When you search for “famous entrepreneur” with Google you will end up with well-known faces smiling at you: Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg are only some examples. If you type in “famous German entrepreneur” instead, half of the pictures displayed are first of all black and white. And presumably, you do not recognize a single person – even as a German. This epitomizes quite nicely the state of entrepreneurship in Germany. Those local entrepreneurs that are known by the broader public in Germany stem mainly from the eCommerce sector. They are successful people and achieved their liquidity events. However: how come that a country globally known for high-tech companies, either from the “German Mittelstand”, or global players such as Siemens, Bosch, or Daimler, nowadays mainly produces low-tech and internet entrepreneurs? Many of the companies mentioned above have been created by high-tech entrepreneurs – inventors and innovators at the same time. And this is not only true for Germany, but for many European countries as well (think of Swarovski, Louis Dreyfus, Peugeot, Philips, Nokia, ABB, Ericsson). And at the same time, we still pour an enormous amount of money into European research institutions and the education of scientists, researchers and engineers. This is the European economical DNA: high-tech.
But somehow the role model of a successful entrepreneur changed from building the next Daimler to selling dog food over the internet. No one cares about the so-called “old economy” anymore. Their business models? Old-fashioned! Creating tangible products with high quality? Old-fashioned! Slow growth built upon early profits? Old-fashioned! Today’s role model of a successful innovator works on a highly scalable and purely digital startup. Everyone wants to build the new Airbnb, Uber, or Facebook. But who will then build new “German Mittelstand” companies? The next generation of European hidden champions? How come that we give up on our key asset: breadth and depth of high-tech development and its conversion into long-lasting, highly adaptive companies with global reach?
For sure, we have lost the battle for pioneering the digital era. But we still can become very successful followers. For sure, the world is changing faster and the rules of for modern business models have changed. But we will be able to adapt again, just as we did several times in the past centuries. When we, as a European society, place such expensive bets on technology development, we need to do more in order to connect the ivory towers of research to the entrepreneurship ecosystems surrounding them. So what does this mean in practice?
Expose high-tech entrepreneurs to the public: role models are crucial in order to guide behavior of human beings. Every young student attending entrepreneurship courses and probably also my Mom knows Oliver Samwer from Rocket Internet in Berlin. Presumably, none of them has ever heard of Tillmann Steinbrecher, Maik Gerth and Florian Schmidt. These three gentlemen led the Exocad GmbH that has been spun-off from the Fraunhofer IGD in Darmstadt and account for the highest exit in the history of Fraunhofer. Why do newspapers, websites covering startup topics and bloggers tell people about every single internet startup (how interest are you in just another food delivery, workout, or social networking startup?), but seem to ignore many of the research-based ventures? Why are most entrepreneurship courses at universities about purely digital innovations and not connected to technology management and development at all? We have to make sure that these sometimes highly complex and not easy to understand businesses are exposed to and explained to society. And there are great examples of high-tech entrepreneurship. The deep connection between the scholarship program “Manage & More” (offered by the Munich-based UnternehmerTUM) with Fraunhofer Venture’s“ FDays® program is a good example for the co-existence of a high-tech accelerator and entrepreneurship education for young students from all disciplines. The same is true for WU Vienna’s “Tech Garage” that connects researchers and their IP with an interdisciplinary group of entrepreneurial students.
Create interfaces between researchers and entrepreneurs: there are experienced entrepreneurs in every country in Europe that know how to set up a business, how to deal with complex technologies and B2B markets and are willing to invest their experience and resources to get the next startup off the ground. But you usually won’t find these people at any of the fancy meetups, or entrepreneurship parties.. sorry, demo days. And also, they are not well-connected to research institutions either, since the latter act as closed shops, too often. However, we see more and more activities launched by Technology Transfer Offices, universities and governments aiming at attracting experienced entrepreneurs, or at least highly-skilled business people for high-tech venturing purposes. There is still a lot to learn about how to identify these experienced entrepreneurs, how to match them effectively with teams of researchers and how to create a fertile ground for a long-lasting relationship between the two worlds. We, at Fraunhofer Venture, are jointly experimenting with UnternehmerTUM and a startup from Berlin, 12Grapes, with regard to more sophisticated matching mechanisms and team development activities. But this going to be a tough nut to crack. However, the lever is powerful.
Transform researchers into entrepreneurs: in 2013, Fraunhofer Venture started a new initiative called “Fraunhofer fosters intrapreneurship” (FFI). At its core, FFI aimed at building up the early innovation phase in order to create a better dealflow for Fraunhofer Venture’s spin-off activities. The potential source of new spin-offs was and still is 69 Fraunhofer institutes and approx. 18000 researchers. How to transform this potential into actual startups? Today, the outcome of FFI is the so-called Fraunhofer Venture Lab managing Business Ideation workshops, FDays®, a network or ambassadors and much more. Following intrapreneurship principles, the Venture Lab identifies, selects and supports the most entrepreneurial researchers from Fraunhofer. As of today, more than 1000 researchers attended workshops and trainings, 100+ teams have been selected for the FDays® accelerator and roughly 10% of these projects have reached the market already. Drawing upon our own experience, we agree that a) roughly 20% of our researchers already possess an entrepreneurial spirit , b) entrepreneurship can be taught (though, admittedly, following entrepreneurial principles and being an entrepreneur is still not the same) and c) transforming researchers into entrepreneurs is doable. Hence, our task is to find the a)s, create intrapreneurs by doing b) and put effort into option c). The last two really mean playing the long-term game. From my experience and impact measurements of FDays®, another 20% of our Fraunhofer researchers have been converted from a researcher into either an intrapreneur, or an entrepreneur. But be aware that this transformation demands significant investment.
// by Thorsten Lambertus