We had the opportunity to discuss our internationalization campaign with Nicole Ticchi from Clust-ER Health Emilia-Romagna. It was a pleasure to discuss with Nicole about our experience and to shed light on relevant aspects that can support Italian SMEs in their efforts to go international.

The full italian version of the interview can be found at the Clust-ER Health website.

CorCon is a small company located in Parma that focuses on the research and development of food supplements, in order to create a portfolio of proprietary products and support pharmaceutical companies wishing to expand their market. It operates in the field of food supplements, cosmeceuticals and functional foods. It has been active on the Italian territory for 15 years with distribution in the pharmacy channel, thanks to the activity of medical-scientific information carried out by important Italian pharmaceutical companies.

In 2021, it decided to expand its market to new horizons by initiating an internationalization campaign. CorCon had the opportunity to participate in trade fair events and to build its foreign trade office dedicated to export activities thanks also to the support of regional grants issued in 2021 and 2022 and European Horizon 2020 calls. We interviewed Agostino Bruno, CorCon’s R&D and Project Manager, to let him tell us about their growth path in internationalization actions. “The first year was not easy, we had to create everything from scratch, both at the website and social networking level, and since we operate exclusively in B2B modality, we decided to use Linkedin,” Agostino says. “There was an initial phase that I would call a ‘warm-up’ phase, in which we prepared all the materials, and then we started to make ourselves known by researching distributors in various markets that could respond to our wishes.”

Initial difficulties were not lacking. “Having never operated in international markets before,” Agostino confirms, “there is often an initial mistrust and there is, above all, the need to make the company known abroad. This also served to understand the need to grow brand awareness, with targeted campaigns on Linkedin, and to be seen more in an international context.”

“Conveying confidence to potential interlocutors by participating in trade shows, showing that there is a solid structure, albeit small, but capable of doing interesting things, has been the focus of our internationalization efforts.“

“One of the main features of CorCon that we want to highlights,” says Agostino, “is that the efficacy of our products is clinically tested. We realized that this is a significant advantage over our competitors, who usually rely on literature data of individual ingredients: hence the need to clearly communicate this added value that we care so much about.”

This consideration was also the starting point in 2022 for CorCon’s participation in its first international trade fair: the CPHI in Frankfurt, the pharmaceutical ingredients industry’s largest global marketplace. “It gave us a lot of satisfaction because we had the opportunity to grow our brand considerably, to develop a whole series of contacts even in places we didn’t think about, such as Canada, the Gulf countries and Spain, which, however, being in the European market was already more within our reach.”

In 2023, CorCon also decided to explore the realities of another very important trade fair for the health sector the Arab Health held at the World Trade Center in Dubai every year in late January. The Arab Health is an important entry point not only for the Middle Eastern market, but globally. “Time was tight to get a booth, so we attended the trade fair as visitors, but by scheduling meetings in advance with interesting potential stakeholders attending the fair,” Agostino says.

Important consideration goes also on the approach to participation in the fair. “Since we are a small company, we found it extremely useful to participate in organizations such as Clust-ER Health and the activities promoted by the Italian Trade Agency. So, we were part of the Italian collective at Vita Foods 2023 in Geneva, and in October we will participate in the CPHI in Barcelona (Oct. 24-26, 2023) with our own dedicated booth, thanks to the support of the calls made available by the Emilia-Romagna region to support the internationalization activities of SMEs.”

“These activities are key to gaining visibility and making small realities like ours known,” says Agostino. “But all this requires major investments that have a risk: that’s why, in order to be able to mitigate it, it is useful and important to be supported by grants or to participate within collectives. I think it’s really crucial for small Italian companies, which are the vast majority of the national business fabric.”

Lessons learned: internationalization as a path of continuous learning

Embarking on a such an important path as internationalization from scratch, especially for a small business, is far from easy. So, we asked CorCon what are the important lessons learned and brought home that may also be useful to other companies about to take the same path. “The work behind participating in a trade show is the biggest commitment, such as choosing the booth so that it doesn’t happen to be in a secondary area that could compromise its visibility and that it has a set-up that is representative of the company’s philosophy and at the same time makes it unique. But if there is an efficient organization behind it, through agenda building and advertising activity done beforehand, the situation changes quite a bit,” says Agostino.

Curating performance during the event also requires strategy. CorCon, in fact, has set up a workflow and team that starts months in advance with advertising campaigns, aimed at generating interest and appointments with interesting companies. Then there is the scouting activity on the markets they want to operate in and then direct contacts through dedicated e-mails, alerting other partners who will be at the fair to arrange meetings. “And, of course, the importance of social networks, which is becoming really essential, because we realized that doing activities even during the event can increase visibility and allow us to intercept potential partners that had not been identified with previous activities. Something we didn’t do at first because of inexperience, but now our LinkedIn page is full of these activities: it is important because it gives a human face to the company. In fact, participation in the fair also helps us to create content that we can use at other times of the year to refresh in our stakeholders both our actions and our people. In this way you are ultimately able to bring out the human face of the company and increase the sense of trust.”

Another important lesson: on-site technical contacts with experts in the target market.

“During Arab Health 2023, we did not have a booth, but we had a resident manager on site who supported us throughout the event by accompanying us to meet potential contacts. For some countries, having a figure who lives on site, who knows the context is crucial, because they know how to approach, they know the ways and customs of that country, and you open up another world completely. Companies that via e-mail or phone didn’t listen to you much, this way are much more willing to listen to you.”

In 2022 CorCon signed its first distribution contract with a Canadian company for three products in its portfolio, and, especially in Arab countries, they were able to connect with very important multinationals that otherwise would not have listened. Even when contracts were not closed these opportunities were useful to better understand what the critical aspects are for those countries.

Another important contact, as Agostino tells us, is with a reality in the MENA (Middle East North Africa) area. This contact developed thanks to the interactions we had during Arab Health, without which it would have been very difficult to identify interesting companies in that area: these are developing countries, which are not given enough credit but which represent interesting and strategic areas from the point of view of internationalization possibilities.

New markets and prospects for international exploration

Exploration of the various contexts continues for CorCon considering the U.S. territory as well, both with more vertical fairs on the supplement and nutraceutical sector and with opportunities with a broader scope. North America, for example, is a large and interesting market area, especially for certain types of Food Supplements, and among the interesting fairs to attend is the CPhI North America taking place in Philadelphia, where ICE itself organized a collective event years ago.

Another interesting event, in which other Clust-ER Health member companies had also expressed interest, is FIME (Florida International Medical Expo), organized by the same exhibition circuit as Arab Health.

“Participating in these collectives as Cluster Emilia-Romagna, presenting ourselves as a regional ecosystem has an important value,” Agostino concludes. On this, in fact, thanks to the collaboration with CNA Modena and the consulting firm GMA, which oversaw the participation of some companies in Arab Health 2024, the Clust-ER Health is moving to understand the feasibility at the organizational level for a possible participation in the edition to be held in Miami in June 2024.

To stay updated on CorCon’s activities and learn about future steps in their internationalization experience follow their website and LinkedIn page.