Stefano Benigni, Doctoral programme student

Programme: PhD Student at Imperial College London

Nationality: Italian

Job prior to Imperial College Business School: Entrepreneur

Education: Aerospace Engineering

My research lies at the intersection of strategy and innovation, with an emphasis on how individual and organizational decision processes shape firms’ performance outcomes. These outcomes can relate to firms’ innovation efforts as well as their broader performance. In examining this phenomenon, I study the underlying mechanisms such as learning, biases in evaluation and information aggregation structures, and the effects of mental representation that both shape individual and organization search efforts and their consequences. This work can contribute both theoretically and empirically to the literatures on strategic management, technology innovation management, and organizational theory. This research is also of practical interest to managers seeking to understand the trade-offs associated with their R&D portfolio choices.


In my dissertation, I examine how firms’ R&D evaluation processes impact the outcomes of their innovation efforts, as well as how the cognitive aspects of these processes evolve at the individual level. The challenge that managers face when evaluating potential or ongoing R&D investments is determined by the interplay of two fundamental issues. On the one hand, the commercial or strategic value of R&D opportunities is uncertain and depends on multiple interdependent factors. On the other, the extended time lags between investments and commercialization make it difficult to learn from past decisions. Hence, managers must rely on combinations of portfolio approaches and group decision processes to make R&D evaluations.

In theoretically examining this challenge, I first focus on the individual cognition of managers. I build on the organizational learning, managerial cognition, and neuro-cognitive literatures to propose a learning mechanism that is mediated by changes in the structure of individuals’ mental representations. I test my theoretical predictions empirically and find that individuals can learn even when feedback is highly noisy or unobserved.

I then explore further implications of my proposed learning mechanism in an agent-based computational simulation. This study builds on NK models of search over both policies and representations and shows performance trade-offs associated with different learning strategies.

Finally, I examine a group decision process in which decision-makers solicit and integrate the knowledge of other domain experts. This setting enables me to unpack one of the mechanisms that underpins the fundamental trade-off between the costs and biases of different information aggregation structures.

The empirical context for my dissertation is patent evaluation and termination decisions. I use proprietary data related to a large corpus of patent evaluation statements at a high-tech firm between 1995 and 2015.


I use quantitative and natural language processing methods. I have developed web-scraping tools to collect data from online databases such as Google Patents, Scopus, FAME/AMADEUS, LinkedIn, and more for academic publishing purposes.

Before starting the Doctoral programme at Imperial College, I worked as an Aerospace R&D engineer and gained some entrepreneurial experience by founding and selling a short-term rentals business.

Choosing the Doctoral programme at Imperial

Why did you decide to study the Doctoral programme at Imperial College Business School?

I have always been interested in how our society and the technology that powers it changes and improves over time. I chose to research these themes at Imperial College Business School because it is a world-class university at the heart of one of the most advanced technological and entrepreneurial hubs in the world.  The fully-funded programme is led by top scholars in multiple fields, and it is designed to offer diverse learning opportunities and the choice of your own growth path.

What is your previous academic and work experience and how did this prepare you for the programme?

I studied Aerospace Engineering in Italy and did some work experience abroad as an R&D engineer. I became interested in business academia and research in London while starting and growing my own business in the rentals industry. Imperial gave me the opportunity to work on some research projects and know more about business academia. That was the time when I realised that critical thinking skills and the willingness to learn were the most important assets in the business research world. I eventually decided to apply for the Doctoral programme at Imperial College Business School and sell my business to invest more time in my research.

The Doctoral programme experience

What is the best thing about the Doctoral programme so far?

The learning opportunities are among the best things about the Doctoral programme, especially in terms of the close contact we get to have with faculty. The programme is well structured yet open-ended enough to let you choose your own professional growth path. You can join the many projects carried out by our faculty, pick your own training courses within and outside Imperial, or get endorsed by Imperial and do work within a company for research purposes.

How did the MRes prepare you for your doctoral research?

The MRes was been effective in introducing me to the world of business academia and providing the formal training I needed to carry out research. I learned more about the academic profession values and how to produce valuable research. By the end of the MRes, I had significantly improved my knowledge of the existing literature and research methods, and, most importantly, my capacity to select relevant literature and learn from it.

What did you enjoy most about the MRes?

The close contact with top scholars in multiple, diverse fields is what I enjoyed the most about the MRes. I knew that the study material selected by my instructors and any interaction with them both during and outside classes would have been unique opportunities to learn from their expertise.

What has been your favourite modules?

My favourite modules have to be Strategic Management and Innovation Management. The quality of the content matches the high bar set by all the other modules, and the instructors went above and beyond by providing very detailed and insightful advice on how to get published and do research more generally.

What area of research will you be doing your PhD on?

My research is in the area of organisational learning, with an interest in cognitive and social perspectives on decision making and knowledge creation. I am currently working on a project that uses the management of intellectual property portfolios as a context to study how decision-makers learn and improve the quality of their decisions. In other projects, I study how knowledge diffuses among organisational members and on how organisations use different learning processes to improve their capabilities and achieve their goals.

Which seminars, events or guest lectures at the school have been useful in developing your skills and knowledge?

Imperial College Business School hosts its flagship conference every year, formerly known as I&E Conversation, that brings together renowned scholars from around the world to discuss current trends in studies of Innovation & Entrepreneurship. The conference has given me a unique opportunity to network with experts at the frontier of these research areas. Further, Imperial organises seminars with faculty from other institutions and a series of internal workshops where professors and researchers share their working papers. Both series of events, organised regularly, are invaluable learning opportunities that I would place among the main benefits of being at Imperial.

A collaborative cohort and Imperial culture

How would you describe the Business School faculty and your fellow Doctoral students?

The Business School faculty consists of scholars who have published in the highest-ranked journals in Management and closely related fields. Nonetheless, professors and researchers contribute to a friendly, collaborative environment by helping and engaging with Doctoral students. My fellow students share the same collaborative attitude as I have always felt part of a group of talented people who understand each other’s needs and ambitions.

Have you benefited from being part of the wider Imperial College London community?

Being part of the wider Imperial College London community is among the major benefits of this Doctoral programme. You know that every student on campus has been selected by one of the most competitive admission processes in the world for degrees as diverse as Engineering, Science, and Medicine. You feel part of a community of like-minded individuals who are fully interested in and committed to their studies.

Further, Imperial College has an intrinsic entrepreneurial culture that engages students across disciplines. I was once approached by two Physics students who were working on a side project that overlapped with my research. They wanted to develop and commercialise a product and kindly asked me to collaborate. I think the opportunity to collaborate with talented students with such a diverse technical skill set is a unique feature of Imperial that would be hard to replicate anywhere else.

Opportunities at the Business School

What has been the greatest opportunity you have had at Imperial that you wouldn’t get anywhere else?

The greatest opportunity I have had at Imperial was the chance to choose my own professional growth path, knowing that the School would give me both support and valuable opportunities regardless of my choice. I eventually decided to focus mostly on my research, but I could have equally chosen to invest more time, among the others, in developing my teaching skills, engaging with industry and working on consulting projects, or in getting involved in startups with MBA and other students from the wider Imperial community. The Doctoral programme has strict requirements in terms of the quality of the research we are expected to produce, but these and other learning opportunities are possible and in fact fully supported by the School.

What are your future career goals and how have they been realised since being at Imperial?

I am planning to continue my career in academia after finishing the Doctoral programme in two years’ time. My objective is to start the Assistant Professor tenure track at a research-intensive university. Producing research that matches the standards of quality for publication in highly ranked journals would significantly improve my chances to meet my objective. My PhD supervisors and other members of faculty have already helped me in major ways to improve towards these standards, and I am confident that the next two years will be instrumental to further my academic growth.

Do you think studying in a central location such as London is beneficial for networking and career opportunities?

Being one of the most advanced financial, technological, and entrepreneurial hubs in the world, networking and career opportunities abound in London. Here I had the opportunity to start and eventually sell my business in the rentals industry. Before joining Imperial, I had considered a career in management consulting and reached out to working professionals in the field to learn more about their career. Networking with practising consultants was instrumental in making me realise that academic research was better suited to my professional interests.

Living in London as a Doctoral student

Where do you live in London and why did you choose to live there?

I recently moved to Fulham, not far from South Kensington and Imperial College Business School, yet I spent the previous five years in East London near Liverpool Street station. I settled in that area when I first moved to London with very limited knowledge of what to expect. I eventually loved the rich mix of diverse cultures that characterises London at large and that location in particular, being at the intersection of the financial hub of the City on one side and of the bar-packed, street artists friendly area of Shoreditch on the other.

What can a weekend in London look like for a PhD student?

Research knows no weekend but why not read that one more paper in a nice café or in one of the many parks in central. One thing becomes very clear after living for a short time in London, by the time you finish exploring all the nice spots and places where you can sit and do your readings (or anything else really), new ones will have replaced the ones you have seen already and you can start exploring all over again. If you add the countless events, exhibitions, clubs, and the opportunity to try out any sort of sport or fun activity you can think of, you pretty soon realise that you will never run out of options for the weekend.

What have been the benefits and challenges of moving to London? What advice would you give to someone in a similar position?

Most of the living costs in London amount to accommodation. Imperial College Business School is in a prime location in South Kensington, where renting costs are higher than the average. Finding the right trade-off between costs and distance to campus in a location that suits your style might be the main challenge when you first move to London. Each location has its own style, from quiet, residential areas to proper nightlife hubs. Also, public transport connections and the possibility to easily get to campus would probably have a significant impact on your choice. I would suggest reaching out to us or to other students from Imperial to get a sense of what you want to avoid and look for depending on your needs.

Advice to prospective students

What advice would you share to prospective students considering the Doctoral programme in Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Imperial?

Put your own research interests front and centre when considering the Doctoral programme since your critical thinking and motivation are the most important resources that you need to succeed. Your non-business or non-economic background would not lower the chances to be admitted to the programme. Educational background and professional expertise in a variety of diverse fields are assets, rather than liabilities when doing research in management and entrepreneurship. Since formal training will be provided during the first years of the programme, just arm yourself with motivation and with your research interests when you apply to the Doctoral programme at Imperial.

Programme: PhD Student at Imperial College London

Nationality: Italian

Job prior to Imperial College Business School: Entrepreneur

Education: Aerospace Engineering

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