Minding bridges and avoiding bullshit: A chat about the European tech industry with Alberto Onetti

tech.eu recently caught up with European entrepreneur and matchmaker Alberto Onetti at LeWeb in Paris, resulting in a candid interview about the good and bad of the EU startup ecosystem.
Minding bridges and avoiding bullshit: A chat about the European tech industry with Alberto Onetti

Alberto Onetti is a seasoned serial entrepreneur who has developed his career between Europe and Silicon Valley.

He’s currently the CFO of mobile personal cloud company Funambol -which to date has raised more than $25 million- and he’s also one of the co-founders of the Mind The Bridge Foundation, an institution that aims to “inspire, educate and stimulate a new generation of young European entrepreneurs”.

Alberto was at LeWeb last week to talk about the role corporates play in the technology ecosystem, and we sat down with him to discuss these topics and also to get his opinion on the current state of education in Europe and how it has adapted -or not- to the times we live in.

Mind The Bridge has been instrumental in bringing Silicon Valley closer to European startups and inspiring young entrepreneurs. In addition, for quite a while your focus has been on helping promising startups scale and become what you call scale-ups. How do you achieve that?

It’s a good question. It was pretty strange that the European Commission gave us something that was in our plans. When we made the plans for 2014 our first goal was building a bridge between startups and established businesses and corporations in Europe and all over the world.

If you look at Silicon Valley what’s really happening is that corporates are always looking and tapping the startup ecosystem because they know that’s an easier and better way to innovate.

They know they can’t innovate internally because they are too old and they reach out through what’s usually called open innovation. Internally it’s very hard to innovate and every corporate in the world should have this as a mission statement: we can’t create the next big thing in here. And if they think they can, they are probably lying to themselves.

Are most European multinationals and corporations aware of this or are they still slow to adapt?

I think they understand that this is very important for their future. The problem is that when they start to execute this open innovation strategy, they find a lot of problems.

Imagine Versaille; it’s a gigantic palace with many rooms and it’s very easy to get lost in it. Most of the time there are people who really understand the concept of open innovation but then, when they try to navigate inside the building, they get lost and they find that part of the building is not aware of what they are talking about. However, in the end it all depends on the level of commitment inside the corporation.

Our first goal when we partner with corporates is that they need to have a real commitment to work with startups and they need to have concrete goals and a pragmatic attitude. I’ve spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley and I’ve really become allergic to anything that’s not pragmatic.

I’m not interested in bullshit.

Do you still see a lot of that in Europe?

Yeah. It’s everywhere.

Is it a matter of time, as Silicon Valley was first to get there and the rest of the world needs to catch up? Or is it more a cultural thing that stops regions like Europe from getting there?

I think Silicon Valley is a place that can’t be replicated in the world and that it shouldn’t try to be replicated. That said, there are some cultural aspects that we can learn and try to adopt to improve: pragmatism and thinking big are two aspects that hopefully will be adopted by more agents of the ecosystem as time goes by.

That’s one of the reasons that we try to work with corporates to help them work together with startups in many ways, but mostly through procurement (by buying products and services from startups), investments and acquisitions. One thing that I find when I talk about these things in Europe is that there’s a significant cultural aversion to acquisitions.

I recently had a chat with a Spanish VC and he mentioned that one of the main issues he sees in the space is the fact that corporates are afraid of buying and integrating startups still to this day. Do you think that’s true?

That’s very true. There is a lot of fear about acquisitions, but not only from corporates, but also from startups, institutions, or universities. A lot of organizations in Europe look at acquisitions as if they are the second-best solution to a problem or something negative. And that attitude should change.

The typical objection that I find in Europe is that when you sell a company it means that you no longer can become global or last in time, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Acquisitions are part of the wheel of innovation and one of its most important elements.

In the end exits are like necessary sacrifices for the evolution of the startup species. If you don’t have them, maybe if you’re super lucky you can have an australopithecus turn into a man, but most of the time they will remain monkeys.

You work closely with the European Union and the European Commission and lately they’ve become much more involved in the startup and technology ecosystem, be it through the European Investment Fund or by bringing closer accelerators. What else can they do in order to help out? Or should they just keep the initiatives they have and let the ecosystem evolve by itself?

I started helping the European Commission a year ago, so I’m sure there are others who know more about this. When I met the group in charge of the Startup Europe Partnership I was really impressed because they have a strong determination to push things into the Commission building.

In this sense I think that every member of the tech and innovation community in Europe should thank Neelie Kroes for bringing startups to the center of European politics. If you look at the mandates or letters from current Commissioners, startups were all mentioned as being a key part, and this represents a big change compared to a few years ago. This of course doesn’t mean that it will translate into actual policies and initiatives, but it at least means that it’s part of the agenda.

And how to take this from the agenda and make it a reality is a very good question. I think the approach that Startup Europe is taking is to identify targets and assign these targets to private institutions instead of doing it themselves. And I think this is good, because they are letting knowledgeable people and organizations help them. Then it’s up to these European startup ecosystems to evolve, because you can’t depend on others to get to the next level.

There’s a lot of spontaneous growth all over Europe in various ecosystems, but what’s still missing are the scale-ups: some champions that move out of these ecosystems, grow and then attract the attention of other companies that will try to follow them in that path to success. And in the meantime, we should stop talking about national champions to focus on European ones.

Who cares about where they’re from?

We’ve talked about scale-ups, corporates and public institutions. However, the missing piece of the puzzle is education and you’re a professor both in the US and Italy. Are European education systems up to the game? Have they really evolved and adapted?

In Europe I’m perceived as a strange professor because I do things instead of study things. If you look at the education system and the recruitment process for professors, you understand that we can’t be up to date because it’s a process that takes years to evolve.

In the US there is a focus on applying knowledge in the real world and in Europe on theory. Look for example at the area of PhDs. If you do a PhD in the US they will ask you how you’re going to apply it in the real world and in Europe the question goes something like ‘what’s the scope of your research?’.

So unless we start educating people who come out of PhDs that this is not exclusively a way to become a professor or research but also to become an entrepreneur, things will continue to be stagnant.

If you look closely at current education systems you realize that they’ve been built to help people find a job. And what they should focus instead is in teaching students how to create their own job.

When that happens, we’ll be in better shape.

Featured image credit: LeWeb / Flickr

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