We talked to Luca Mastrostefano about how Covid Community Alert is a World-level Open-Source Anonymous Protocol and this is what he had to say.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Luca Mastrostefano: Although we have had better days, my family is well overall, so we are among the lucky ones; thanks for asking.
Living in London while my family lives in Italy has made it even more challenging to reunite together.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Covid Community Alert?
Luca Mastrostefano: A few years ago, I moved to London to join InReach Ventures, one of the first Machine Learning based venture capital, to lead the evolution of artificial intelligence algorithms.
Working every day to spot exponential trends in startups, I recognized the virus’s exponential growth immediately in January. I wanted to do everything I could to help my family and not have any regrets looking back in the years to come. Thus in February, together with two other people, we launched the first open-source privacy-preserving contact-tracing protocol. The company immediately took off, scaling to 35 people in the first month of activity. It eventually evolved to the point that we joined forces with the public company Be Group in May: we are now proudly helping corporate companies overcome the coronavirus’s challenges.
How does Covid Community Alert innovate?
Luca Mastrostefano: Having worked together with the University of Southern California and researchers from MIT, we created a high-precision algorithm to improve the Bluetooth-based contact tracing performance.
Having been shortlisted by the Italian Government as one of the two finalists, initially, we were working in a governance context, providing privacy-preserving contact tracing solutions, where numbers don’t allow the creation of a user-centered platform. Instead, working now with corporations and focusing on social distancing, we can create processes where the user is at the core of the platform, increasing the adoption and the overall impact by order of magnitude.
Our focus on social distancing solutions is allowing companies to prevent the exponential spread of the virus while at the same time educating and helping their employees to maintain healthy habits before even leveraging the contact tracing.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Luca Mastrostefano: The pandemic was the trigger that sparked the innovation in our company. We organized ourselves to face the challenges it set, but we created a framework to learn and create solutions starting from this uncomfortable situation. Thanks to a hiring process that focused on values and motivation, we created a team that helps the company overcome all the difficulties of this period. We all work remotely, and we intend to keep this structure to understand first-hand the challenges that other companies are facing.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Luca Mastrostefano: Leaving the venture capital was not easy, as it was an intersection of all my passions, but values come first for me: I had to leave to found a volunteer-based open-source company.
We faced many difficult decisions during the protocol development, such as the trade-off between speeding up the business versus maintaining a high privacy level. All in all, the best decision is the one based on your values. Most of the people are looking forward to joining someone who made the first step. I learned that being brave and following your values will likely pay off.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Luca Mastrostefano: I have to admit that I went through tough times: as the doctors were risking their lives to save ours, I felt the pressure to do my best to help society. I was sleeping 4 hours a night and lost several kilos in weight while building and scaling the team during the first months. I purposely chose to view situations like this as a challenge and an opportunity to grow, rather than focusing on the negative aspects. I genuinely believe this perspective shift helps with stress and improves resilience while maintaining yourself creative and motivated.
Sometimes this is not sufficient or feasible, and in those moments, it’s essential to surround yourself with people that can help and support you, and I have to thank my partner and COO Gerta Salillari for everything she did for me. Anxiety could emerge when you face a situation in which you don’t have the resources for. But making mistakes is ok; it is an inevitable part of the growing process. It is crucial to learn from past mistakes; you won’t repeat them in the future, and you will only focus on new ones.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Luca Mastrostefano: For the time being, we don’t have much competition: this is a concise time window, and the technical difficulties of a solution like ours are many. The main challenge we are facing is distribution because of Apple-Google’s monopoly position in the marketplace.
Our main goal is to expand even more the client base while helping businesses fight back against Covid. Thanks to our sufficiently large client base, we will identify the next big problem we will focus on. We are getting ready to launch our next product.
Your final thoughts?
Luca Mastrostefano: In today’s society, it is easier to impact startups rather than politics. The reward given by the industry is exceeding the improbable reward given by an essential carrier in politics. This situation discourages most of the smart and brave people from political careers.
Anyway, this period taught us that only when politics and the business industry work together at the same speed, we could achieve what was meant to be impossible (quick vaccination, remote working at scale, remote classes, contact tracing, etc.). We need to find a way to make politics attractive to have smart and brave people where society needs them the most.
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