High above Turin, with floor-to-ceiling views stretching to the snow-capped Alps, the 31st floor of Intesa Sanpaolo’s new Renzo Piano-designed skyscraper is home to the bank’s Innovation Center. Groups gather around large wooden tables or nestle into contemporary sofas, tapping at laptops.
There is a buzz of industry and energy.
The task in hand, explains Maurizio Montagnese, Intesa Sanpaolo’s chief innovation officer, is to design the bank of the future, scouring the globe for the best ideas, technologies and relationships to benefit Intesa Sanpaolo, its clients, the wider business community and – ultimately – all of us.
"Good innovation improves the quality of life."
Maurizio Montagnese, Intesa Sanpaolo’s chief innovation officer.
“We are a focal point for the synthesis of all that is new and good. Innovation is not just technology – that is an instrument – or organisation, but it is also about cultural models and people,” he says. “Innovation requires curiosity, imagination, openness, the desire to understand. We want to spread a culture of innovation across the group and make sure it has real impact.”
The skyscraper setting may be “strategic and symbolic” – the ideal location for a window on the world – but, he says, the department is no ivory tower.
Its 100 employees disseminate selected projects to around 2,000 more staff working in key fields such as technology and information systems. They, in turn, will share best practice and training with the bank’s 95,000 employees.
In the short term, popular initiatives such as “innovation coffee” – brief lunchtime presentations open to all, on topics such as the evolution of social media – help to promote engagement.
The desire to innovate, Montagnese points out, is not new.
A key component of the Innovation Center is its “observatory”, which follows trends and scouts for original ideas warranting support and investment – to the tune of €250m a year. The bank’s expanding international footprint is making it ever easier to spread the net wide.
Of particular interest is fintech – new applications, processes, products and models in the financial services industry. Important partnerships have been forged with incubators in the fintech hotspots of Singapore, London, New York and most recently Tel Aviv.
Here, Intesa Sanpaolo is a founding partner – alongside Santander, HSBC and RBS – of The Floor, a dedicated fintech startup hub.
Dialogue with universities in Italy and beyond is another vital element in the “ecosystem”.
“This is where the roles and systems we don’t yet know are being identified,” says Montagnese.
The Innovation Center’s scope extends further than arranging funding, however, because there’s intrinsic value in finding solutions to business problems. Intesa Sanpaolo’s network of clients represent a pool of potential investment, custom, mentoring and sometimes even acquisition.
“From the moment a product has a specific value we can help to industrialise it, make it commercial and sustainable in time.” The aim, says Montagnese, remains largely the traditional one of bringing people together.
"We seek to match concepts – sometimes quite abstract – with concrete, physical content."
The Tuscan city of Pistoia is renowned for its plant nursery businesses. The bank will soon accompany a number of valued clients from the industry to Tel Aviv to see what new startup technologies might be able to offer.
Founded in 2009, Startup Initiative is the bank’s acceleration and networking platform. It has already matched 800 innovators with more than 7,000 investors. A technology-focused platform, Tech Marketplace, has been instrumental in 350 contracts.
“The response when we asked our colleagues to identify possible companies was huge. All three players – bank, business and startup – should benefit in terms of investment return and revenue,” says Montagnese.
“This moves us from a passive approach to one where we actually help companies grow at home and internationally. If they improve their capacity for innovation they will then be easier to lend to. It is a virtuous circle.”
But new ideas and systems must provide tangible results. Think big, start small, scale fast is the mantra. “Everything must have a start and it must have an end point. All projects are analysed and measured along the path of their evolution. Innovation necessarily demands speed,” says Montagnese.
A year – at most two – is the average time frame before a project is put to commercial use by the appropriate division of the bank. The Center also enjoys the luxury of being able to spend longer looking at wider general trends – such as big data and Bitcoin – with potential banking impact.
Like the mountains at the windows of the Innovation Center, rippling away beyond Italy’s borders, this work knows no frontiers, says Montagnese. “Barriers are effectively non- existent. There is no horizon. We can do things which would have been unimaginable until recently – and there is, by definition, always more to come.”
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