The Italian Job, Part One: Startup Designer H-Farm Comes to Seattle

Sometimes you just have to write the story even when you don’t know all the details yet. This is one of those times. This is the story of H-Farm, an Italian design and investment firm, coming to America.

But it’s only Part One of the story—a preview, really. That’s because it won’t be until next month that I sit down with Riccardo Donadon, the founder of H-Farm, when he visits Seattle. In the meantime, my Italian isn’t what it used to be, so I can’t just call up the company and start asking questions (OK, I never could). So in case I missed something, please do comment or let me know.

The story begins in 2005, when Donadon founded H-Farm as the first private Italian incubator of startups. Before that, he was an Internet entrepreneur, having created the online shopping site Mall Italy Lab (sold to Infostrada in 1999) and E-Tree (sold to Etnoteam Group in 2001). He started H-Farm in the scenic countryside of Cà Tron, near Venice and his hometown of Treviso. The company’s second principal, Maurizio Rossi, joined as an investor. Rossi came from the fashion and design industry, having worked for LVMH and sports-brand marketing firm Vista Point.

It’s an intriguing combination of design and technology expertise—and it shows in the eight or so companies that have been incubated by H-Farm so far. The group includes H-art, an interactive media company that does design for high-end brands like Gucci and Armani, and Zooppa, a user-generated advertising firm. H-Farm’s portfolio also has startups in mobile, graphics, consumer Internet, and retail—including social-shopping site Wishpot, based in Seattle and profiled here last week.

Which brings us to an even bigger Seattle connection. It turns out H-Farm isn’t just an incubator. “Using design thinking,” the company’s website says, “H-Farm is going to develop a worldwide interconnected network of innovative technology and new media start-ups.” In other words, besides spinning off companies, H-Farm seems to want to help its U.S. startups gain a foothold in the European market, while also introducing its broader portfolio to U.S. customers—and that requires setting up an office here.

Last month, H-Farm started renting office space near Seattle’s Pioneer Square—sharing it with Wishpot and another startup in stealth mode. It is H-Farm’s only office in the U.S., and the company plans to make it the major center of operations outside of Italy. H-Farm’s website says, “This operation will endow it with the possibility of significant growth on the other side of the Atlantic as well as the chance to increase its projects and activities.” Why Seattle? Max Ciccotosto, Wishpot’s co-founder, says, “They’d looked in the Bay Area, but they really got feedback that Seattle was the right market for them.”

To me, the West Coast makes sense for H-Farm’s expertise, and I suspect the choice of Seattle boiled down to personal and business relationships in the area. Ciccotosto, a native of Italy, says he originally met H-Farm last year through one of his investors, Rob Monster of Monster Venture Partners. “Rob said, ‘There’s a guy [from H-Farm] coming from Venice, can you meet him?'” It turned out Ciccotosto was going to a fashion-industry party hosted by Nordstrom’s that night, so he relayed the message to the H-Farm visitor, a senior employee named Marco Janeczek (who was born in Poland but raised in Italy). Evidently, the cocktails and fashion models were a hit—and pretty soon Ciccotosto was on his way to securing a Series A investment from H-Farm. The Italian firm has also gained several advisors around town, so it’s a well-connected operation.

I’ll be getting the scoop on H-Farm’s local strategy from Donadon soon. In the meantime, it doesn’t look like the firm is soliciting wide-ranging funding proposals from early-stage startups, à la incubators like Founder’s Co-op or Y Combinator, which we’ve been covering at Xconomy. So its role in the local innovation community is less clear at this point, but its outside perspective could be valuable. “These guys come with heavy global expertise,” says Ciccotosto.

H-Farm is accepting proposals through the end of September in a very specific area: new applications for the Apple iPhone. The company says it has received more than 100 proposals so far, and will invest $250,000 in the winner(s). It also says it will make a new call for proposals in October, in an area yet to be announced, so stay tuned.

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One response to “The Italian Job, Part One: Startup Designer H-Farm Comes to Seattle”

  1. I had the pleasure to meet and interact with the H-Farm guys both here in Silicon Valley and at there Ca’ Tron HQ. They have been able to create a very special environment, striking a rare balance between fostering creativity and free-thinking innovation and doing business in a disciplined and focused way. A great team.