When I attend startup events in Europe, people sometimes ask me about the Italian startup ecosystem.
Some are driven by genuine curiosity; in others, however, the question comes with a half smile and a sort of patronising attitude: ‘do you guys really have a tech scene, out there?’.
Yes, we do.
Sure, the ecosystem is small, especially if compared to the one a country like Italy should be able to produce. Though the exact figure is unclear, startups in the country have reportedly raised €100 million, overall, in 2015.
Let’s be frank: that’s peanuts.
But, before you move forward with a condescending nod, please remember that we, the Italians, when we are successful, very often we are successful in spite of what surrounds us.
So, believe me: in spite of the ecosystem being still small and real funding hard to find. In spite of bureaucracy (which, anyway, for startups has improved a lot recently). In spite of a mindset which sometimes is more inclined towards rejoicing of others’ failures, rather than sharing the successes. In spite of all this and more, we do have some really clever entrepreneurs doing cool things in the innovation landscape.
Here’s a list of some of my favourites, among the most promising ones. It comes with some caveats: I did not include some of the few that are already internationally reputed, like Yoox or Musixmatch, and I did not add those that are doing well, have an Italian team, but have their headquarters abroad – like Spreaker, Alyt or Tok.TV.
1) DoveConviene – ShopFully
Bologna-based startup http://corporate.shopfullygroup.com“>ShopFully has raised €20 million in funding in the last three years, from both Italian and international backers.
With roughly 100 employees scattered in the three main offices of Bologna, Milan and Cagliari, in Italy is known with the brand Dove Conviene (in the U.S. and in other countries where it operates, it uses other names), and it provides a digital alternative to the paper flyers retailers usually distribute to advertise their products to potential customers.
Looking for nearby offers from small shops to big chains like IKEA, Carrefour, Media World or Decathlon? That’s the website to visit (or the app to download). But the real strength of the product is the data it gathers about the customers and the stores; the use of geolocated information, in particular, is instrumental in matching more effectively the needs of the customers with the availability of the customers, taking the decision-making part of the shopping experience to the next level.
Nobody loves queues. Qurami is an app that gets a virtual ticket on your smartphone and checks the queue on your behalf, so that you don’t have to wait in line. In Italy is used to streamline access to the offices of some major Universities (like Rome’s La Sapienza and LUISS), in hospitals and municipal offices of cities like Milan, Florence, Rome and Padua.
In 2014, the startup received €590,000 in funding from Unicredit, LVenture and other backers, and is now looking to expand abroad, starting with the UK. The success Qurami has had so far is nothing comparable to the one it could have if it succeeds, as it plans expansion to other types of customers, such as banks and retailers.
And now for something completely different, let’s talk about space junk.
D-Orbit is an Italian startup headquartered in Milan with branches in Florence and Lomazzo, near Como, and with subsidiaries in Portugal and California. It was founded in 2011 by a team of experienced aerospace professionals and it aims to mitigate the problem of space debris, removing them through a decommissioning device that is installed in new spacecrafts before launch.
The market for this kind of solutions is potentially huge: $2.1 billion a year, according to recent estimates. The startup succeeded in closing a €2.2 million round of investments in 2014. Another €3 million was raised in October 2015 in two separate rounds. This will be the crucial year for D-Orbit, with the first official mission in space, to remove a small, 5kg satellite. It’s either make it or break it (hopefully, not on our heads).
Like D-Orbit, GreenRail is not the your next-selfie-app kind of startup. It is far more ambitious. It wants to make train travel more eco-friendly and sustainable, changing a fundamental part of the underlying infrastructure upon which trains pass: the tie.
The startup, launched by three thirty-something, Sicily-based entrepreneurs, has developed and patented a new kind of sleeper, made partly of concrete and partly of a mix of recycled plastic and rubber from end of life tires. For every KM of railway, 35 tons of rubber and 35 tons of plastic could be recycled. The Greenrail sleepers can also be used to produce electricity, thanks to a piezoelectric system embedded in the under rail section.
The founders are looking at Oman, Brasil and the USA as the first markets where the product should be launched (once all tests are over), by the end of 2016. As you can imagine, the market is huge, and that helps explain why CEO Giovanni De Lisi said “no” to €1 million in funding (for 20% of shares) offered by an investor during the latest Italian edition of the Shark Tank series.
Let’s talk about fintech. MoneyFarm is an online independent financial advisor, on the market since 2012. It wants to streamline the investment advisory supply chain, giving customers the chance to manage their investments at low costs, without the risk of potential conflicts of interest that are often found in the world of financial advisors.
In November 2015, MoneyFarm raised a €16 million round from UK-based Cabot Square Capital, and Italian fund United Ventures, and after having received good feedback and traction in Italy, it is now preparing to launch in the UK.
The startup is part of a new wave of interesting fintech startups coming from Italy. Most of them are based, like MoneyFarm, in Milan, the financial capital, where it’s quite easy to find the skills and the network to operate in the sector.
Yet another Italy-UK connection. Founder Davide d’Atri set up Soundreef in London in 2011, with the goal of improving the management of music rights and royalties in Europe.
Soundreef licenses businesses to play its members’ music in stores and live events in over 20 countries. As well as granting licenses to use music, it gathers and distributes royalties on behalf of authors and publishers, providing an alternative to traditional copyright collection societies. The goal is to make the system more transparent, given that national Collective Management Organizations like GEMA in Germany, SACEM in France or SIAE in Italy, are often criticised in this respect.
At the end of last year Soundreef came back home: a new company, Soundreef S.p.A, has been created in Italy which holds 100% of Soundreef Ltd.
Italy is probably one of the best places to launch a tourism-related startup. Milan-based Musement is a digital booking service that allows customers to find and book activities, guided tours, tickets to museums and attractions, city passes and much more around the world. It’s one of the more successful Italian startups when it comes to fundraising, having raised €5 million in 2015. Prior to that it was also named a 2014 Red Herring Top 100 Europe winner and was featured as “best new app” and “editors’ pick” in European Apple app stores.
Besides streamlining the booking process, it wants to become a point of reference for beautiful “travel experiences”, with travel tips and support. It has been calculated that the travel experiences market is worth $100 billion globally, so investors might as well want to give Musement a chance.
Back to fintech. If a startup convinces people like Jonhatan Weiner and Ray Iglesias – founders of the Google Wallet project – to make an investment, there must something to it.
The main Satispay product is an app that allows you to pay people and stores easily and quickly, using only a smartphone. All you have to do is choose the recipient from a list of contacts, input the amount to send and confirm. But the real deal is that, by bypassing the traditional banking and credit cards circuit, it allows businesses to pay lower transaction fees: it’s free for payments below 10 euros and it costs 20 cents per transaction for amounts above that.
Which is great to boost the usage of cashless payments for small expenses, like filling up on gas, and helps explain their recently signed agreement with petrol giant TotalErg to use the app in the brand’s gasoline stations across the country. The team’s ambitions are great: they aim to reach 500,000 users by 2017 and 15 million by 2020.
They call this one ‘the Uber of store checks”.
Basically, BeMyEye has crowdsourced the verification of several parameters deemed valuable by brands in their relationship with retailers: presence of the product in a store, compliance on guidelines given by the company, behaviour of the sales staff, etc, enrolling more than 120,000 on-demand workers to visit shops, bars, pharmacies and more.
Just like for Uber, workers have to download the app, accept a task, go to the store (proving their presence with a check-in), check what’s going on and fill a questionnaire that’s also sent through the app. According to the founders, this makes for a much more reliable and affordable system than the one that is used traditionally.
Launched in 2010 by Gianluca Petrelli, BeMyEye has opened subsidiaries in UK, France, Germany and Spain. Revenues have been growing steadily in the last few years, but are still relatively small; 2016 could be the year of the great leap forward.
I like to cover companies that are trying to have a positive impact on society, and Athonet is certainly one of them. When catastrophic earthquakes turned off cell coverage in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, in 2012, Athonet’s product, a compact, easy-to-install, LTE and 3G HSPA Core Network solution with WiFi support, called “Primo”, was instrumental in quickly restoring a decent level of connectivity and mobile phone communication.
Later, Primo was used in Africa, as part of the Save the Rhino campaign, to set up LTE coverage used to power a surveillance network against poaching in natural reserves. More recently, the Trieste-based company was involved in building up Malawi’s mobile network.
In today’s digital world, the ability to rapidly create dedicated networks using LTE technology could represent an important enabler for “smart” applications, and help reduce digital divide where Internet access is not present.
Athonet is well positioned to become a relevant player in this field.
Featured image credit: prochasson frederic / Shutterstock