“With very little, you can change a lot”: An Interview with Martina Francesca Ferracane, STG Policy Leaders Fellow

Written by Kathryn Carlson on . Posted in Current profiles, Features, Profiles

Martina Francesca Ferracane is a Policy Leaders Fellow at the School of Transnational Governance, and the founder of Oral3D and FabLab Western Sicily. She met with Kathryn Carlson to discuss her work at EUI and elsewhere. 

 

Although we’re meeting in a café, Martina Francesca Ferracane brings her own cup of tea.

The 28-year-old Sicilian native, recently named on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for European science and health innovation and currently at EUI as an STG Policy Leaders Fellow, gives off an energy it would be economical to call restless.

It’s a typically grey autumn morning when we meet, and I’m perhaps overly invested in my coffee. Ferracane, on the other hand, is practically bouncing off the walls, leaving her mug untouched as she speaks in breathless, meandering sentences.

“I work basically all the time, even weekends, always”, she tells me. This abundance of energy has led Ferracane to a career on three different continents spanning tech, economics, business and law.

Suffice to say, she has a lot on. Between an NGO in Sicily of which she is the founder and president, running her startup as CEO, and an associateship at a think tank in Brussels writing on digital trade, data protection and cybersecurity, it’s a surprise that she even has time to meet me. Not to mention the small task of completing her Hamburg University Ph.D. in the next few months as a Policy Leaders Fellow at EUI.

Martina Ferracane

It is her startup, Oral3D, which gained Ferracane and co-founder Giuseppe Cicero a spot on the 30 Under 30 list. The company, which supplies dentists with the equipment and software to create 3D models of dental scans, was initially borne out of her interest in policy. “My idea has always been that if I want to do digital policy, I have to know what I’m talking about”, she tells me.

“With the startup, I thought I could gain experience of being a digital entrepreneur, so then I could be a better policy advisor on how to promote digital entrepreneurship. But it got a little out of hand and became a real startup. Now I feel I could contribute to the right policies on digital entrepreneurship, because I know myself what a digital entrepreneur would need in Europe.”

For now, the next step will be a full-time move to Milan to launch Oral3D’s headquarters- a hard move, she says, for a Sicilian. “At first I was thinking Barcelona, Silicon Valley, but then I thought that I want to stay in Italy. We need more people in Italy that want to change things from here.”

Although the recent press attention and acclaim largely centres on Oral3D, it seems to be her NGO, FabLab Western Sicily, of which Ferracane is most proud. An important aspect is its role in encouraging others to make change in Italy: “We have a lot of smart Italians all over the world that want to give back, but they don’t know how to do it. So I think that my role in all of this was to show it’s possible, even if you live abroad, to start something and promote positive change. And now many other people are doing the same with their contribution to FabLab in Sicily”.

FabLab Western Sicily – short for fabrication laboratory – teaches children tech skills like coding, 3D printing, electronics and laser cutting: “What we try to do is teach not how to 3D print, but how to use a 3D printer to make something. So this way we can switch the mind set of kids from being passive users of technology into creators through technology”, she says.

It was while working as a researcher at ECIPE, a think tank in Brussels, that Ferracane discovered 3D printing for the first time. “I watched a video of 3D printing of human organs four years ago, and I thought it was really revolutionary”, she tells me. She then started going to a FabLab in Brussels to see 3D printing first hand, before deciding to make a bigger commitment to studying it.

FabLab Western Sicily members

After finding a FabLab where she could volunteer and learn the basics – which just happened to be in Brazil – she took a break from her job in Brussels and moved there. She also volunteered in a school, which was where the idea for FabLab Western Sicily first started: “At the beginning, I cut with Sicily and didn’t go back even for Christmas. But when I was there I thought, okay, I’m doing this in Brazil, why don’t I do it in Sicily where there is so much need?”

Despite her best intentions, she admits that it was hard to get started on the ground: “In Sicily, everything is complicated! When someone does social work or has a charitable group it’s more seen as a bridge to get something else in return or to go into politics. It was really hard, the first year. I received many doors shut and many insults, just because I wanted to change something. It took two years to make people realise that we were there because we really care.”

Now, FabLab Western Sicily is staffed by about 20 volunteers, and trains a hundred high school students, who in turn train some 750 children on the island. “Today, we only receive support. It just took time,” Ferracane says with a smile.

EUI, then, represents something of a break in her calendar: a few (comparatively) quiet months to finish her Ph.D. “I always decided to just quit and move to another country when I have the opportunity to discover new places”, she tells me. “I’d been abroad for nine years before coming back to Italy, and EUI has been the best way possible to come back to my home country.”

Her Ph.D. is “an experiment to analyse data protection and other restrictions on data movement under trade law from a computer science perspective.” By her own admission, it’s complicated. But is it a bridge to a future career in policy? Essentially, yes: “I would like to work in supporting countries to digitalise in a way that is smart and democratic. Digitalisation has the potential to empower people, but it depends a lot on how the policies around it are made. Without the right policies, digitalisation can create a lot of inequalities.”

As for the energy required by such a multi-disciplinary career, Ferracane clearly has it in abundance. She cites optimism as the source of her motivation: “I always look at things from the bright side. I enjoy my work – I have very little life beyond my work, but I see work also as an occasion to spend time with friends. When I do a Skype call in the night with my FabLab colleagues, for me it’s like having a drink with my friends.”

Towards the end of our discussion, she pauses for a moment to reflect. There’s a momentary gap in the wall of positivity. “I also have my down moments”, she concedes. “It’s not like I always want to change the world.”

But overall, she is thrilled with how far she has come since leaving Sicily almost a decade ago: “I grew up sailing, not really seeing anything but the sea for 18 years.  So now whenever I have the chance to do something outside, and discover, it’s a great source of optimism. Everything is a victory – I wasn’t supposed to get where I got.”

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