Stuck in the middle of an interminable recession, with the third consecutive year of shrinking GDP and rising unemployment (the latest official figures were at 13 percent overall and 44 percent among the country's young people), Italy is looking at new ways to revitalize its struggling economy.
Last June, the Italian government launched its Startup Visa program, a special permit reserved for entrepreneurs coming from outside the eurozone with innovative business ideas. In December, it extended the program to foreign students who have received a degree in Italy and want to stay in the country to start a business.
There are other similar initiatives in place: the UK has the Exceptional Talent scheme; and the Irish government launched the Startup Entrepreneur Programme (PDF) in 2012. But, although the Italian startup scene overall still lags behind that of Germany, France, and the UK, Italy's visa program is arguably one of the best around.
The strengths of Startup Visa program include its relatively quick turnaround time (it should take more or less one month to get a decision on an application) and the reasonable financial requirements for applicants (they need to demonstrate they have access to at least €50,000 startup funding - compared to €75,000 in Ireland).
Contrary to Italy's reputation, the bureaucracy associated with the program is minimal: applicants have to make sure their proposal is innovative - meaning that their company will be engaged solely or primarily in technological innovation - and that it falls within other parameters that mean it qualifies as a 'startup', like being incorporated as a limited company or a cooperative under Italian law, and not being listed on a regulated market.
This relative ease of the process helps to explain why entrepreneurs from China, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and other non-EU countries have begun applying for Startup Visas.
Russian entrepreneur Denis Bulichenko is one of the first to have obtained one."I started my first business in Russia, in 2008, when I got a huge contract for a video portal development. In 2014 the business was still doing well, but a major national crisis had hit Russia, so I decided to move forward and start up a business in Europe," he told ZDNet.
After researching the various possibilities, he settled on Italy.
"First of all, the application process was relatively simple and well-defined. It was quite simple for me to get a good understanding of the steps I needed to take," he said. "What's more, thinking about starting a business in the EU, I wanted to be closer to the center of the EU, and the northern part of Italy. Thanks to the seamless borders with France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Greece, [Italy] is probably one of the best places to be. Finally, I wanted to launch a travel startup, a place where people could share their travel experiences and travel journals, and Italy, when it comes to tourism, is among the world's top five [tourist locations]," Bulichenko says.
Another entrepreneur, Israel-born Sharon Ezra, launched her company in Italy after being seduced by a well-known Italian talent: fashion.
"I came to Italy three years ago, having won a scholarship from Istituto Marangoni in Milan, a well-know school of fashion and design, and I started a master's [a postgraduate degree] in fashion production," she told ZDNet. "Then I undertook a work placement in Soncino, near Cremona, and falling in love with the Made in Italy ethos, I decided to remain here."
The chance to settle in Italy came when, together with her business partner Eugenio, Ezra launched Quattrocento Eyewear, an innovative startup specializing in high-quality glasses made by small, Italian independent manufacturers.
The company sells glasses online for a fixed price of €105, with its website offering innovative features including a way to virtually try on the glasses (still in the process of being implemented) before placing the order, and the 'prova a casa' program, by which customers have four days to try the eyewear at home before deciding whether to buy or not.
"I applied [for a Startup Visa] in August and received an answer in early October," she says. "The visa lasts for one year, but I can renew it if the project will last longer than that.
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