InterviewsMARY FRANZESE: “I believe in the importance of dreams, but also in the courage to make them happen”…


What you need today is determination and confidence.
There are plenty of times when you want to give up

She’s a young startupper, among the 12 finalists for the EU Prize for Women Innovators 2017, and co-founder of Neuron Guard, a refrigerating collar that lowers the risk of cerebral lesions for victims of stroke and brain injury. Mary Franzese’s story began in Ottaviano in the province of Napoli, then led to Modena, and now the rest of the world. Her path is full of inspiration not only for women, young people, and people from the southern Italy who feel disadvantaged, but especially for anyone who wants to start a business in Italy.
I got in touch with her though her facebook profile, and she immediately accepted my invite. Our chat started around her business – or really, her life choice, which is how Mary defines it. “Neuron Guard really changed my life, and pushed me to change. I’ve always been the ambitious type, but I was pretty shy before. I would shrink back, was never the type to go out much, and I always tried to be non-confrontational when I spoke. Then my management experience, the fact that I ran a cooperative, and especially the fact that I left home really made me roll up my sleeves.
I come from a family where my father started out as a travelling salesman and then opened his own company, and my mother was a housewife who had to leave school after 5th grade because she had such a big family. I’ve always appreciated the sacrifices my parents made for me. And if my father could do it 50 years ago, then so can I now. I’m not good at settling – and even if I know my limits, I’m always trying to get the best out of my life.”

I believe that right now, you’re sending out a wonderful message. You transmit positivity. A 30 year old woman who wants to do something important for others, bringing innovative product to the market that could improve so many people’s lives. And yet, you’re encountering so many difficulties, especially in Italy. Why is that?

I always think of it as shortsighted vision. Italians want immediate results and are mainly looking for low risk and high rewards. And there’s too much bureaucracy. The medical device sector requires a lot of time and money, which completely goes against the current atmosphere. Neuron Guard was often requested to provide proof. They asked us for patents at the beginning, and then patient trials after that. Getting human-tested results for a device that isn’t on the market but could have positive socio-economic impacts is really intimidating.
Another limitation for startup companies is ‘unless there are experienced managers, it’s hard to give credit to young people.’ In Italy, people always think that if you’re not senior, you’re not credible. I strongly believe in the importance of reciprocity – just as I have a lot I can teach to my seniors, I know they have a lot to teach me. There needs to be better collaboration between people with management experience, and those who are still developing, but who have good ideas. What’s missing for young people is caution, which makes us prone to take risks. And the opposite is true for adults – they make cautious choices and take few risks. That’s why I concentrate on continuous collaboration among all the stakeholders in our system. We young people need to communicate with institutions, with (already successful) companies, and with established managers – and we especially need to be able to share our experiences with people who have done similar things.

It’s true that Italy lacks a system for connecting startups. You don’t get the sense that innovative ideas are a growth opportunity for everyone.

I know, that’s how it is. Just think, I made it to the European Parliament as a finalist, which would be a reason for pride for lots of people, but in reality, only a small segment of the media recognised me. And among other startups, I didn’t hear a single “wow, we’re so happy for you”. But I was supported by women, and the mayor of my town who wished me luck. Unfortunately, no one working in a startup or who runs a business shared the experience with me.

Speaking of women – I found out about your story through a PWA event about women in Tech. I was wondering if there’s a collaboration between women today?

You know, when they published an article in Corriere della Sera and I was on the list of entrepreneurs under 30, you can’t even imagine the comments I got. Scandalous. Girls who were blaming me and other women for going to a private school, or having our parents behind us. But I ask myself, how can you get ahead without recognizing the value and the hard work of others?

Tell us about Neuron Guard. What is it, how does it work, and how far along are you in its development?

We’re waiting to get the device in Italy, which is the prototype that will be tested on volunteers. In the next few weeks, we’ll verify the temperature control through our collar (we’ll see how vital signs change). Meanwhile, we’re preparing the whole clinical study that will be carried out in a hospital – in this case, it will be Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. They selected us, and our collaboration started from there with the hospital and our English partner that will work on the development of the product.
We teamed up with the Brain Injury Health Technology Co-operative (HTC), a branch of Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Cambridge, where they introduce noteworthy products that could change the way of treating brain damage. Then our next steps include pilot tests on patients in intensive care, immediately after leaving the operating room.
We’re seeking to verify how our device can control a patient’s temperature through their neck, and how this is able to preserve the patient’s neural function post-operation. Afterwards, the device will be certified, there will be scientific research about the results, and then it can finally arrive on the market. We estimate that this could be the second half of 2018.

Neuron Guard | Dotmug

The University of Cambridge is really behind you, but what kind of support are you getting from Italy?

We’re getting support in Italy too. We’re in contact with the Humanitas Research Hospital of Rozzano, Milano Policlinico Hospital, the Biomedical Campus in Rome, Palermo Policlinico Hospital, and we have contacts in Modena at the University and Policlinico Hospital. But the pilot study will be in the UK.
Our region, Emilia-Romagna, gave us our first funding, and the network in Modena and the surrounding really helped as well. The first company to get behind us was one in Vignola that makes advanced electronic systems. Their director, Leo, heard our story and has been helping us out a lot. Specifically, they’re making the advanced electronic system for the control unit – basically the technological platform for the collar, which tells you how the device is working and collects data during the treatment.
As young people, having help from an established company is really important. What you need today is determination and confidence. There are plenty of times when you want to give up, but I always tell myself, ‘I believe in this and I’ve invested all this time and money. For me, Neuron Guard is life and life is Neuron guard, because it’s given me the chance to grow as a woman and to face a world that you have to battle with constantly. But I keep moving, and I won’t give up.

Do you think there’s a time limit for following a dream? Or a limit in number of attempts?

No, there’s no limit on attempts. I’ve always thought women have an ability that I rarely see in men: knowing how to constantly reinvent ourselves. It must be our nature. After all, life comes from us. Our difference in perception is also evident in the way we do business. Women were born to suffer – just think of periods, pregnancy and childbirth. Women are strong. Women always find a way to get what they want. It’s important to have clear goals, and I believe it’s necessary to be able to change your approach based on the resources available to you.
I always say, ‘I believe in the importance of dreams, but also in the courage to make them happen.’ I think of myself as a courageous dreamer who had the drive to see her dreams come true. Because if I’m just dreaming, it means my head is in the clouds, but I also want to have my feet firmly planted on solid ground. And the ground is solid when I’m ready to redefine and change my path – that’s the entrepreneurial spirit.
Companies also need to face changing costs of doing business, competition, and rigid tax laws, but I believe in Italians’ ability to continually pick themselves back up. Our population suffers most under fiscal pressure, but they always make it work, especially the southerners. We may not be satisfied with what the region offers, but we don’t forget our roots. I’ve actually been criticized by people saying, ‘but you left.’ And to those people, I’d just like to say that my goal is not just for the people in Modena, or even Italy, but for all of humanity.

What is technology for you?

Essentially, technology has changed and simplified my life. It lets me work anywhere, and I wouldn’t be able to work at all without it. Thanks to all the progress happening today, we can do so much more than before. And just think about our simple device. The Neuron Guard collar is beyond the limits of another collar currently being developed in the United States. We brought technology to the product: the control system, data collection, and the possibility of following the device’s path. As soon as it’s activated, because of its internal GPS, I can get a whole series of useful data. Technology has also changed the way we work. Neuron Guard is technically based in Modena, but really, besides the 2 desks there, we’re always moving around for our work.

When you want to follow your dream, it’s important to have knowledge, but to also admit your own limitations.

I believe in humility. I became the woman I am today because I listened – and not just to people with a more impressive CV than my own – also to people I met on the street. People can have all kinds of stories that can teach us something. My mother for example, even though she had to leave school in the 5th grade, she was the one who taught me how to stand up and say ‘I can do it.’ You always need to recognize the value of others. Female empowerment is great, but we women need to try to collaborate with men because we won’t get anywhere in our own.

How is your family with all this? Do they support you?

My family supports me so much now, and they really believe in me. They’re really happy with the path I’ve taken. At first they were a bit hesitant because I moved away, turned down a business opportunity at home in order to get my master’s, and because I said I wanted more. But our disagreement was stimulating for me.
I knew I needed to do whatever I could to take care of myself, and now I don’t cling to them for support. I think you need to have your family behind to face your problems – it’s important that they give you a kick in the behind when you’re doing something wrong, but also that they cheer you on when you do something well.

And what about your friends? How did the people around you react?

I was called delusional. They all said: look how you’re wasting your time. What are you bringing home? I was seen as crazy at first. Also because running a business and bringing innovation to the market is a lifetime project. But battling every day with people who don’t believe in you really helps you grow, and makes you look for ways to get people to understand – but always with a hearty dose of humility.

What do you want to tell the readers? What kind of message would you like to leave?

When everything looks too complicated, you need to go above and beyond to find the conditions to allow you to succeed. You have to convince people. I never looked for excuses.

There’s so much more we could say, but what comes to mind is a simple “good luck, Mary!”

Michela Di Nuzzo

« Se scrivo ciò che sento è perché così facendo abbasso la febbre di sentire». - Fernando Pessoa Giornalista e co-founder, vivo il digital come imprenditrice e appassionata. Percepisco il cambiamento come un'opportunitá mai una minaccia. Occhi spalancati e orecchie aperte, sempre pronta alla condivisione, la chiave di ogni evoluzione.

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