• IntelligEarth: protecting the environment and cultural heritage with daily gestures within everyone's reach

IntelligEarth: protecting the environment and cultural heritage with daily gestures within everyone's reach

March 28, 2024


Knowledge Share

IntelligEarth is an innovative Start-Up at the Università di Roma “Sapienza”, whose ambition is to revolutionise the way cultural and environmental heritage are monitored, managed and protected against geological and environmental factors. By fusing innovative technologies based on crowdsourcing systems and Citizen Science logic, the solutions offered by IntelligEarth, stand out for their ability to collect timely and detailed information, that range from the conservation to the valorisation of assets.

The use of advanced image analysis algorithms, combined with the IntelligEarth team's in-depth knowledge of the application domain, gives the technology a unique and unprecedented position in the market. Amongst the founders of IntelligEarth, we meet Antonio Cosentino and Claudia Masciulli, PhD students in Earth Sciences at the Università di Roma “Sapienza”, who offer a glimpse into the work carried out by the start-up and the future prospects in the field of heritage protection through technological innovation.

IntelligEarth tops the new monthly bulletin "Top 3 Start-Ups", as the most viewed star-up on the Knowledge Share Portal for the month of February.

IntelligEarth - tecnologia

Scenario and panorama - When describing IntelligEarth, we talk about environmental monitoring and deep-tech in the use of mobile devices for landscape and cultural heritage protection. What is the current scenario in Italy? 

Claudia Masciulli: Italy is experiencing an ever-increasing growth and awareness of the importance of conservation, protection, and preservation of land and cultural heritage. If, on the one hand, numerous interventions are underway, also thanks to PNRR funds, on the other hand we are seeing an increase in catastrophic events, even very recent ones, that put our heritage at ever greater risk.

Being aware of the risks and the importance of prevention and prediction therefore becomes ever so vital. From this perspective, the use of low-cost technologies can significantly increase the efficiency of large-scale predictive observations by reducing data collection, analysis times and allowing costs to be increasingly reduced.

Currently, such observations can be carried out in different ways. There is satellite data, which allow large-scale observations, but with fairly long data update times (even several weeks for some constellations) and limited satellite ground resolutions that do not allow detailed studies of individual buildings or cultural heritage. Then there are instruments, such as contact sensors, that allow in-depth and detailed information, but which require qualified personnel to be operated, resulting in being very expensive. Such solutions cannot, for example, observe at very large scales because of the considerable installation and management costs. Then there are other platforms such as drones, which, however, involve very complex costs and procedures that are not trivial.

In other words, combining the needs of capillary and accurate monitoring with the economic sustainability - in terms of economic and human resources - of the possible solutions to be adopted means exploring, deepening and transposing the most recent advances in research to the operational level. A positive aspect is that in Italy, too, an increasing sensitivity towards technology transfer is developing.


When and how was IntelligEarth born? 

Antonio Cosentino: IntelligEarth was born within the Remote Sensing research group of the Department of Earth Sciences at the Università di Roma “Sapienza”, where one of the main themes is that of remote monitoring. These are solutions for monitoring cultural and environmental heritage that have become increasingly popular in recent years and are based on the use of electromagnetic signals emitted or captured by sensors installed on various platforms, including artificial satellites.

Our vision takes its cue from the satellite sphere, which has experienced great development in recent years, with the idea of transferring such logic to the terrestrial sphere. Our idea was precisely to replicate the method in some way. A satellite revisits a point with a certain frequency, passing around the orbit and scanning the same point each time it passes. Similarly, we thought that, just as the satellite has a sensor in itself to monitor the point of interest, the same sensor could be used from the ground, making all citizens become real satellites. How? Thanks to the smartphone, which becomes the sensor mounted on the 'satellite/human' and which, with a few daily, and almost unconscious, gestures, enables the collection of data.

In other words, we take all the experience gathered over the years in numerous collaborations with Italian and European space agencies (ESA, ASI) and replicate it with a Citizen Science approach.

To give a little history. IntelligEarth was born from a joint idea of myself and Claudia, both PhD students at the Department of Earth Sciences of Università di Roma “Sapienza” and our respective tutors, Prof. Paolo Mazzanti and Prof. Carlo Esposito from the Department of Earth Sciences and the CERI Research Centre of Università di Roma “Sapienza”. Mine is an Industrial PhD course, co-funded by the aforementioned Department of Earth Sciences, Regione Lazio and NHAZCA S.r.l. (www.nhazca.com): this created the perfect conditions that more than a year and a half ago allowed us to observe the results of these years and discuss this potential. A perfect glue between the academic world and the entrepreneurial/industrial fabric that then laid the foundations to arrive to today.

Claudia: In recent years, Italian universities have made great strides in terms of Third Mission and are increasingly promoting academic entrepreneurship activities. IntelligEarth, by the way, is the second academic start-up belonging to the Department of Earth Sciences of the Università di Roma “Sapienza”, while the first one, founded back in 2009, is NHAZCA S.r.l. and of which Prof. Mazzanti was founder and CEO for many years.

IntelligEarth was thus founded in July 2023 with a corporate structure combining different professional skills. Antonio, is a geologist, as are Professors Carlo Esposito and Paolo Mazzanti; I am a Physicist and Astrophysicist but work with Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. Michele Gaeta is an aerospace engineer. Finally, Lorenzo Iacovone is an economist with expertise in finance and venture capital. This has allowed us to have a 360-degree view of market challenges and needs, but also to understand how best to structure our business.

Antonio: Let's not forget our industrial partner (NHAZCA), which gives us support in everything and shows that it really believes in our project, and which accompanies us and instructs us in all aspects of management and bureaucracy (perhaps too many?). In short, it really is a great opportunity for us as it is a 'former' spin-off that has already had the growth path of a start-up and is now one of the leaders in the environmental monitoring sector.

Claudia: The concept expressed by Antonio is also one of the 'great challenges' of research in our century. There has always been a strong bottleneck in the path from PhD to Professor. The PhD was seen, until a few years ago, as that figure whose goal in life was to serve in research or academia. But in reality, the PhD can really open many doors. Just think of the Industrial Doctorate, whose objective is precisely to train not researchers but highly qualified professionals and why not... entrepreneurs! I myself decided to change in order to open up more possibilities in the work field, having the chance to go outside the university. I think that this evolution of the idea of the PhD is really an important step for our country.

Antonio: I, for example, had the opportunity to do both experiences: University and Company. Then I wanted to take the Industrial PhD route and last year we managed to found a start-up in which our partner is the company that financed my Industrial PhD. The planets really aligned. Then time will tell, but we have laid some good groundwork, certainly to be fleshed out.

Possible users of the technology include both public and private stakeholders: how are you approaching possible stakeholders and what kind of feedback are you receiving? If you are already approaching them.

Antonio: We realised that ours is a vision that goes beyond the company and the public as an end result. We imagine a system for the citizen that can almost become a 'game'. In fact, we talk about social monitoring but at the same time it is useful to society. We did not set ourselves up as a Start-Up BS - social benefit - just because of a question of time and administrative structure. But one of the purposes is precisely that.

Of course, different stakeholders speak and respond differently because they have different needs. A large company needs something that operates on a large scale but, on the other hand, also for a very small radius and that delivers results in a very short time. However, they have enough money to be able to do this. This need certainly aligns with our vision: breaking down the wall between who does the monitoring, the cost of monitoring and who then analyses it. Making everything more streamlined.

They want and we want something that is smart and they come to us with abatement proposals that are really in line with what we do. The feeling I have is that we are moving towards a much easier but more complete solution. And so are the big companies.

We are currently trying to find the right balance between the various realities, precisely to create the right formula to make the technology easily scalable.

In this way we can really apply to organisations that do Social Benefit but also to companies that are moving in this direction.

Claudia: By participating in interviews like this one, pitches and other events we are working precisely to get feedback to build a business model that is as customer-oriented as possible and that gives a precise definition of "who we are" and "what we do". But above all, what we can be useful in with respect to what we propose. Generate impact.

What is your business model?  

The idea fo the product is an app with the ability to collect images and analyse them to observe changes and movements. The data collected, is made objective, with mathematics and Artificial Intelligence, and 360° monitoring. To date, we have public and private stakeholders with different needs. The aim is to develop a business model based on three fundamental steps, which are: the first, the initial and current one, which involves participating in public tenders and writing projects to have the necessary level of technical and economic awareness to build the first infrastructure. In this way we have the possibility, also thanks to feedback, to adjust the focus and perhaps create PoC - Proof Of Concept. Step 2: to propose ourselves to public and private entities and try to give a service to develop PoCs with parts of the infrastructure. Look in the PoCs for all the parts to make the final product. Lastly, step 3: enter the market with a complete product by seeking more substantial financiers. In short, sell the product already packaged as a B2B to companies, organisations, etc. Having the possibility, in the same business model, of different approaches between B2C and B2B.

Our goal is to maximise public fundraising, also 'leveraging' our current academic positioning. We will therefore arrive at the PoC to provide customers with a more defined vision of our solution. Then it will be necessary to initiate various dialogues with financial funds for 'seed' financing or next steps. In Europe, there is a lot of focus on 'seed' stage projects because they have more certainty and credibility. In the 'pre-seed' phase, on the other hand, there is always a tendency to invest less but on more. After 'seed' we would still have the opportunity to scale- up and enter the market one step at a time.

In the 'Looking for' section of your factsheet on KS 2.0, 'investment funds' and 'internationalisation' appear. What leads you to look for these two elements and what goals would they help you achieve? 

Claudia: In the long term, surely our goal is to have a product that can be replicated nationally and internationally. In the short term, being a product based on Citizen Science, it is certainly useful to have an interface process at an international level as an audience. In Italy there are tourists who come from all over the world, so in a way, it is also a process of internationalisation to make our reality known by conveying it to a foreign audience but in our country.

Antonio: Even in terms of branding we can do this. If we can ground what our vision is. Also, because the idea is to make something socially shareable. Social Monitoring is also a way of bringing together people who from the point of view of social benefits want to go in that direction. Basically, it is also a 'game': it is an attractive product for the customer but also for the user. We are certainly putting a lot of emphasis on gamification approaches to incentivise user usage.

What are we talking about when we mention Citizen Science? Let's try to explain it in a simple way for those who don't know it. 

Claudia: It is a scientific approach in which there are ordinary people who do not have a specific background in data collection. So, it allows you to involve the public in the collection. It is actually used much more often than people think and in ways that nobody actually pays attention to.

This 'participation' in research is very important because it allows the process of data collection to be optimised: a lot of data in a short time and at low cost. And this is a bit of a limitation if you don't access something like this from research because you really miss out on a lot of data that is essential. Because remember that without data, research is not possible. There are many people who have good ideas or models but don't have the right data to, for example, train the models.

For artificial intelligence you really need a huge amount of data and when you move from Machine Learning to Deep Learning the number becomes almost exponential.

This collaborative and inclusive way of doing research has two big pros: leveraging distributed resources on a large scale to collect data effectively and efficiently. In addition, such an approach, with the active involvement of the population, raises awareness of the importance of protecting and enhancing the territory and cultural heritage.

Artificial Intelligence is one of the most debated topics in the social, economic and technological landscape of the moment. You have immediately grasped its potential and 'made it your own'. Do you think Italy is ready to embrace this novelty and incorporate it into the processes of some activities or even make it an innovation? 

Claudia: This is one of the most discussed and relevant issues in the global and Italian context. Think of the case of the privacy guarantor with ChatGPT. As a company and members all of us have recognised the potential of AI and want to integrate it into all our product approaches. These are validated approaches despite the fact that it is almost seen as a 'black box'. They are actually field-confirmed approaches with other techniques and have the accuracy of the method tested, because they all originated in the academic context.

Italians show a very growing interest in AI in everyday life and business processes. Think of ChatGPT, Copilot or Bing. It is not copying but assisting. Moreover, AI has been with us for a very long time: think of the emails that end up in SPAM, they are AI-based processes. But also, Google searches when the 'Best Result' appears. We have been dealing with AI for at least 50 years, we just didn't have the awareness and knowledge.

Now surely, after Chat GPT, there is more furore. Surely it has been understood how this helps in solving complex challenges and not an attempt at 'plagiarism'. We have to use it because it is the future.

Antonio: We have the opportunity to embrace this change. Europe is actually discussing to standardise it and make it 'official'. The risk of not using it would really be a boomerang that would go backwards as a country, as a research system and much more in a short time. The solution is to integrate this change and focus it on certain aspects, which is what we would like to do.

It is really a question of awareness.

Did you know the Knowledge Share project before this interview? How do you think it can help the start-up scene in Italy? 

Antonio: I got to know KS recently. We believe that it is an advantageous initiative, especially for these academic realities, perhaps just starting out, and that need to be visible and show what they have to offer. Especially in today's context where we are bombarded with information. Having a medium for start-ups and spinoffs where business can focus on projects born from research labs is a potential. In fact, even by taking part in this interview we hope that someone will contact us to understand more about us and help us both in feedback for data collection but also to possibly create synergies and collaborations.

team IntelligEarth

Discover more about IntelligEarth on KS platform: IntelligEarth (knowledge-share.eu)

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