Last month, UBI Global welcomed President and CEO of the I3P technology incubator, Marco Cantamessa, to our advisory board. Cantamessa graduated in Electronics Engineering from Politecnico di Torino, he is now a professor at the Department of Management and Production Engineering of this institution. He teaches Innovation Management and Product Development at Politecnico di Torino, and has lectured on the same subject in MBA programs offered by business schools such as ESCP, SIMT and EPFL.
Cantamessa’s research activities have been carried out in the field of operations management, addressing the two areas of Product development and Manufacturing systems. Research has been carried out within basic and applied research projects, both at national and European level. He is the author or co-author of more than one hundred scientific papers, of which many have been published in international peer-reviewed journals.
Cantamessa is a member of numerous boards of academic societies, journals and conferences (Design Society, Journal of Engineering Design, ICED, DESIGN). He also is President and CEO of the I3P technology incubator in Turin, President of PNICube, the Italian association of university incubators, and has acted as a board member and consultant to other organizations engaged in technology transfer.
I sent Marco some questions to get his expert opinion on the current state of the European and global incubation landscape.
What are some of the emerging trends in incubation globally?
Academic incubators have been pioneering actors in the world of high-tech startups, and have had a key role in the birth and structuring of startup ecosystems throughout the world. Nowadays, these same ecosystems have grown, with the emergence of new actors such as accelerators and corporate incubation programs. This raises questions on the future mission of university incubators. From my perspective, and given that most university incubators are public entities, they should find their way by working on complementarities with other private-sector entities, and being careful not to “crowd them out”.
Do you think there are any qualities that differentiate Italian incubators from their peers in Europe?
Italy’s startup ecosystem is now finally emerging to the limelight, and Italian university incubators have had a significant role in the past years. About a quarter of Italian startups have a close connection to academia, either as spinoffs, or having taken part to activities run by academic incubators. A characterizing feature of the Italian ecosystem is the ability of Italian graduates to get a lot of work done with limited funding, and an amazing capability in networking with industry, in order to involve existing competencies and assets in the development of their startups. In fact, many Italian startups are able to produce their goods and services without having to develop a “factory”, because factories are already there! Italian incubators have had a significant role in facilitating all this. In the end, incubators are a XXI century incarnation of the old-fashioned Italian piazza.
What advice would you give incubator managers in order to run their programs efficiently?
First of all, ask your shareholders and stakeholders to agree on a concrete and achievable vision, mission and set of objectives. If they are not able, cast a proposal that takes into account the reality of the local ecosystem, and make them agree to it.
Then, structure your business model (and particularly your revenue model) in a way that the incentives throughout the organization are coherent with the above.
Finally, find the right people! In my experience, the incubator team is the most critical asset. You need people who are authoritative, but highly respectful of entrepreneurs; bright, but without being prima donnas; having a global understanding of the startup industry, but also know local business; are ambitious, but are not looking for a quick buck. I’ve always been amazed to notice the attractiveness of startups and incubators to incompetents and crooks!
How can incubators attract investors and corporations to their programs?
First of all, by understanding their needs and objectives. Business angels and VCs are not all the same, and certainly different from one another. The same goes for firms, which come in many sizes and with different objectives.
In general, the incubator attracts these actors thanks to a broad and well-selected assortment of startups. Investors’ and corporations’ time is valuable and they will be more willing to travel to incubator A, where they can see a set of high-quality startups, rather than to incubator B, where they can see only a couple of startups of questionable quality.
At the same time, entrepreneurs’ time is even more valuable, which means that incubators should also select investors and corporations who really want to do business. You should put up a sign that says “Please, no time-wasters and dreamers”.