Diego Piacentini’s career mirrors that of many Italians in tech: he left Italy.
After studying economics at Bocconi University in Milan, he moved to Silicon Valley and held senior roles at Apple and Amazon. But now, Piacentini has returned to his homeland to help fix the tech brain drain that he once embodied.
The exodus of tech talent and lack of startup creation in Italy has worried investors, policymakers and founders for years. Though the country is the fourth-largest economy in Europe, it has ranked twelfth for VC investment over the last five years. It’s created only one private tech company worth more than $1bn since the dotcom boom. Compare that to Spain, a smaller economy, which has three.
Piacentini is now chairman of Exor Seeds, the new early-stage venture arm of Ferrari's owner Exor. And his solution for Italian tech’s woes? A funding programme for pre-seed and seed stage Italian startups, launched today — a sort of Y Combinator for Italy.
“We believe Italy is at an inflection point. Italian success stories are beginning to emerge and people are returning to Italy from Silicon Valley and the rest of Europe to build companies,” Piacentini told Sifted.
“We have no ambition to emulate the likes of Y Combinator, or even Kima Ventures, from the start. But we aspire to what they have built — our ultimate goal is to get to that level.”
It’s not the first time that the massive family-owned holding company Exor has taken a look at startups. It has invested over $700m in 40 tech startups to date, including a $200m investment in transport startup Via in 2020 and participation in the Series C of proptech Casavo (which featured on Sifted’s Italian Startups To Watch list for 2022). Exor Seeds was also listed as an investor in Qonto’s massive €486m round earlier this year.
Not a venture fund, nor an accelerator
Exor Seeds will invest €150k from the group’s assets into two Italian startups a week, in return for between 5% and 8% of the company. And it won’t demand a board seat.
Exor Seeds is “not a venture fund, nor an accelerator,” Piacentini tells Sifted. Rather, it’s a new programme geared towards funnelling some of Exor’s €30bn in assets under management into helping Italy’s tech ecosystem play catch up to the likes of France and Germany.
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Exor did not want to confirm the size of the “pot” for investments allocated to its new Seeds venture arm. According to Piacentini, this will be worked out once the group gets a sense of how many applications it will receive.
Simplicity will be key for deploying capital fast
This capital will be deployed to applicants that meet Exor Seed’s business model criteria, and the group is aiming for a week’s turnaround time from application submission to investment.
“Our application format will be familiar, similar to that of Y Combinator’s — simplicity will be key for deploying capital fast,” says Piacentini.
To begin with, Exor Seeds isn’t promising a “cohort” structure or networking opportunities — its main focus will be on providing fast capital — but it does have a “small team of advisers” that will help mentor CEOs.
Mirroring the holding company’s overall investment strategy, Exor Seeds won’t have an official focus on one particular sector, but it is “likely to to be geared towards mobility, fintech and healthcare,” Piacentini says.
He tells Sifted that Exor Seeds has already made three investments into seed-stage Italian startups that have not yet been made public — one mental health startup, one NFT startup and one deeptech startup.
Amy O’Brien is a reporter at Sifted. She tweets from @Amy_EOBrien