that I have of the company now. So, when we raised the company we wanted to be at the cutting edge of the research and development in the field of wearable robotics, acting like a kind of discovery engine for the field. And it is still exactly like that. Of course, we are trying to do our best for the first successful story. And of course, there is still a long way to do but we believe that we are on the right track in the right direction. So, my vision, our vision, is still there.
Would you define three milestones in the growing of the company?
I feel that the first milestone is about the moment in which we started the collaboration with Comau in 2015. Basically, we were able somehow to get Comau trusting in our capability of being innovators. And the second milestone is necessarily in 2017, when the company entered into the FCA group and received the investment from Comau and Össur because from that point in time we weren’t anymore a startup.
We were a real company that had to grow. I don’t like the idea to be a startup forever. The third milestone is on June 2018, when Comau presented the MATE technology at the Automatica fair in Germany, because it was the first product that has been somehow developed by IUVO and brought on the market. For sake of clarity: I would say the first milestone is when we started convincing people in relying on us. Then when we received the investment and now when the first product is on the market.
Which kind of barriers did you find? Please define the most critical ones.
I think that the main barrier for wearable robotics is about the fact that we are going to develop a hardware with the human in the loop. So, the first barrier that I see in my view, it’s still there: the challenge is the development of a reliable and really usable technology.
The second barrier, from my point of view, is about the business model: finding the right business strategy that can give to any start-up company in the field of wearable robotics the possibility to have a sustainable business. I mean, many companies failed in the first years because they have a shortage of money and they have difficulties in developing the company structure.
Therefore, when we started the company, we wanted to avoid these risks. And that’s the reason why, from the very beginning, we tried to convince two large corporates to support our initiative. And that’s the way we tried to work around this barrier. So, just to briefly recap: while the first technological barrier is still there (and our engineers and myself tried to everyday improve our robots), the second barrier (i.e. a sustainable business model) is something that IUVO tried to work around to have successful products in the wearable robotics market.
What was/is the role of the academia in the creation and growing of the company?
I think that for our company, Scuola Sant’Anna plays a crucial role. The fact that I am also a professor is really the demonstration of a very important value chain. Indeed, it’s the university that is taking care of educating future engineers that would join in our company. And it’s the company that has the goal of taking the technology developed within the university and bring the technology to the market. Of course, we have two large industries that are backing the initiative and they have the sales force to bring the products to a success but, as you see, this is a value chain and the starting point is in the university. Without the university, I would say, that IUVO wouldn’t exist and, if it will be successful, most of the merit will be in the university and in the nice ecosystem that Scuola Sant’Anna represents.
Which is the most critical element for the growing of a company in our sector?
The most critical element is the humans: the human resources. I always say that the only reason why we can accept the challenges of developing new exoskeletons is because we have the best team that you may have. Wearable robotics is something that is relatively new: it’s not like aerospace or automotive engineering. I mean, there’s not a school where you can learn how to do exoskeletons but I’m sure that it will happen in the future due to the increasing interest.
Therefore, when you have a talented person that after one or two or three years is educated and enters into the field you have a kind of super value. It’s something that has an incredible impact and I would say it’s our treasury: our fundamental element are the people that are in IUVO. And I’m sure that the only way to grow up is to have a team that progressively and in a sustainable manner will increase the number of talented engineers.
Which is the biggest opportunity for a company in our sector?
I think that the opportunity in our sector comes from the fact that many decision makers around the world are underestimating the sustainability of our welfare: the opportunity comes from the real need. So that’s very interesting and important. Wearable robotics is not a speculative market. Wearable robotics is a real market because it’s a market that relies on the real needs of people. So that’s the biggest opportunity.