Jan 21, 2018, 20 min read
Interview by Julia Wagner
The original interview took place in November 2017 and has been edited.
This week’s featured interview is with Diva Tommei, founder and CEO of technology startup Solenica and inventor of a lighting robot called 'Caia'.
In our conversation, we talked about how Singularity University sparked her desire to become an entrepreneur, how a hobby became a greater mission, why someone built her a temporary statue and how several big crises contributed to her resilience.
It is about 3:30 pm in the afternoon in Rome now. Considering that discipline and motivation are muscles - how stretched are you by now?
“Well I am handling multiple things in parallel as always, but you learn how to deal with this parallel thinking and execution. It is really fine at the end of the day.”
Indeed, you do a lot of things in parallel. You run your business Solenica as CEO, you are very engaged in the female entrepreneur scene, you have various other responsibilities and engagements. How do you juggle all that?
“There is a physical limit which is the number of hours you have got in a day. But then within that physical limit, you can get really good at becoming efficient at building and practicing certain skills. For example, when I was in academia, one of the soft skills I learned was writing emails very fast, effectively and maintaining a gentle and non-aggressive tone. So while I am writing shorter mails and cutting out formalities, I still try to prevent them from coming across as arrogant, aggressive or in some tone you don't actually intend. I think it is important to always communicate in the best way and put people in the best mood while receiving your communication. “
I just have to think of Elon Musk’s email reactions as described in the autobiography by Ashlee Vance: Someone put sweat and tears into a project for a year or so and then communicated the outcomes in an email. And Elon’s response, so the story goes, was something unemotional and short like: ‘ok’. Do you have a hack for smart emails? How do you express emotion, empathy, and gratitude in a message that is just three sentences long?
“The thing is that with one word, ‘ok’, you have lost all the empathy and emotion. But with just two or three words, something like ‘Great job!’ or ‘I love it!’ - it makes a big difference. In any way, Elon Musk is probably very overwhelmed with multiple things so I would not take it personally if he wrote me an email saying ‘ok’”. (laughs)
I will bear that in mind next time he answers me. (laughs)
Another thing - there was recently a statue revealed in your honor. Tell me about that!
“I was selected as one of three Italian entrepreneurs for a launch campaign of the new Huawei Mate 10 phone. With this marketing campaign, they have tried to shatter conventions and notions on paths that lead you to do something great in your life and do something useful for society. Usually, someone only gets a statue when she is at the end of that path and completed something. Sometimes she is dead. By contrast, what Huawei did is reverse the paradigm. They said we want to support and celebrate these three entrepreneurs because we think that they have got what it takes to define three interesting paths that will ultimately help society. And we are making them a statue today. Now obviously that was a temporary statue that they made out of light material after having 3D-scanned me. They disassembled it after having been on show for three days.”
"I spent four months at Singularity Unversity but I literally lost about a full year of my biological life. I barely slept but it was totally worth it."
What is it about Silicon Valley and the particular setting at Singularity University that inspired you and made you take action?
“I have to give you my starting point: I was not always an entrepreneur. I started as an academic, a researcher, a scientist. I did my bachelor degree in Rome in biotechnology and then I moved to the University of Cambridge to do my Ph.D. in bioinformatics. It was in the middle of my Ph.D. in 2010 when I was selected by Singularity University to go to NASA to complete the Graduate Studies program. I spent four months there but I literally lost about a full year of my biological life. I barely slept but it was totally worth it. During this very intensive course, I was exposed to the impact of exponentially growing technologies and the challenges of humanity - food, poverty, education, energy, space exploration, and medicine. What are really important topics in today’s world that we need to work on? And how can technology aid us in getting where we need to be? This is the mindset that I was confronted with there. You are there listening to the excellence in each one of these fields, talking about the state of the art of the technology and how we can go even farther and do even better. This experience changed me completely. Not in the sense that I was not interested in these topics before. But it allowed me to see academia was not the only path that I could follow to achieve great things; that there is also tech entrepreneurship as an alternative way. I find it to be a much better fit for my personality traits. I have more control over the speed, the efficiency, the whole process - more than what I could do within academia. This is how I embarked on the path of entrepreneurship and why I am staying on it and loving it. I think it'll be pretty much what I keep doing until I am - I am done.” (laughs)
"Wow, I am solving other people’s problems!"
So you finished that. What did you do next?
“I went back to Cambridge. Even though it was pretty clear to me that at that point I was in need of a ‘pivot’, to speak startup language. But I did finish my Ph.D. In parallel, I started working on a number of startups in bioinformatics, to get some experience under my belt within this new entrepreneur field. And also, I started to work on a prototype which today is ‘Caia’. I suffered from the problem of natural lighting not coming into my office space. So I started building a device to solve that problem. It was really not a start-up at all. It was just the attempt to find a solution to a problem I was experiencing. In total, I spent two years finishing up my Ph.D. and working on these various side projects.
The big change happened gradually in my mind because people who came into my office told me ‘Oh my god, this is so cool. I have the same problem at home! Can you build me a device as well?’ After a while, I noticed a pattern and I was like ‘Wow, I am solving other people’s problems!’. Maybe I could think about extending this as a mission and building a company around this. Which is what I did when I went back to Rome. I assembled a group of close friends and we started applying to accelerators. Our idea was to tackle indoor health with smart accessible devices that could renovate and increase the quality of your indoor environment. Apart from our use case, there are many other areas in which we are much in need of a device that can impact and increase the quality or, for instance, air, water or food. We are ultimately building an IoT [Editor's note: Internet of Things] company within the indoor health space and we are starting at lighting. “
How did you go about building the prototype for ‘Caia’ and actually making it real? How long did it take you and whose help were you taking?
“Oh, several years! It was initially a project I worked on with my dad. You have to know that we've always worked on projects together since I was a child. That is how he educated me as a maker. I have been writing software and building stuff with my hands since I was very young. So it is my approach to problem-solving in general; very visual, executive, building things. Back in Cambridge, I bought a 3D printer and started to print all these little components that I was drawing and designing with my dad. I used the cheapest 3D printer model I could find on the market but you need to assemble it yourself. I wish I hadn't done that - it took me an entire week. You have to get the axis just right, otherwise, the printing is completely offset. I don't recommend self-assembling it, rather spend the extra 200 bucks and get it preassembled.
It was a Singularity that I had the illumination of how to solve the problem when we are talking about energy and heliostats [Editor’s note: A device following the sun]. Caia is the very first residential heliostat in the world. Although the technology has been around for the past 40 years. As an industrial technology, heliostats redirect sunlight, just like Caia does, but the target is a thermodynamic tower that generates steam for electricity generation by a turbine. The challenge was to refit that technology to residential needs, which meant looking into a better design, decreased cost, etc. I wouldn't be super proud to show you the older prototypes because they do not look good. One of the first things I did was to get a product designer on the team who could come in and make Caia look better.”
"When I was finishing my Ph.D. I thought that was the hardest thing I had ever done. Today I am looking back and it seems like the easiest thing I have done."
Now you founded the company. What is the status right now in terms of manufacturing and the fundraising campaign that you have started?
“We did a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo and we are actually still on there. It is an ‘in-demand project’, which means the prices aren't as discounted as during the campaign. But it is pretty discounted. So I would recommend pre-ordering before we shut it down at the end of the year [Editor’s note: This refers to December 2017]. “We are in the process of manufacturing those 3,000ish units that people, the ‘backers’, have pre-ordered. Right now we are in the middle of liaising with certification bodies for safety and emissions certifications which any product that is sold to the US, Canada or Europe has to obtain. That is a field that could use some innovation, I'll tell you that! There is a complete lack of knowledge and understanding of the field. First of all, you get a lot of different opinions on which certifications apply. And then there are so many bodies with such different degrees of quality for the testing that it feels like this 1800s. It is very disorganized. Maybe my next startup will go and disrupt that field.”
In terms of ‘hard things’, what is something you have learned along your entrepreneurial journey thus far?
“When I was finishing my Ph.D. I thought that was the hardest thing I had ever done in my entire life. I had to show resilience, determination, commitment, perseverance. A lot of people tell me ‘wow you've got a Ph.D. you must be really determined and very hard-working’. However today I am looking back and, ironically, my Ph.D. seems like the easiest thing I have done, seriously. When I look back, I am amazed at how many times I was able to fall and stand back up. That is the number one quality you need: Resilience. “
Can you give me an example?
“Things change all the time. One small example from during the campaign: We had to change the name from ‘Lucy’ to ‘Caia’ during the middle of the campaign. Someone wrote and said ‘Hey, we have a trademark on this name that sounds a lot like ‘Lucy’ and we are in the lighting field. So you may want to change that.’. We did not want to have to deal with trademark infringement possibilities in the future so we thought we will take a hit now and prepare a solid basis for future growth. Hence we changed the name during the campaign, but that is not good and very time-consuming! Imagine - you marketed it all as Lucy and now you have to change it. Also, it involved legal work while the campaign was running. Our team took turns and did not sleep because the campaign has to run and you just have to be there all the time, answering questions and solving issues. At the time it felt like the end of the world. Looking back I am thinking ‘Ok, we dealt with it and moved on’. Another example is the design change that we had to do in April as we were preparing to do the design for manufacturing. The old design was a hemostat that had a transparent ball around it, like a sphere. But it added a lot of volumetric weighted and we ended up with 50 kilograms. To ship 50 kilograms around the world to serve our international market is extremely expensive - more than half of what Caia’s retail price is today. Also, retailers would not have been happy with all the space it takes for storage. So we changed the design after the campaign had closed in April and prior to moving into production, with all the money commitment of our backers.
This was a risk and obviously, we always offer refunds. We were expecting thousands of dollars in refunds. In the end, there were six. When you go through a challenge you fear it will bring you down. But the perspective you have on things and how you handle it is going to tell whether you stay down or stand back up. Challenges are only growing in magnitude and frequency so you need your history of challenges that you've overcome to be able to confront yourself with the new ones that are bigger and more frequent. I would also say you get better at predicting risk or even avoid it altogether.”
Let’s talk a little bit about habits. What are some things that you think make you successful and make you get through your day and responsibilities?
“I have noticed that it is very good to distribute moments in which you can let things and emotions out throughout your day. I find myself very much in robot automation execution mode all the time. The funny thing is - since I have decided to rescue a dog from the pound, his name is Jack, he has been helping me. I believe this is called ‘pet therapy’ – it gives me a few minutes of emotional release when we play together. I make him food or we go for a tiny walk. I reconnect with my feelings, emotions and my human side. The more I do that throughout the day, the better I get at being nice to people, being more efficient. It is a win-win. By the way, we actually have three office dogs now (our CMO has two dogs as well).”
"You need your history of challenges that you've overcome to be able to confront yourself with the new ones."
What are some of the problems that keep you up at night?
“There is this transition when you grow as a company between you, the founder who started everything and always had control, to moving to more of a strategic role. In the beginning, I was worried to the utmost about any little detail and I had to have a final say on everything. As I relinquished control and I allowed my executives, my CTO, CMO, and my VPO, to take control over certain pipelines, I also found myself becoming better at not worrying as much about everything, but instead focus on strategy and meta-level coordination. And that is what a CEO should be thinking about.”
Does it occur to you that you lie in bed at night and you are thinking about this? Or you really have to talk through it with someone outside of the company?
“Oh for sure! That is when I pick up the phone and I call whoever I need to talk to. It could be an engineer, our CMO or someone else. It could be that I just bounce or vent with them. Simply talking about the problem makes it seem less huge and problematic. But then I try to forget about it as well. My brain is always running in the background, like a microprocessor, and I need to actively turn that off. So I try to read a book, take a bubble bath or go for a walk with my dog. Then, once I return to active thinking about that problem, my ideas are much clearer.“
You also have collected some venture funding and are in the process to raise more. I am assuming you have received a lot of rejection in the process as well. How do you deal with that? What is your process to become more strategic about your pitch?
“Oh, tons of rejection! You have to pitch to a lot of people to actually get the amounts, people and specific events you need to access and win. I think you need to have a lot of sensitivity, be good at reading other people’s responses. It is usually a combination of body language, what they say and their expressions. Ultimately I found myself becoming better and better at reading those signals and to interpret them as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ even if they were not saying that clearly. If you sense a ‘no’, you can move on quickly. You are in charge, even though in theory you are not. Of course, what we haven’t yet talked about is that you need to increase your odds by starting with doing your homework. You have got a long list of potential investors which you have done thorough research on and who could be interested in learning about you. And you learn to optimize your pitch over time. So when you have experienced rejection, you simply think ‘okay moving on to the next one. Moving on to the next one.’. It’s a statistics game but you have a say in it.“
"Increase your odds by doing your homework."
Do you have an empathy hack? For instance, do you do something special to get someone’s attention or buy-in?
“Yes, always make them feel the pain! I tend to scare them a little bit and even dramatize a little. (laugh). Although for real, it is scary, even to me, to think that we more than 90 percent of our lives in environments we have no idea about. There is a major disconnect between the amount of scientific knowledge we have about our indoor environments and the time we spend in them. The reason why you feel sick and nauseous in a room after having spent there two hours is not the lack of CO2, but that the furniture is exceeding volatile organic compounds that are poisoning you. I make them think of it that way.“
Moving on to personal growth and feedback. How do you think about feedback and how do you react to it?
“I tend to be overly analytical which is sometimes a bad thing. I think in this context it is a good thing, because I take in every bit of feedback and process it, even if I might not be responding to it right away. I am not actively thinking ‘I should respond to this feedback’, I automatically do and was brought up this way.
There is one hack which my dad knows very well and does a lot. Don’t tell me I can’t do something. If you tell me I can't do something, it will elicit a very strong reaction from me, like neuronal pathways firing through my brain. And then I am like ‘okay I'll prove you wrong!’. I am kidding but it is kind of like that.”
Have you heard anyone say that to you in the process of creating Solenica?
“Two years ago, when we were starting out and were focused on lighting, some people criticized us for lacking a vision and reach. We were asked what we were standing for. As we did more research, we realized how unhealthy our indoors are from multiple perspectives. We got the pitch right over time but were deemed incomplete initially. I never took it personally because I understood where these people were coming from and they were right on paper. But I was not worried because I knew that I was in the middle of a process of understanding something and would figure out where to place the company. It is fulfilling to finally have a mission and a greater cause for the company to grow.
Also - it is never a recipe. If someone tells you ‘This is how it is supposed in a certain way’, then I would argue ‘That’s not how life works’ and probably most accomplished entrepreneurs would do the same.”
Coming back to your responsibility as a curator of the Rome hub of Global Shapers: What is it that you do there and how much of your time does it take?
“The Global Shapers is a community started by the World Economic Forum and is open to members aged 20-30. I am an alumnus of the community now because I have exceeded the mark of 33 years. I was returning from my Ph.D. back to Rome and I didn't really have anybody in Rome except for a couple of friends. But in this community, I found a lot of things - even love!
What is really interesting about this community is that it gathers very like-minded people. All have a social mission, be it teaching, coding or integrating immigrants. The purpose is bettering our society and getting there through projects more than networking. The performance of our workgroups is assessed by the quality and impact of our projects on local communities.”
You mentioned that you consider returning to Rome. You have argued that you can build your entrepreneurial network and your home base in a different location other than Silicon Valley or any of the other big venture capital hubs of the world. How does this work out for you today?
“It is hard. It takes a lot to build a startup or entrepreneurial community in a place that does not necessarily have the cultural or social-economical heritage that Silicon Valley has. In Italy, for example, there is a lack of risk-taking at the side of investors. Italian startups are not competitive on the market - they have a harder time attracting international investment because they do not have terms linked to their current investments that are considered a standard by the global investment community. I am trying to sensitize investors to this topic. Some of them are responsive and are agreeing to co-invest with an American fund as long as they do not know better. That is a start! Our country or entrepreneurial ecosystem needs lead investors and this is the way to learn how to become one. For startups, it is hard because the building blocks of the entrepreneurial ecosystem are just being built while they are trying to grow their companies.”
So you are a nurturing and this ecosystem locally and instilling these thoughts, capturing the givers that are there already. At the same time, you are maintaining a foot or a hand in hot spots where you have a connection – are you traveling a lot?
“Yes, a lot. That is part of what it means to be an entrepreneur. Traveling, networking, creating a network around your ideas. Part of my ideas is this: You cannot just do startups in Silicon Valley. It is not possible. There is a bit of a bubble already so we need to distribute this ecosystem worldwide. We need people to lead the way and I hope that I am doing it right here in Italy. There is an excellent book: ‘Startup Communities - Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in your City’ by Brad Feld. It is a very good read for anybody who wants to know what these building blocks are and what to work on in your city.“
"I tend to look back at history and think ‘We have gone through this already!'"
I want to come to close with three personal questions: What makes you a woman? What makes you a European? And what makes you a Roman?
“What makes me a woman - To me that means making an extra effort to be nice. I don't mean that men are not nice, of course. But it appears to come more naturally to women to be welcoming, warm and listening. I find myself doing that a lot of and I perceive it as a good female quality.
European – There is a strong element of looking back to the history that comes with European heritage. Learning from things that have happened before. For example, the digital transformation that is happening globally and concerning many people. I tend to look back at history and think ‘We have gone through this already, for instance, the industrial revolution.’. I think we can do it because we have done it before. I always find myself going back to history.
Roman – Rome is a fascinating city. It is a place that you love and hate at the same time. This is how everyone feels here. It is a beautiful city. Things that have happened are in the air. You feel that it has lived a long life and could be kept alive but we need to take care of it. There are so many things that could be done better, for example, transport, and it literally enrages me. There is much entrepreneurial potential but unfortunately, there are big internal blocks in the system that hinder action and progress.”
Thank you for the interview, Diva.
Diva explaining her story for the Lean In EU Women Business Angels Community Success Stories Series.
Diva Tommei is the founder & CEO of Solenica, a sustainable technology startup working to transform indoor spaces into more sustainable and enjoyable habitats. She is also the inventor of their flagship product, Caia, a natural lighting robot. For this product, they have raised more than half a million USD till date [Dec 2017] on the crowd-sourcing platform Indiegogo. She has an MSc in Genomic Biotechnology from the University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’ and a PhD in Bioinformatics from the University of Cambridge. During her PhD she was accepted at Singularity University, a program sponsored by NASA and (amongst others) Google. Participants learn about cutting-edge, exponentially growing technologies (artificial intelligence & robotics, biotechnology, nanotechnology & digital fabrication, networks & computing systems and medicine & neuroscience) and apply them to solve world problems such as education, energy, environment, food, global health, poverty, security, space and water. From 2015-2016, she was the Curator of the Rome Hub of the Global Shapers Community, a network of young volunteers founded by the World Economic Forum with the mission to shape and improve local communities. Apart from this, she is a lecturer at the Rome Business School, mentor at Startup Weekend Rome and part of the Meridian Social Innovation Fellowship Program that brings together problem-solvers to identify solutions for social and economic challenges.