With a student body that includes 550 PhDs and scores (literally) of post-docs and research fellows working in all fields across three campuses, the University of Bologna in Italy has significant potential for new and meaningful ventures in the field of sustainability. But this research base, despite its potential, often goes unrecognized because of the lack of a venturing spirit among these students.
In response to this, Simone Ferriani, a professor in the department of Business Sciences, started the UNIBO Launch Pad to leverage this know-how and facilitate its transformation into valuable products and services, while also fostering an entrepreneurial mindset at the university. I recently spoke to Simone about the initiative.
What is UNIBO Launch Pad and how did it come about?
UNIBO Launch Pad is an entrepreneurial acceleration program conceived by the University of Bologna together with the Italian Institute for Entrepreneurship. The goal of UNIBO Launch Pad is to support the creation of new innovative ventures by doctoral students, post-docs and young researchers from the University of Bologna. This is the first and only acceleration programme in Italy (and one of very few in Europe) entirely devoted to young researchers with entrepreneurial inclinations.
What are the key features of Launch Pad and how does it work?
The program has three distinctive features. 1) It targets exclusively Ph.D. students, post-docs and/or young researchers willing to market the outcomes of their research projects and scientific innovations. 2) During the program, which lasts 11 weeks, participants benefit from the guidance of successful entrepreneurs who act as mentors throughout the acceleration period. 3) The most promising teams, as judged by a panel of experts (investors, academicians, entrepreneurs) during a final pitch-day, continue their training in Silicon Valley for another month.
What is the connection between Launch Pad and sustainability?
In general, the best candidates want their ideas to have a real impact on society. Therefore, it is not a surprise that the vast majority of the projects are linked to sustainability topics. As an extra push, we connect the candidates with students from our Green Energy and Sustainability MBA Programme. As part of their curriculum, students in the MBA programme support companies coming out of the Launch Pad that focus on sustainability.
What have been some of the challenges?
The greatest challenge of Launch Pad has been to lower the cognitive barrier that separates scientists from market. In most instances, PhD are getting their PhD for a reason: they want to do research. However, from time to time we come across PhD students who feel a strong need to explore alternative paths and have worked on research projects with great market potential. They are the target of UNIBO Launch Pad. Of course, it is not easy to find them. We need to go inside the departments and break the barriers that sometimes separate research from the market. This is also challenging.
This year will be the 2nd edition, so it is too early to say. The feedback from first edition participants was enthusiastic and next week they will leave for Silicon Valley. The top team also gained a lot of visibility in the media and was approached by some important industry players. It will be interesting to discover whether they will be able to bring their idea into fruition.
What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?
Bet on champions. Schools need to find the right mix of professors (to facilitate access to the department and laboratories) and entrepreneurs (who are generous and passionate about the idea of cultivating potential that is sometimes hidden). I recommend putting together a top team of mentors who are willing to give time and energy to nurture the local ecosystem
The initial mentor selection is also of paramount importance. Having a jury composed of entrepreneurs and investors can help to identify the best potential entrepreneurial spirits among the candidates. I would also recommend planning something like Launch Pad over a few years because the success of it can be judged only after a few cycled have been observed.
What’s next for the Launch Pad?
We will soon start a road-show across departments to present the programme and scout for highly motivated young researchers. The application deadline is in July and selections will run throughout August and early September. May will be devoted to the Silicon Valley adventure for last years’s winners. We are also planning to grow the network of mentors, which is currently fifteen,and extend this opportunity to other public research centers.
Can you share 1 or 2 other initiatives happening at UNIDO in this space?
We have two specialized MBA programmes that focus on the topic of sustainability. The first, mentioned earlier, is the MBA in Green Energy and Sustainable Business ,which tackles those “hot topics” that leading companies can no longer afford to ignore.
We also have an Executive MBA of Cooperative enterprises (Emba Coop), which is intended for managers and executives who wish to acquire advanced business management tools for the world of cooperatives. EMBA Coop is a result of close collaboration between scholars, institutions of the cooperative system and managers and combines rigorous content, context and strong applicability.