We’ve been interviewing some of the companies that have attended our Scaleup Summits.
Today, we’re interviewing Michele Poggipolini, Executive Director at Poggipolini. We met through our Open Innovation for Midsize companies program that we run with the support of the European Commission.
The goal of this program is to expose traditional mid sized companies to Open Innovation and help them to engage effectively with startups to drive innovation in their organizations.
We’ve provided a select group of mid-size companies with dedicated assessment and scouting, and then facilitated 1:1 meetings with innovative startups, in which Poggipolini was included.
In this interview, Michele shares with us his experience from a family company in very demanding markets that has managed to grow exponentially through open innovation 10 years ago. A summary of our conversation is presented below.
Can you start by introducing yourself and your company?
Michele Poggipolini from Poggipolini, based in Bologna, founded in 1950 by my grandfather. Our focus has always been engineering and manufacturing of high precision components and fasteners.. Today for aerospace, hypercars and motorsports.
Our core activity is to work on extreme and challenging applications regarding mechanical fittings – we are for example producing titanium bolts for helicopters, space vehicles and automotives.
We’re a company of 82 people, around 15 million revenue for 2019. We have a very impressive growth (35%) with new applications, particularly in aerospace, using our capabilities and know-how.
Innovation is in our blood, so to say, since the 80’s we’re working with Formula 1 – one of the most challenging and exciting mechanical markets – every day you need to find new solutions, test new materials, co-engineer with your clients – in our case, Ferrari – always trying to breach the boundaries of mechanical innovation.
Today we can offer not only machining capabilities but also be a true partner in co-designing and engineering and offer a fully vertically integrated product.
When did you start collaborating with other companies?
10 years ago, around 2009 Poggipolini was working mainly in the Formula 1 market – 80% of all sales from 1 client – Ferrari!
Formula 1 is a sport, and rules may change, and in 2009 they introduced new technical rules, for example a limitation on the engines for the teams – we went for example from 500 engines/year to 80 engines/year. We lost 65% of business overnight, so we needed, as a family business, to rethink our business model and find new solutions.
We were excellent in terms of capabilities and technologies – and we started to transfer this knowledge to other markets – automotive, hypercars and aerospace.
To become more innovative for our customers, we started collaborating with external stakeholders: suppliers, universities and also with startups, already 10 years ago.
The objective was to get technologies we couldn’t develop in-house – a company of our size can’t even think of doing that.
Today we’re a leading company thanks to this kind of approach – we have as results new breakthrough manufacturing processes and new products – such as the sensing bolt – that is able to offer performance intelligence.
Today we call this open innovation, but it was sort of standard attitude for us.
We didn’t do it because everyone is talking about it – we did it 10 years ago because to go from Formula 1 to aerospace we needed to change fast, be more efficient and offer to the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) something new.
So you’d say that open innovation is what allowed you to access new markets?
It’s technical innovation that allowed Poggipolini to move into new markets. Before it was mostly Formula 1, now it’s 60% aerospace, 25% automotive and 15% formula 1. Tremendous growth and we’re still growing fast.
And it’s not only new markets, but new solutions – for the automotive, for example, the titanium bolts used to be only feasible for hypercars, but with manufacturing innovation we can now produce them to fit them also in premium cars (100,000$).
Another example is the sensing bolt – which can provide us performance intelligence and data from the vehicles. To do this, we needed to integrate into our portfolio sensing technologies. We could do this ourselves or find someone in the market to do it faster.
As speed matters, we scouted and selected a startup and they develop for us applications that are now core for us.
Main reason is to be quick and fast – and we can’t always think to do everything in-house.
We’ve always worked at the edge of the mechanical industry, and with innovation we bring our experience to higher volumes markets.
Our culture has always been problem solving for our customers – of our 82 people, 10 are R&D. We’re very proactive to try and find solutions and so we engage outside companies and these happen to be startups sometimes.
It happens these startups are often in the digital environment – for example, we’re using data that we receive from the sensing bolts which allows us to enter into a brand new market of analytics and so on.
So how do you engage with startups normally?
Just today I came from a meeting with Confindustria, for an accelerator program for startups. I was there because I like to check and see the startups presenting themselves. We’re always looking for new technologies and new solutions that we can integrate into our projects.
We don’t really a formal focal point, but we’re participating in all the accelerator, incubator programs in our region – including our engineering department and trying to communicate to the community what technologies we’re looking for.
This is something that is really paying off and a lot of startups contacting us. Some of them will be just suppliers, others are interested in next steps to evaluate possible investment opportunities.
We don’t have yet any history of acquisition but it’s something we have on the roadmap for our technologies, so definitely considering for the future.
Can you tell us a bit more how you organise your innovation team?
I’m in charge of the innovation team of 3 people – “not every day organic technologies” but rather disruptive innovations. When we see there’s a great fit between our requirements and a startup, we tend to work with them and develop a collaboration and partnership.
We always start from the need of the customer, their problems, their issues, even if they’re not asking for a specific solution through our team we work to bring these new technologies to work, often through startups.
We started 2 years ago and it’s structured to be very flexible – when we don’t find it through our network, we talk with a specialised company to support us in scouting and evaluating startups to reach our target.
On that topic, can you tell us a bit about your experience with Mind the Bridge and our matchmaking activities?
Yes, first time we met with Mind the Bridge was at Borsa di Milano – a great event because we had the opportunity to talk with startups that were international. It’s very important for us to create a connection with the global startup community and bridging corporates-startups is absolutely a must.
What I always say at Confindustria (I’m also the president of the young entrepreneurs subgroup) is that we need to go and listen at events – because the solutions we’re working within our 4 walls, we need to go out and see if it’s already out there.
It’s important to meet with both startups and corporates and learn about these future solutions – and this network can make a difference.
Are there any difficulties in establishing international collaborations?
No, I think if we have the right topic to say, there’s no problem in discussing with international companies.
Sometimes it can be hard to find the right startups in your region, so you might want to see expertise in Europe and beyond. I want to see a global selection of startups as this is more likely I can find more advanced solutions – but this is not so easy – that’s why I liked the Mind the Bridge event and we need to link more and more with the international startups community.
Any particular result you want to share with us?
I had a very good meeting, we went through different discussions with Additive Industries. 2 months after the event in Milan I went to meet with the startup owner and discussed opportunities to work together as they offer a new approach to additive manufacturing.
This was great, as I knew the company by the name, as I follow new technologies and am always studying and looking at what is happening.
So finding this company there was a great surprise and opportunity.
Would you be able to say what are the difficulties in working with startups?
Yes, I have one example: working with a spin off from university – great minds and great engineers.
They tend to prefer to do basic research rather than bringing what they develop into the market.
This is the problem.
I see the need from the corporate to bring the solution to the market rather quickly but the startup wants to make it better, develop more and do it differently as they believe it can increase the performance.
But sometimes for us it’s not needed.
When I see a solution that we can bring into the market it, we bring it. We don’t want until it’s perfect… because it will never be perfect!
We see this as an entrepreneurship gap.
For us we have to develop solutions to grow as a company – everything we do is to grow – time to market is key, you can’t just do research, research, research.
Sometimes it’s not so easy to pass this mentality to some of these startups.
Any advice for companies like yours?
To take the time and go to listen for startups when there’s an event and situation to listen to startups. Take your time, it’s not lost time.
It’s something you have to do if you want to bring in your company some innovations and to see things that you’re probably already doing.. but differently.
You can probably bring your know-how to other markets but you need something you can’t develop inhouse. Try to always be curious. Curiosity is key.
It’s important that this is done seriously. That the owner of the company gets the idea – if you do it because everyone does it, then it doesn’t work and will only be time consuming.
The market is super-fast and changing weekly/daily, we cannot stay with the
same business models / same ideas of ten years ago.
Last words for entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurs: be humble, open and listen. We have targets and experience in making technology into a product. We are there to establish win-win situations, see each other as partners.
If we are able to do that, nobody can stop us.
That’s it for this interview, thank you Michele!
If you’d like to know more about Mind the Bridge’s matchmaking activities, check out our Scaleup Summits or our reports on Open Innovation.
By Ricardo Silva
Head of EU Projects – Mind the Bridge