Former University of Malta Rector, Professor Juanito Camilleri, has been an active player in stimulating innovation, both within academia and through his pioneering work at the forefront of some of Malta’s major businesses.
Here, he speaks to Rebecca Anastasi for the Malta Business Bureau's official publication - the Business Agenda - about the revolutionary changes which await society; the centrality of the humanities in helping us understand who we are; and his passion for telling stories through the vintages forged at his winery, Ta’ Betta Wine Estates.
“There’s a renaissance in entrepreneurship in Malta at the moment, and this is very positive,” Professor Juanito Camilleri smiles, as we sit in his office at the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Business Incubation (CEBI) at the University of Malta.
And, Prof. Camilleri knows a thing or two about that evolving thrust of innovation which pushes business minds and creatives to thrive on disruptive ideas, forging ahead to bring about change.
“There will actually never be enough entrepreneurs, but mindsets do change, and technologies will continue to open up opportunities for Maltese to become role models in this regard, perhaps even becoming business angels to other entrepreneurs.”
Indeed, Prof. Camilleri has, himself, been a role model and mentor for many innovators on the island, with his contributions to industry and academia embodying the cyclical nature of idea-creation.
After graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science from the University of Kent at Canterbury, with a First Class Honours with distinction, he enrolled in the doctorate programme at the University of Cambridge, specialising in Theoretical Computer Science, and completing the course in 1990, staying on as a Research Fellow and Research Consultant.
Two years later, however, in 1992, Prof. Camilleri decided to move back to his home island, where he started working as a Senior Lecturer at the University of Malta (UOM), founding the Department of Computer Science and AI – the precursor to today’s Faculty of ICT – which proved to be foundational to the islands’ economy and future.
He left in 1999 to take up the position of founding Chief Executive Officer for the then-nascent Go Mobile, which he nurtured into the powerhouse it became. “I was still quite young at the time – only 33 – and we were a very young group of professionals, with little experience. And, indeed, little did we know what we were going in for.
“But, that’s the beauty of entrepreneurship. It was a great ride and you really feel people stepping up when you have the right type of empowerment,” he recalls fondly. Later, he became the Group CEO for Melita Cable, before being “lured back to academia” and taking on the prestigious role of Rector at UOM.
“When you’re rector, it’s not a full-time job, but it takes up all of your time. There isn’t one moment in the day when you’re not thinking about the responsibility here. I don’t tend to sleep long hours anyway, but I used to be awake, sending SMSs, even at 4am in the morning. It’s full immersion,” he attests.
He compares this with being the CEO of a company, saying that the level of commitment is consistent across roles. And, indeed – just as he had done in his corporate positions – Prof. Camilleri got things done at the nation’s highest educational institution.
“I feel that, as rector, I helped to redefine the notion of power. When I first arrived in the early ‘90s, resources were so limited, but I think the UOM has gone through a renaissance over the past years and the notion of power to empower has entered our language relatively easily.
"I feel that I helped bring that new culture in, where the idea of ‘yes, we can, yes, we will, and let’s do it’ became ingrained,” he says, adding that, though this required more resources to be “ploughed into” the institution, the university, today, has started to create its own resources as a result.
Under his leadership, the UOM opened new faculties – those of ICT; Social Well-Being; Media and Knowledge Sciences; and the Health Sciences – and welcomed a substantial number of students from abroad through international master’s programmes.
This enabled the university to remain “anchored in what was happening elsewhere, while also bringing in a significant amount of revenue, thus allowing for independence in terms of research projects,” he explains. And, as a result of these developments, as well as by means of an academic collective agreement signed in 2008 – which Prof. Camilleri refers to as a “milestone” – the research agenda was also broadened.
These achievements, Prof. Camilleri is at pains to emphasise, were built on the foundations left to him by his predecessors and the work has been continued by his successor.
“Today, we can truly say this university is based on the three pillars of teaching and learning; research and innovation; as well as outreach and entrepreneurship,” he says, underlining that the role of an institution like the UOM is “not simply generating the human resources for tomorrow”. This, he continues, is especially the case “since the jobs for tomorrow have yet to be defined”.
Instead, UOM “needs to an active player in stimulating innovation in the economy, and developing new sectors, particularly in this period of active change,” he explains.
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Indeed, it’s the revolutionary upheavals which society is set to undergo in the next 10 or 20 years which concern Prof. Camilleri the most – a concern which is the foundation of his drive towards ensuring that creative and critical thinking, taught through art and the classics, remain central. “In the next decade or two, humanity is not going to know what has hit it.
“The changes are going to be very profound on our society. This is why I am a strong believer in the humanities. It cannot only be about business and science since we can lose sight as to why we’re doing things. And, with all the new technologies set to impact us soon, in the next 20 years, a lot of us will be asking: what does it mean to be human?”
It is this ability to cut through the surface which has seen Prof. Camilleri continue inspiring future generations of thinkers and doers. Currently, his work at CEBI, which offers the Master’s in Knowledge-based Entrepreneurship – a practical three-semester programme guiding students in materialising their ideas and bringing them to the market for financing – is testament to this.
“Mentoring is very much within me and I learn as much from my students as they do from me. I get great satisfaction supervising students with their business plans and teaching in the Master’s programme. More than 100 have already graduated from the course – which I think is quite a significant achievement – with a new cohort graduating in a few weeks’ time. And, sharing this journey with them is a tremendous thing,” he asserts.
This is an extract of an interview which featured in the Winter 2019/2020 edition of Business Agenda