Innovation Is a Vocation That Should Be EncouragedAS A PROFESSOR, MARKUS VENZIN HAS ALWAYS TRIED TO PROMOTE AN ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT AMONG HIS STUDENTS. TODAY HE'S FOCUSING ON STARTUPS AS BOCCONI'S DEAN FOR INNOVATION AND THANKS TO HIS LEADERSHIP ROLES IN THE B4I ACCELERATOR AND SDA BOCCONI'S INNOVATION AND CORPORATE ENTREPRENEURSHIP CENTER. WHERE'S THE FLAW IN THE ITALIAN ECOSYSTEM? THERE'S A NEED FOR MORE DEEP TECH COMPANIES, TRUE INNOVATION AND A LITTLE COURAGE
“When I ask students about their professional goals, a lot of them answer that they want to launch a startup. And even students who hope to become managers in a large company have a strong ambition to drive change. In short, entrepreneurship is a common and increasingly shared vocation.” No one could be happier to see this than Markus Venzin, Professor of Global Strategy, Dean for Innovation and Director of the Innovation and Corporate Entrepreneurship Center at SDA since September. In fact, his role is precisely to fuel students’ desire for entrepreneurship by organizing new initiatives and specific projects, such as the B4i accelerator or the FTxBocconi Talent Challenge. “As an instructor,” says the professor, “I have always tried to respond to this demand by bringing any innovations I’ve absorbed from field research or consulting activities to the classroom.”
How would you assess the Italian startup scene? Do enough of them get founded to imagine that any will grow into an important international company?
The number of startups is important, but there are still too many marketplace initiatives, i.e. using digital platforms to bring together supply and demand, and not enough Deep Tech. The innovative element today is fundamental for success. There’s a huge difference between the idea of renovating a farmhouse to turn it into a B&B and a new technology for creating super powerful microscopes!
What is your explanation for this Italian struggle to produce innovation in the digital age?
I believe that the cultural aspect is crucial. Young people learn in part by example and there aren't many Italian entrepreneurs who really take risks. I happen to notice it even when we analyze internationalization processes: in Italy the typical approach towards new markets consists of some export incentivization, then investing a little in marketing, finally creating a small branch, in a sort of progressive evolution. In Switzerland or Germany, the scheme is different: a strategic plan is made and a significant share of capital is immediately allocated to attack the new market with determination.
Is it more difficult for a startup in Italy today to find capital or a quality advisor?
With the crisis, lots of managers have left companies to work as advisors, but without really having the right experience. Having a professional network such as the one we offer at Bocconi is therefore an added value for those in acceleration, pre-acceleration or even in the scale-up phase. The real difficulty for young entrepreneurs is finding an experienced startupper who wants to invest 100% of their time in a new company. As for capital, in Italy fundraising is less aggressive than elsewhere, funding of €10mln here is already a great result, but it is equally true that the market isn’t as liquid and there aren’t as many opportunities.
What are the first aspects you assess in a startup?
The first thing I look at is the mission statement. I ask myself: Does this initiative create value for society? Secondly, I want to get to get to know the team and study their backgrounds because I try to understand whether they are also prepared to eventually reorganize their business if faced with new demands. Finally, I assess whether they know their customer well, if they already have market feedback and an MVP of what they offer.
If you were one of your students who dreams of becoming a startupper, what areas of innovation would you focus on?
I don't know what I would have done as a student, but I can say that in Corporate Hangar, the Venture Builder I created with Prysmian, we already have three startups. One produces a device that attaches to cable reels and remotely provides indications of location, consumption, movement and other parameters. The second works in vertical farming and has developed a cabinet that allows you to create a small private garden for vegetables or other plants even in closed spaces, for example in an office. This is an idea that I really like because it helps address excess Co2 by increasing the number of plants that can absorb it even in environments where there normally aren’t any. The third area that fascinates me is that of materials science linked to waste management, so we activated a project with Comieco and Assocarta to create a new ecological plastic from the waste of paper disposal. This is about true innovation, not improving something that already exists, but rather bringing to life something new.
Born in Switzerland and with a PhD from the University of St. Gallen, Markus Venzin was the first non-Italian Assistant Professor at Bocconi. Today he is Professor of Global Strategy, Dean for Innovation and Director of ICE at SDA. “In 2001 I decided to move to Italy,” says Venzin. "I had a good career prospect in Switzerland ahead of me, but Bocconi's proposal was very enticing, and I also intended to marry a Sicilian woman, so I made a “foreign investment” in Italy. I must say that the choice has paid off. At the beginning, it wasn’t easy, however: in Milan my car was immediately stolen, and it was also difficult to rent an apartment without speaking much Italian. At Bocconi, on the other hand, thanks to the help of Professor Guido Corbetta, I integrated quickly.” Formerly founder and Director of the Master in Science International Management, Venzin was also Director of the Department of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and the Research Department at SDA. “I believe that my greatest contribution in that role was to direct the school towards action research, moving away from advisory a bit. It’s great that teaching and consulting activities remain separate, even though they are two complementary activities. Teaching is wonderful and relationships with students every day is an enriching experience, while consulting is essential to bring new knowledge into the classroom.”
Entrepreneurship: 10 stories of startups that have passed through the pre-acceleration and acceleration paths of B4i - Bocconi for Innovation
by Emanuele Elli
Translated by Jenna Walker