Tell us more about Cube Labs.
Cube Labs is an industrial holding in Life Sciences. We act in three dimensions: the first is tech transfer from the Italian Academia, thanks to a strategic partnership with the largest Italian Consortium, I.N.B.B. (www.inbb.it made of 24 public universities), where we serve as a technology platform.
The second pillar is venture building where we set up our portfolio companies. The third pillar is seed investing, where we invest at the seed stage in our portfolio companies.
Can you share more about your portfolio companies?
All the companies are tied to the Italian Academia and at the moment are based in Italy. The portfolio is quite diversified, including biotech, that are in the preclinical phase, med-tech, nutraceuticals and artificial intelligence.
With the medtech/IVDs companies, the average technology level (TRL) is between six and seven which means that there is already an MVP or prototype. Italy has a very good tradition (scientific publications per researcher) in terms of manufacturing and trading healthcare technologies.
Why did you decide to found Cube Labs?
The idea came to the founder, Filippo Surace, who is a medical doctor and healthcare entrepreneur in Puglia, in the south of Italy. He joined Temple University (Philadelphia) as a visiting Professor more than 15 years ago, when he started to elaborate on the concept of technology transfer, and how to leverage and create value for science by promoting a new model in Life Sciences.
Over time, he decided to create and establish our structure. We met in an Executive Master programme 15 years ago in Rome, with a specific focus in healthcare. During that time, we started to elaborate on the idea and the current structure which has been implemented since 2017.
Have you always known you would become an entrepreneur?
I spent my first career in the corporate world as an executive heading the market access function for big US brands. It was a typical executive role with vertical expertise on market access, government affairs and patient support, mostly in biotech. It was quite exciting, and I had the pleasure to launch and to negotiate the pricing of several blockbusters on the market.
After about two decades, I decided to switch to a more entrepreneurial career. The Cube Labs opportunity came at the right time. When Filippo shared his proposal, I knew this was the right path for me.
What drives you?
Passion is the first driver. I like innovation, I like science, and at the end of the day, I like to think that through our technologies and solutions, we can bring to the market, new opportunities in special areas where there are unmet medical needs to benefit patients. Our technologies and solutions will create real value for their health.
Can you share some highlights throughout your career?
Working for the US companies in the past helped me inherit some specific values and approach to work, such as the importance of strategy and execution. There are a number of situations in which you work, mostly at the affiliate level, where you need to find local solutions for very big problems, interfacing with the local customers with different mindsets when compared to other geographies, etc.
You have to adapt and optimise by finding out what the company’s mission and strategy are at the single-country-level, in order to succeed. It is also important to adapt and manage the negative stigma and perception of Big Pharma (eg: drug prices), which is not always positive for some stakeholders (eg: payers, policy makers).
What is Cube Labs’ focus at this juncture?
The first two pillars are completed. We have selected our portfolio companies and structured them – at least, for the early-stage phase. Playing as a venture studio, we have a long term, hands on approach with an intensive collaboration and will staff the companies gradually over time. At the moment we are trying to raise a series A round which we hope to close by Q2 this year.
Any lessons learnt that you could share?
Firstly, you have to learn from mistakes. The second is that you have to be resilient, not only because of the time we are all living, but being in a fundraising phase perpetually, as per our companies, we never end the scout for pitching opportunities. You have to meet several investors and it takes a long time before getting to the right one.
This means that you have to be able to stay committed, have a good approach, be positive, energetic, and try not to be disappointed when receiving critics or negative feedback. Take those feedback and try to improve yourself and develop the proposition of the company. It is important to know how to pivot, and in some cases write off some assets.
What are some early career experiences you have had that have contributed to you being where you are today?
I spent the first years of my career in creating a new role liaising with regional healthcare authorities in the early 2000s. In Italy, as in other countries, the healthcare system and budget are very regionalised where local payers have a big voice. It was something that I had to create from scratch.
It was not easy to align the mission and value proposition of a pharmaceutical company with the stakeholders that are not typically for a drug manufacturer. The standard stakeholders are physicians and pharmacists and so on, but I was dealing with the payers and policymakers.
It was very tough and challenging, but I had very good results over the years in trying to position the company by going beyond the products. I created corporate social responsibility initiatives taking into account all the economic impacts of the products, by switching from a product supplier approach into a partner of healthcare solutions. This is not just a claim or statement, but a change in mindset.
What is your hope for Cube Labs?
My hope and commitment are tied to continuing with our journey. We also have a plan to internationalise the firm in some key markets and leveraging Italian science (in Italy and abroad).
It is important to create an ecosystem that starts from one place, but you also need key partners in other geographies to continue with the clinical development, evaluation of the market fit, or capture other opportunities in other countries that are better than your domestic market.
This is why internationalisation is one of the ideas that we are going to implement over the next few years.
Can you share more about your mentoring activities?
I do it mostly pro bono and is a way for me to give back to young entrepreneurs with my expertise by helping start-ups or spin-offs fix their business models. Being a pre-revenue company in the early-stage phase, especially when the founder is a scientist, is a very big challenge.
Mentorship is a crucial aspect to guide people that are interested in becoming deep tech entrepreneurs. Through a mentor and generally speaking, an acceleration programme, you can enhance a lot of areas that are fundamental to create a start-up and also to scale.
What advice do you have for scientists who aspire to become entrepreneurs?
To improve their business acumen.
The right approach to adopt is not to just push a technology forward in the market, but to also understand what the market needs. If you can understand what the market needs are, you can develop future products that meet a specific requirement or need.
In my opinion, that is the right approach to have.