Interview with Francesca Perrone, Head of UniCredit Start Lab, the start-up acceleration program of UniCredit Bank

Francesca Perrone is the Head of UniCredit Start Lab, the start-up acceleration program of UniCredit Bank, which focuses on the development of projects to boost innovation processes for young entrepreneurs and innovative Italian SMEs.

Francesca is also Head of Territorial & Sectorial Development Plans, and she has been responsible for the SMEs’ development programs at UniCredit for more than 10 years.

Francesca graduated in Business Administration and Management at Università degli Studi di Bari and received a PhD in Philosophy and Economics from the University of York.

Q: You started your career in banking at UniCredit, and now you have been in charge of developing innovation programs for start-ups, SMEs and corporates for more than 10 years. What is the approach of UniCredit to innovation? Has it changed over time?

Francesca: UniCredit has always had a high focus on innovation. It has been one of the first bank in Italy to develop a structured approach towards innovation and innovative start-ups, since 2010. When the start-up definition was not so clear and the whole phenomenon was not so spread. Our approach has been enhanced year after year considering the growing importance of innovation for us and for our clients.

Q: In 2014, UniCredit launched the UniCredit Start Lab, an acceleration program that aims to support young entrepreneurs, innovation and new technologies. How is the program organised? What benefits can participants get?

Francesca: The program has been busted up with the founders of the best start-ups we have selected, and envisages key services to favour growth and business consolidation, which are:

  1. Structured Connections with industrial and financial counterparts. In particular, we have realised more than 30 Open Innovation Initiatives, involving more than 530 corporates and more than 250 private investors to favour commercial, tech & financial partnerships;
  2. Startup Academy, a training program to strengthen managerial skills of innovators with international experts and opinion leaders;
  3. Mentoring through a Club of 100 mentors among entrepreneurs, managers, consultants, investors, to support start-ups’ development;
  4. Financial resources: grants and bank financing. We are financing more than 2.200 start-ups;
  5. Space. UniCredit Business Center in Milan.

Q: In your opinion, what are the main difficulties that Italian start-uppers are facing in the development of their entrepreneurial initiatives? How can UniCredit support them?

Francesca: I think that the main difficulties are related to:

  1. an underdeveloped early-stage investment ecosystem, which create a cap for their consolidation;
  2. team, often with limited managerial profile and entrepreneurial approach;
  3. limited knowledge on the corporate internal dynamics in order to manage business dialogue to develop negotiations and sales.

In UniCredit, we support the start-ups:

  1. in the connections with investors and business angels, also among our clients and on international basis;
  2. in mapping the core competencies they should have in their team, together with mentors and partners of our platform;
  3. in build a more effective business dialogue with corporates, by selecting the consistent partners among our corporate clients and companies more active on open innovation.

Q: In your opinion, has the approach and interest of Italian corporates towards start-ups and innovation changed over time? Do you see any improvements?

Francesca: There are much more companies today interested in open innovation. There are different approaches: from a light one to a more structured one, according to the resources and organisational changes they develop within the organisation. So, open innovation is today something real.

Still, I believe that there are problems that limit the effectiveness of open innovation:

On the SMEs side: the lack of awareness on: 1) which technologies can drive their transformation; 2) which skills they need in order to innovate and grow; 3) which is the model to innovate – traditional R&D models compared to open innovation models (hackathon, corporate venture, scouting/acceleration, etc.).

For corporations with dedicated team and resources to open innovation: often 1) lack of already industrialised tech solutions / start-ups able to ensure delivery, continuity and volumes; 2) big corporations – even with organisational structure, resources and governance – do not succeed to prioritise strategies / technologies in order to select the solutions identified.

For the start-ups:
1) limited capabilities to dialogue with corporates (teams with low commercial skills, difficulties in ensuring execution and business continuity); 2) limited financial resources to drive scale in volumes and delivery.


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For more info on UniCredit Start Lab visit: https://www.unicreditstartlab.eu/en.html