A story of success, in Italy’s San Diego
A story of success, in Italy’s San Diego

A story of success, in Italy’s San Diego

Specialized in agricultural science, Gabriella Colucci is today the CEO and founder of Arterra, selling active ingredients to Chanel, La Prairie, Eisenberg, Estée Lauder and many more. 

Gabriella Colucci had a tortuous trajectory ahead of her to get to where she is now. Ever since she was young, she knew she wanted to be a scientist. Yet, her whole childhood she had invested a remarkable amount of time and effort into sports. In fact, she was training in fencing – which she wanted to go to the Olympics for – horseback riding, and swimming. Around the time she had to make a decision, her father, who nudged her to do more beyond sports,  passed away. This was a difficult time where her own will and her compliance to her late father swirled together and clouded her thoughts. As she was figuring things out, she decided to embark on a backpacking journey to Nepal, India, Sri Lanka… 

Upon her return, she sold all her medals and bought a horse. She then got engaged to a “very weird guy”, with whom she moved to the countryside. At one point, they owned twenty-three horses, and a restaurant, despite not knowing how to cook. 

When she finished her studies, after eleven years, having traveled around and lived life to the fullest, she got a fellowship at twenty-three years old and started her academic career. 

“When you’re a kid you want to be a princess and go to the Olympics and see the world… I had tons of dreams! But there is only one of them which I pursued in a convinced way. Whatever you do, do it at your maximum.”

The young entrepreneur had her little group in the lab, one Italian postdoc and two young American technicians, who followed her. The deal was for them to join her for two years and then go back to finish their studies. She had a contact with an American company that she was working with when she was a student. She was the expert for a particular project and they wanted her to continue working, which she couldn’t do while working for another biotech company. So they pushed her to start her own company to give her a research contract. 

Thus, starting with her group and her research contract. That was the starting point. 

She came back to Naples and found an incubator lab, planned the budget and concluded they could make enough to keep the four of them afloat. She then started writing grant proposals. But she still needed to find money to cofinance projects. She got in touch with a big agrochemical company, ISAGRO, listed in the stock market. They decided to invest around 24% of Arterra, at the time worth 1 million euro; meaning they put 200 000 euros into the company. This same company gave them another research project for around 200 000 euros, and so on and so forth. 

Later she met another industrial partner, that “God sent from Heaven”, right when ISAGRO decided to stop financing biotech. Before knowing they would get another investor so soon, she sat her employees down and advised them not to make any big life decisions just yet. The heaven-sent company is INTERCOS, a huge actor in the makeup business. She had no clue what cosmetics were about since she had dedicated her time to sports (and had a British mother). She started studying it a little and one of her employees also volunteered to do a few experiments in the field of cosmetics to have a better grasp on the topic at hand. 

With Intercos they incorporated a Joint Venture, named Vitalab SRL in which INTERCOS has the 60%. They sell everything that Arterra invents and produces, in terms of cosmetic active ingredients, to brands like Chanel, Dior and even Kiko. In 2006, INTERCOS bought CRB, the producer for the most prestigious brands in Switzerland. They implemented a production plant in China, dedicated to skincare, later in Korea, etc. 

“The problem is that one easily feels that they are not adequate, that they have too little. And it’s never the truth. The first time I met with the INTERCOS group it was very embarrassing, I knew nothing about cosmetics. ‘What am I saying?’ I thought. ”

Despite that feeling, she talked about her research in front of a committee composed of high ranking people from multiple cosmetics groups, not knowing what to wear or how to move, and got a standing ovation for the presentation. 

“What I was trying to communicate to them wasn’t as lacking as I made it out to be in my mind. “

The vast reach of Arterra’s research

In her latest paper, Piezo mechanotransducer channels on the skin were studied, in relation to the production of collagen. Though this seems limited to skin care at first sight, Piezo channels are found in multiple other tissues and have an essential role in the healthy heart’s function. 

“Absolutely. Skin care was to make money, and with that money we invest in research. The team of Arterra is composed of about forty people, of which twenty are PhDs with experience in different labs and disciplines. You need to have knowledge from different fields in order to be a more lateral thinker. Very little innovation comes from being unidirectional. Also, all these PhDs would go crazy from boredom if all they worked for was cosmetics.“

She found out that what worked for the skin, if she had the right models and the right way to assay, could work on the intestines, the cardiovascular system, and even plants! This drove them to create several more platforms for all these different applications. Their research is only restricted by the budget.

“It requires a non-competitive environment. Competitive with the rest of the world, but not within the company. ”

She started hiring synthetic biologists and working with Lactobacillus, for example, a ‘friendly’ Gram-positive bacterium that is part of our microbiome, residing in our intestinal tract, vagina, mouth, etc. It has been used as a probiotic before, in the shape of a dietary supplement. And fermentation being very much trendy, they satisfy their money need, which gives them the opportunity to produce precursors for pharmaceutical products, for the agrifood industry, and more or less anything. 

Prior industry experience 

She had experience for four years in Pharma, in San Diego, California. She started working in academia as a postdoc between Italy and the US. She joined the company before the IPO. Soon after, the company grew bigger. At the time, they wanted to try to apply their research and findings to agriculture. After that, she went back to Italy to do her spin-off. (talk about prof interview). 

“I set up my own company and cultivated this young industry”

Gabriella Colucci brought the Italian culture to the American labs, where she found a mostly Southern crowd; Italian, Brazilian, Spanish, etc. But later, upon her return to Italy, she carried back the awareness of one’s own capabilities. She noticed most young people coming out of their studies have very low self esteem.

“While in American schools, students in their first year of Bachelor’s are so full of themselves”

It was also a particular period, in which biotech was taking off, in San Diego no less, where some of the best laboratories were, making the arrogance almost natural; obvious even. The company she worked at was making so much money, the head wanted to convert the company into a bank. 

Work culture  

Gabriella Colucci wanted everyone at her company to learn to expose themselves, thus the regular breakfasts where each of them, young and experienced, gives a seminar to the rest of the group. They gradually got used to it, and even started to enjoy it.

She also made sure there was an internal newsletter, in which they communicate what has been done. It encourages discussion and collaboration between scientists and offers them a sense of purpose upon learning what their findings are being used for. 

In June 2018, she won the European Woman Innovator of the Year award in recognition of the 35 chemicals she had identified with her company that have potential applications in cosmetics or agrochemicals.

The decision to join industry 

“It’s a long story. I’m not going to give you an embellished answer, I will tell you just how it was.”

When she was younger, she never liked studying and never got outstanding grades in school. Her university studies in agricultural science lasted eleven years. Furthermore, being a scientist in Italy, especially then, meant having a low salary. 

Nevertheless, her conviction about being a scientist did not waver. 

Since she graduated with an applied science degree – as opposed to fundamental science – she leaned towards the biotech industry. 

“Everything comes at the right time and nothing is to be forced. There is not an age which limits you in your decisions. The only real deadline a woman has is imposed by her biological state. It’s a limit that cannot be overcome too much by the human body and science.”

Side quest

Host : You mentioned you particularly liked the Memoirs of Hadrian.

Gabriella Colucci : Yes, I actually read that book around your age. When I was younger, my father would make me read at least three books during my break, one of which had to be a classic. And the memoirs were one of these mandatory books which I’ve really appreciated.

Host : It’s really well written indeed.

Gabriella Colucci : I might read it again!

by Flaminia Mignini, March 2024

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