I’m sure a number of you must have realised I was in Catania recently: as a speaker at Techstars Startup Weekend, and as a mentor at Startup Weekend Catania. That happened quite unexpectedly, thanks to an invitation by one of our alumnis, Danilo Mirabile, CEO Beentouch. Well, the outcome was pretty mind-blowing.

For starters I never imagined I’d gain so many insights about a place you’d not normally associate with a vibrant startup community. Yep, that’s exactly it. Sicily, an island of 5 million and a GDP nearly eight times that of Malta, is not just about quick shopping sprees or gourmandising. There’s a community of young talented techies and entrepreneurs vying to make Italy a better place, flying in the face of an inward looking and bureaucratic public sector that doesn’t seem to care much about paving the way for startups.

Techstars Startup Weekend was a five-day marathon of talks, discussions and workshops about various topics. Among them, the ENISIE Interreg project for the creation of innovative businesses in Malta and Sicily, digital marketing, FinTech, Blockchain and IOT in construction and building, and plenty of other cool stuff. What I liked about the event was its flow. Talks just happened. Speakers came and went, breezed through their talk, engaged in a debate and got delegates excited. All very bottom-up.

I got plugged in on a Thursday with a talk about what Malta is doing on Blockchain, what kind of environment Sicilian startups are likely to find, what should draw them there, the support available. And of course I spoke about our Blockchain themed YouStartIT programme. The vibe was immense: awed to find speakers who knew everything about Malta as they had a project underway there already, and others who were just curious to know more. So many new contacts!

Most of the talks were at TIM WCAP accelerator. Of course that’s where I could compare and contrast. TIM has four accelerators in Catania, Bologna, Rome and Milan, receiving on average 1,000 applications, nearly all from Italy. From these they select around 40 of the best early stage startups which get distributed over the four cities. Startups get a grant of €40,000 each, follow a three-month accelerator programme and then get incubated for another nine months. They seem to be doing a great job. TIM WCAP also organises an annual call for partners for growth stage startups to take their tech entrepreneurial project further.

Startup Weekend kicked off on Friday afternoon with such a bang. Some numbers: 37 people between organisers, volunteers, mentors and speakers; around 70 paying participants, all very engaged, and delicious food in such abundance that it could have fed twice that number. And 19 ideas, 10 of which got voted in self-organising into multi-disciplinary teams, three-quarters of whom consisted of university students from different faculties – a stark contrast with Malta where less than five per cent of startup weekenders are students. I counted over 20 sponsors including the weirdest sponsors you could imagine for a Startup Event, a rent-a-car company that offered three cars to help with the logistics, free food and serving staff (rather than a cash sponsorship), discounted hotel accommodation for the speakers, and a well-known estate agent.

I found the organisation of Startup Weekend impressively efficient. Everything just flowed. I’ll just mention the stalwarts among the organisers, such as Danilo and his team, and Jacopo Genuardi, who has his own startup. I liked the way how teams working on their business idea were also given a toolbox of techniques and methodologies to work with, all brilliantly moderated by the smoothest and coolest of Startup Weekend facilitators, Francesco Passantino. Lean Canvas was used rather than Business Model Canvas. I loved Massimo Ciaglia’s presentation of a new type of canvas and book called The Startup Canvas which addresses the issue of untested assumptions.

I really don’t have much to pick on other than perhaps an overly big team of mentors on the prowl, a small number of whom tended to be a wee bit too dogmatic. I would rather guide the startups and let them reach their own conclusions, than tell them what to do.

Overall it was a fiery four days. To sum up, I loved the warmth, passion and give-first community mindset. There’s plenty of tech talent and creativity, convening Sicilian tech entrepreneurs that made it from various parts of Italy. And my thought-provoking message at the event was: if Italy’s startup ecosystem is so north-centric, with Milan as its capital and the south largely neglected and sinking in bureaucracy, can Malta with its igaming momentum and Blockchain revolution act as a hub for this talent to internationalise? We need to re-discover Sicily, and look at it though a different lens: there are synergies to be built across the channel for the benefit of both islands.