Innovating with startups: the Enel method

Published on Tuesday, 13 October 2020

“The more open you are, the more opportunities you’re able to take advantage of and the more value you can create for your company.” That was the message from Fabio Tentori, Head of Enel Innovation Hubs and Startup Initiatives, broadcast in the podcast recorded at the Innovation Roundtable workshop held in Maastricht.

In his speech, the title of which was “From investing in startups to becoming their client,” Tentori outlined how Enel’s model of collaborating with startups has evolved over time. “It is a journey that began around six years ago with our CEO Francesco Starace. We started out with an investment model typical of corporate venture capital, but we soon realised that the majority of our time was spent on financial questions that neglected the true goal – creating industrial value through the collaboration with startups.”

Enel therefore decided to concentrate on partnerships with startups, taking advantage of the opportunities created by the Group through its network of Innovation Hubs, situated in some of the most active innovation ecosystems and using a venture client model. “Becoming clients of the best startups we can get access to new technologies and business models that are truly innovative, something we wouldn’t be able to achieve alone and that would be much more costly for us to recreate,” explained Tentori.

For Tentori it’s impossible to be sure of always finding the best startups. “What we do is attempt to do this by extending the search beyond the borders of the countries in which the Group works,” and by creating an opening at a global level, as far as Australia and Southeast Asia. This can vary depending on the size of the project and the technologies sought: for larger projects, a kind of “competition” is created between the different hubs in order to obtain more proposals to review with the business lines in order to identify the best ones to take a punt on. “If we are seeking rapid solutions in a very specific field, such as cybersecurity,” continues Tentori “we head directly to the Innovation Hubs in the ecosystems that are most advanced in that field, asking our Hub Managers to activate their networks of contacts with venture capital funds, universities, accelerators and incubators, to find the best startups capable of doing what we are looking for, and then we examine these with the relevant business lines.”

The success of an innovation team, explains Tentori, relies on a mix of skills. “There is the Chief innovation Officer, a creative person with real drive and good leadership skills. For the activity of scouting, what is important is the ability to connect with people and build a strong network. Technical understanding is required but also the soft skills needed to enter into contact with people, not to mention openness to opportunities. When it comes to creating projects and collaborating with startups, people with a strong business sense are required, as are people with substantial technical knowledge, someone who knows the processes and technologies that we use but is open to interrupting these or changing them completely. The combination of these skills plus a feel for the business create the preconditions for a successful team and successful partnerships.

When it comes to relationships with young businesses, Tentori explains that startups, especially those in the most evolved ecosystems, have a need for rapid feedback, which cannot always be guaranteed, particularly in the first phases of interaction. “We try to be as transparent as possible, making decisions very quickly doesn’t always lead to success,” explains Tentori. “We try to align our goals with those of the startups right from the beginning. There’s no need to fear failure: if, out of 100 projects 5 are implemented, then that’s a good outcome,” he continues. “It wasn’t the same when we did things alone, but now that we are open to the world we have to fail quickly, move forwards and do it again because only in this way will it be possible to learn and eventually implement new technologies.”

Tentori concludes his speech by encouraging questions, trying to be open and opening your mind to examine new opportunities. “Sometimes you can realise that by asking questions and by finding out a little more about the history, technology and knowledge of a startup, it is possible to find value for your own company. We need to be more open and less focused on everyday activities.”

Listen to the interview with Tentori at the Innovation Roundtable podcast.

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