Crisis Migration: Italian Start-Ups Flock to Berlin

By Sophie Arts

Photo Gallery: Italian Ingenuity Descends on Berlin Photos
REUTERS

With the economy at home in the doldrums, entrepreneurs from Italy have been flocking to Berlin recently. The job opportunities are plentiful and there is a growing Italian community within Germany's vibrant high-tech start-up scene.

Young hipsters sipping bottles of Jever and Astra, IT entrepreneurs holding forth on their experiences in Silicon Valley and tables laden with boxes of pizza: The high-tech meet-up in May at one of Berlin's myriad IT campuses was, at first glance, nothing special.

And yet there was one significant difference: Aside from frequent uses of terms like "venture capital," "networking" and "assets," the most common language spoken was not English. Rather, everyone was speaking Italian.

It is a growing trend in the German capital. With the economy struggling across Southern Europe as a result of the euro crisis, increasing numbers of young Italians are moving to Berlin to start their own businesses or to work at one of the city's many established start-ups. From the perspective of Italian tech experts looking to start or further develop their careers, a move to Berlin is seen as a logical first step.

"If you apply for a job in a big company in Italy or at a start-up here in Berlin, the risk is almost the same in my opinion," says Alberto Granzotto, founder of the link-sharing platform Urlist. He says that even those with jobs at large firms in Italy live in constant fear of being laid off.

The Italian influx can most readily be seen through the prism of DigItaly Berlin, a community of Italians working in the high-tech industry in the German capital. Silvia Foglia, a 35-year-old who moved to Berlin three years ago, started DigItaly with a handful of friends just one year ago. Now, it has over 500 members and meets once a month for networking events across the city.

A Recent Boom

"Then there was an explosion," Foglia says. "Everybody added everybody." In recent months, around 20 people have requested to be added every week.

Berlin's start-up scene, of course, has long been a magnet for foreigners. Not only does the city provide cheap rents and a large pool of young IT experts, but German language expertise is not a prerequisite. According to the German Economy Ministry, five new start-ups are founded in the city every day and the high-tech scene is the fastest growing economic sector in the country. Many of those companies are founded by foreigners.

Their country's economy provides a further motivation for Italians. The unemployment rate in Italy reached a 36-year high in April 2013 with 12 percent of active job seekers unemployed, according to the European Union statistics database Eurostat. Young people are especially affected; the unemployment rate for Italians between 15 and 24 rose to 40.5 percent in April, the highest it has been since 1966.

They are currently doing what they can to leave. DigItaly member Francesco Baschieri is a cofounder of the music recording and sharing application Spreaker. After two years in Silicon Valley, the 37-year-old wanted to move his operations back to his native Italy where he first developed the idea for his application, but he found it impossible to recruit engineers willing to move there, because of a lack of alternative opportunities should the business model fail. Berlin, he says, was a different story.

Looking for Opportunities

"When we mentioned Berlin, all of these people were immediately interested, because they can develop their career here," Baschieri says. "If this doesn't work out, they can go and work for someone else."

That hasn't always been the case. DigItaly founder Foglia says that most of the job sites she scanned when she first arrived in Berlin were in German and that it was hard to find a way into the high-tech job market. "When I arrived here I didn't know anyone and didn't know a word of German," she says. "For me it actually was very difficult." She says she created DigItaly to spare other Italians coming to Berlin many of the troubles she encountered.

Now, Foglia regularly flies to a venture incubator near Venice, called H-farm, to tell young Italian entrepreneurs about Berlin's start-up scene. Every week she is approached by Italians who ask her about opportunities in Berlin.

Exactly how many Italian IT specialists and start-up entrepreneurs have moved to Berlin in recent years is not easy to pin down. But recent statistics show that the influx from Italy has been increasing as the economy there has deteriorated. According to Germany's government statistics authority Destatis, the number of immigrants coming to Germany rose by 40 percent last year against 2011.

'Very Creative and Very Vibrant'

The newcomers include people like DigItaly co-founder Alessandro Petrucciani, who teamed up with two friends he met during his studies in Barcelona to develop an app called Klash, which dares users to take part in humorous challenges and post the pictures online. The company recently received significant funding from a Berlin-based incubator.

Dario Alboretti is another active DigItaly member who has just launched a new project. He co-founded Views, an iPhone app that allows users to discover fashion in stores around them, with a heavy focus on local designers and boutiques. "In Europe, Berlin is definitely the place to be for start-ups," he says. "It's a very creative and very vibrant city and it's getting better all the time."

Italy itself has several smaller start-up hubs in Milan, Rome and near Venice. But unlike Germany, it has no epicenter and has trouble attracting entrepreneurs from abroad.

Guiseppe Colucci says that the government in Rome is partially to blame. Colucci is the Berlin branch manager of the Milan-based online platform Ploonge, a social network which promotes food-related events and meet-ups in big cities like Berlin. Colucci thinks that helping entrepreneurs would be extremely beneficial for the country's economy.

"But go to Italy and look at the age of the politicians and then you can imagine why it isn't happening," he says. "I mean, our president is 88 years old."

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