Valeria Cagnina, together with Francesco Baldassarre, is Co-Founder and Mentor of OFpassiON, an educational robotics company that offers 360-degree training according to an innovative method aimed at all ages. In this interview he tells us his story.
Valeria Cagnina: I had never heard of her until I came across a post on social in which someone had asked, "Right now, who do you think are the people in Italy who are making a difference and who no one knows about yet, because they haven't come out in a big way in the press, on social or other media?"
Someone had quoted her, claiming how, although very young, she was an expert in robotics and aimed to teach it to children, youth, teachers, entrepreneurs and anyone who wanted to learn more through different methodologies, using new technologies and, indeed, robotics.
Among the interesting things, it was said that the high school she attended had put her in the position of dropping out of school and appearing as a private student for her high school graduation exams in 2019; in fact, despite her excellent grades, her numerous absences due to work - as well as those related to her experiences abroad, such as one at M.I.T, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Boston - were not tolerated.
A character absolutely to be discovered, then: a super young Italian, a great mind, a great enthusiast who achieves, has achieved and will surely achieve an avalanche of results, and whom I have interviewed for all of you here on Valerio.it.
The interview with Valeria Cagnina
Valerio: Good morning everyone, I am Valerio Fioretti from Valerio.it and today I have the pleasure of having with us a very young entrepreneur, Valeria Cagnina. Hi Valeria.
Valeria: Hello everyone.
Valerio: Okay. So, Valeria, tell us a little bit about yourself. Other than you have a beautiful name, tell us a little bit about yourself, a little bit of your story, what you're doing and why you're doing it.
Valeria: I have been passionate about robotics since I was a child. After seeing a digital plant at the CoderDojo in Milan, I became passionate about robotics at age 11 by building my first robot. It was a simple plant that interacted with its surroundings through Arduino (a small electronic board), and could be happier or sadder based on whether someone was with it or it was alone. I liked it a lot, so I decided that I also wanted to experiment something with this board and build my first robot. Following videos on YouTube, when I was 11 years old, I built my first robot.
Valeria: Then the world opened up to me from there, because building a robot seemed like a simple thing and I thought other kids my age had done it too, but I soon found out that in the adult world it was not so common, at 11 years old. I was invited to various events and conferences around Italy, which led me to speak at a TEDx at 14. Of course, I didn't want to stop, because after a while it was limiting to just build robots with Arduino. I wanted to try experimenting with more complex things. One day, going around online, I came across the Boston Dynamics, M.I.T. videos, the ones of humanoid robots doing parkour, jumping, somersaulting, walking on snow, which also went viral. I loved it, it fascinated me so much, and so I also wanted to get to M.I.T. in Boston to see how they did these robots, how they made them jump, move. So I started stalking a little bit, sending e-mails to all the departments at M.I.T., to all the different labs, to all the e-mails I could find online, asking, "Can I come and do something with you?" After a few months, one department responded to me, the department at Duckietown. After testing me a bit (they sent me a kit of a robot that was very complex for me, requiring university basics, while I was just starting high school), they invited me to spend the whole summer in Boston...
Valeria: ... in their Duckietown project to build this robot. The robot was basically an autonomous little car that would drive itself around a city avoiding other pedestrians, other vehicles, stopping at intersections, reading street signs and traffic lights. By doing this, I was to be the senior tester, then simplify the university tutorials to make them feasible for high school kids. This is now an open source project, anyone anywhere in the world can follow along and build their own Tesla-like autonomous little car, Wall Car, that drives around by itself.
Valerio: Beautiful. How old were you when you did this in Boston (if it was in Boston)?
Valeria: I was little, I was 15 years old.
Valerio: Wow, congratulations. Listen, how did you do with English?
Valeria: With English, at first, especially dealing with teenagers, it was very difficult. After a while though, by dint of practicing it, using it, speaking it every day for three months, you become confident, you learn to use it. I still kept talking to different people, talking to people who came from different parts of the world, so very different accents, and so I was experimenting with many different ways of speaking English. Also going around the different workshops at M.I.T. I met so many people, I asked so many people how they had gotten there, what had been their dream to get there, what projects they were working on. There at M.I.T., in the Media Lab part, I discovered that school doesn't have to be boring as we think of it in Italy, but it can also be fun, playful, you don't have to be bored on a school desk. The same things can be learned, if not better, by having fun, by playing with a lot of creativity, imagination. I decided to make this thing I saw at M.I.T. my own a little bit, and as soon as I came back to Italy I started, at first, doing simple lessons with children who came to me, a few more lessons on Skype. It then grew exponentially, and now I have a team of about ten teachers. Above all, what was a simple school has become a real educational robotics company, and together with my partner Francesco Baldassarre we go all over Italy, Europe and the world to do robotics activities, starting with little three-year-old kindergarten toddlers, and then on to older kids, teenagers, but also adults. For example, we have done M.I.U.R. certified courses with teachers, or we also get to do corporate raising building with big companies like it can be Cisco, Michelin, Allianz, IBM, using robotics as a tool to pass on both hard skills but especially soft skills that they can somehow re-deploy in everyday life.
Valerio: Ah, beautiful. What you do is kind of like LEGO serious play? I mean, the use...
Valeria: It is a little different.
Valerio: ... a little bit different, okay. Look, when was this company born? It was born some time after you were in Boston, I guess.
Valeria: Yes, I started when I was 16, since I could start working I started with this company. For now, since it's still small because in Italy you can't open a VAT number until you're 18, I put a VAT number from my mom, who does something else, but she opened the codes by mail for Francesco and me. Now that I am of age, we will soon finish all the bureaucracy and open our own company.
Valerio: Listen, your parents, your family, how did they take this unbridled passion of yours for robotics and technology? Did they support you right from the start or did you have to convince them somehow?
Valeria: My parents never understood and don't understand anything about it in the computer and technology world....
Valeria: ... because they do a whole other thing, they do industrial refrigeration systems. But what they did was to always support me, even though at first they saw this passion of mine as a little strange, too far from what they did. Even when I broke down that I wanted to go to Milan to the CoderDojo, or that I wanted to go to a given training event, or to see something else, or that I wanted to contact someone, they always supported me, let me do it. They helped me more in the beginning, of course, when I started, but now our company, mine and Francesco's, has become sustainable without any problems.
Valerio: Wow, congratulations. Look, one thing, in all of this, what role did school play? In the sense that you definitely had a good foundation, good teachers, to get you passionate about math, physics, English I assume. Otherwise you might have had a little bit more difficulty, compared to people who maybe don't appreciate their teacher or don't study enough or find themselves maybe in a class at a level that can't keep up with their passions. But then you decided to put yourself to work at 15-16 years old, though, and how did you go about your studies?
Valeria: I have never exactly had a good relationship with school. I always went to public school, however, the traditional Italian school is not very ready to have someone who has a passion, who wants to do something different outside of school, and not just do school and at most sports like most kids do. It always tries to flatten those who have a passion, those who have a different vision. I even though with different problems, even though it broke me a lot about school, I attended it normally until the fourth grade, until last year. Then, after that, however, it became impossible for these two worlds so far apart to meet, even though I was able without any problems to study, to get good grades, even the average of 8 and 9. The school wanted the model classical student who does not do without. I, on the other hand, managed, even by taking absences, to combine the two worlds, but the school was not okay with that, and in the end the principal told me that I could not do that, that otherwise she would not admit me to the baccalaureate, so I will give the baccalaureate as a private student at the end of this school year.
Valerio: Ah, so in a few months you're going to take your baccalaureate?
Valerio: Okay. Are the subjects that came out okay, do you like them?
Valeria: Yes, more or less.
Valerio: What institution do you, what school do you go to? ... I lost you for a moment.
Valerio: Sorry, I lost you for a moment, can you repeat?
Valeria: computer technical institute. Yes, computer science.
Valerio: Computer technical institute, okay. Listen, so there was friction between you and the school, and you made the choice, of course, to pursue your dream and to pursue your business idea. But I assume there's something more behind it, though, in the sense -- the people I usually interview in this column all have a message to give to the world, they have a mission beyond the entrepreneurial project of making the dough. It's about making a difference to what's around us and making their own contribution to society. What is your idea? What is your philosophy?
Valeria: Yes, our idea with our school is to revolutionize the way people learn a little bit around the world. To do this we are already starting to do it with all the different activities and courses, but in the future we want to do it more and more by following the 10 rules of our school. They are very particular rules of which the first one is that nothing is impossible. If you believe that nothing is impossible and never say "I can't do it," you can always start out in a positive way, never giving up and achieving any goal by pursuing your passions, always learning while having fun with the learn by doing, without theoretical and boring lectures. We also try to convey how important it is to know English and the importance of English in Italy and beyond. We also try to teach conscious use of social media, the Internet, so that children and young people can venture into the digital world without the fear imposed on them at school that the Internet is the bogeyman and cannot be used.
Valerio: Okay, great. I'm going to take the opportunity right now to ask you this question: how do you see the use of social in particular, of the Internet in general, among younger people, from pre-teen to teen agers (of which you are a part)? All the time in the media there's talk about who, people who are plugged in, people who are conditioned by social, crap made all over the net. I am of the opinion that anyway one cavorts, regardless of social. What's your point of view, what's good about it, and how young people like you can use this technology to stay connected, progress, learn, what do you think?
Valeria: I think technology is definitely a good tool, and also the whole digital online part should not be demonized as most people do. Very often it is demonized by people who don't know it or don't want to know it. The opportunities that can be found online are so many, in my opinion what the Italian school should do (which is then what we also try to do to make up for precisely what the Italian school does not do), is to teach that on YouTube, on social, you can't just use Fortnite or other such games, but you can open up a world. On YouTube you can follow so many tutorials to get passionate about any field not just technology; I, for example, for my eighth grade term paper used social. You can contact very important people; I, for example, contacted astronaut Luca Parmitano while he was in space. So social is a tool that you have to learn how to use from an early age to make it a tool that then can be useful to us in the future. For example, we do most of our work now because of social and the whole online part.
Valerio: How do you use them? What kind of use do you make of social, do you post tutorials, do you post videos, do you just use it for promotional purposes, what strategy do you adopt, more or less?
Valeria: We tell a little bit about what we do around in the various activities, in the various events, we have a website where we put all our events, our activities, we have the YouTube channel where we tell our school philosophy, where we show how we work. We try to put everything together, all the different activities to give as broad an overview as possible to the people who watch us.
Projects and inspirations
Valerio: Okay. Now what are your plans from here on out, maybe as soon as you finish high school? A world is going to open up for you, I think you're going to take a big weight off your shoulders with the end of high school. What will happen to you and your partner and your business, what are the prospects and plans you have in the pipeline, if you can tell us anything?
Valeria: Yes, one thing we would like to do in the short term, even before I graduate from high school, is to launch a network of people who embrace the philosophy of our school and want to replicate a school like ours in other parts of Italy and Europe, so that as many children and young people as possible have the opportunity to learn in a different way. Instead, in the longer term, we would like to make our school a school that is attended not only as an extracurricular activity, but that can also be attended as a substitute for regular school, to learn in a different way. We would also like to develop, directly we, a research and development part to develop the robotic and programming equipment we use, to make it more perfect and perform on our needs.
Valerio: Ah, great. Look, are you inspired by anyone, is there anyone you admire in particular, a character from the present or the past? For example, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs Or someone maybe less famous or less well-known. Or, do you have any favorite books that have inspired you to pursue this message of yours?
Valeria: Exactly one person in particular no, however I like to be inspired by great people like it can be Luca Parmitano, or even Bebe Vio. I also especially like to take inspiration from the people I meet every day, such as it can be those I met at M.I.T. who were from different parts of the world, those I meet at events, or simply even from my friends who can inspire me in some way other than the ordinary.
Valerio: Okay, and your business now how much of your day does it take up, on average?
Valeria: I don't know, there is no specific time, I enjoy what I do and I always do it when I can. I always feel like experimenting with new things, designing new robots, testing new instrumentation.
Valerio: What is the most difficult project you have created, the most complex robot you have built?
Valeria: There is not, for me in the beginning it was very complex my first robot that I built, although now I look at it and it's a very simple thing that I make even the youngest children do.
Valerio: I ask the question in another way, what is the most advanced one you have created, in functionality?
Valeria: I would say that the one I did at M.I.T. Boston was definitely the most complex, because in addition to having a good one hardware assembly, it also has a very complex software part, which relies online on software on the computer.
Valerio: Okay, so that's the most complicated one. Look, once you graduate from high school what are you going to do, are you going to enroll in college or are you going to devote yourself full time to the business?
Valeria: I already last year passed the admission tests for the Milan Polytechnic in computer engineering, so I am going to do computer engineering, however at the same time also the company.
Valerio: Ah okay, so you continue your studies and carry on the enterprise. Okay, this is your website....
...ValeriaCagnina.tech, we find everything here, everything we need if we want to contact you, if someone wants to get more information about you and your business?
Valeria: Yes, of course, you can find everything directly there, on social, or if you want to get an idea of what we do you can go to the blog.
Valerio: Okay. Well, Valeria, thank you, thank you so much for being with us. It was a great interview, we found out that there are some fantastic "little" geniuses here in Italy (I say "little" because I am much older than you). Congratulations on your achievements, thank you again and good luck with your maturity and all that follows.
Valeria: Thanks to you, bye!