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The Pros and Cons of Italian Innovators

We’re currently taking part in the “Italy of Innovators” showcase at the 2010 Shanghai Expo (Disclosure: Expert System is one of the selected companies, COGITO is among the Best of Italy). This has given us the chance not only to talk about our semantic software, but also to explain what innovation means for us. Here is what our Italian CEO Stefano Spaggiari thinks about innovation in Italy:

It certainly cannot be said that Italy lacks the spirit of technological innovation. It is not necessary to go back to the times of Leonardo, (or even to the days of Guglielmo Marconi, Enrico Fermi, Antonio Meucci and many others) to see how, with passion and genius, they laid the foundation for the development of modern technologies.

These brilliant scientists and inventors, people gifted with incredible creativity, devoted completely to the activities of study, research and experimentation.  However, they werenot particularly skillful in promoting their own inventions or, as we would say today, unable to develop an effective marketing plan and find the necessary investors. The story of Antonio Meucci is a classic example. For more than a century, the whole world has recognized American, Alexander Graham Bell, as the father of telephones, although Meucci had invented it several years before. Unfortunately, because his family had financial problems, he was unable to maintain the patent, which was later  secured by Bell.

Turning to more recent times, in 1988, telecommunications pioneer Leonardo Chiariglione, from the corporate research center of Telecom Italia, began to define MPEG standards including the MP3.  This gave life to the digital revolution for the online transmission of audio and video data that we exchange with each other, anywhere on the planet. Among the more important international scientists that have created digital technologies, Chiariglione is known for supplying the right instruments, at the right time, to break down the communications barriers of multimedia content.

Another story is that of the University of Padova professor and computer scientist Massimo Marchiori. He created the HyperSearch algorithm, which inspired Page and Brin to create Google.  Through the invention of the algorithm,  their application made a fortune for the Mountain View Company.

Can we therefore define Italians as innovators? I believe yes, but it often happens in more casual setting, with a great deal of determination, even despite a less encouraging entrepreneurial environment. This is still true within the information and communications sector, which is little valued and under supported in Italy. Watching the American experience, and specifically that in Silicon Valley—a nearly perfect incubator for technology companies—it is clear that there are some pillars on which the process of innovation must be based:

1.)  Think about innovation like a strategic lever
The link between investments in technology innovation and business competition is narrow for a reason. Sometimes it looks like Italian companies are wasting time focusing on the status quo rather than trying to modify the situation by introducing new technologies. But it is not only Italian entrepreneurs who dedicate resources for the single objective of differentiating processes, products and services.

2.) Take risks, deliberately and intelligently, but take risks
A change of mentality and attitude about innovation, and consequently risk, is absolutely necessary. It is equally important that entrepreneurs and investors, working side by side, truly accept the concept of risk. Calculated risk, one that leaves space for creativity and intuition, is one of the fundamental gears of the engine of innovation. The Italian company must run the risk of launching new technologies, new products, and must do so quickly, aware that they will not always succeed.

3.) Initiate adequate support mechanisms
The misalignment between the Biblical times of Italian bureaucracy and the frenetic rhythms of the market are clear and obvious: a difference that strongly limits the development of innovation. The Italian economic context is not always open enough or flexible enough to realize new ideas.

4.) A strong culture of innovation: the role of the university
The support of universities is necessary to feed the entrepreneur and to push for innovation. Universities have the responsibility to foster a strong environment for the development of new ideas and the transfer of technical knowledge. Today, young people already receive an optimal preparation, but often they are too detached from the real-world economic and professional context to be able to put their acquired knowledge into practice. Through a tight synergy between the academic and professional worlds, it is possible to feed a “culture of innovation” to prepare the most talented to be in a better position to add value to the market through new ideas.

5.) The importance of “disruptive vision”
Companies must finally acquire a new perspective: the certainty that sometimes it is right to destroy one’s own business, no matter how profitable, if it is the only solution for a better future in the long term. The effort required to start a company calls for ability and courage. Those same qualities are neccessary to know when to make changes before it’s too late.

The ability to anticipate the requirements of customers and market trends is also of great importance. To this end I allow a suggestion: if everyone thinks your idea is crazy, then perhaps you’re on to something good!


Author: Luca Scagliarini

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