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03/28/2017
From academic to company founder
Germany is renowned for the quality of its research - but scholars and scientists are rarely involved in the formation of a new business. Why is it that in comparison with other countries there are so few start-ups here? What are the corresponding problems and what needs to be changed in order to encourage our academics to create an upswing in terms of company formations? The Forum UnternehmerTUM can provide answers.

You're a researcher and you want to start-up your own business? Not an easy matter. Unfortunately, while academic research can be conducted within the confines of an ivory tower, in the real world you may well find that you lack financial backing and the necessary entrepreneurial skills. Even the working methods required can differ considerably: "In the academic environment, you are trained to generate knowledge and share that knowledge with others. And then you find yourself in a start-up setting and all of a sudden you realise you need to keep that knowledge to yourself and develop it within a team for commercial purposes. For me, this is a problem that I find it very difficult to deal with", says Dr. Nikola Müller, co-founder of the start-up Knowing.

So, what needs to be done to enable researchers like her to more readily undertake the formation of a company? This was the issue considered by this year's Forum UnternehmerTUM in the BMW Welt centre in Munich. The 650 guests from the business and academic sectors and the start-up community were able to listen to fascinating discussions and ideas on how to significantly increase the number of start-ups in Germany.

Shown as an introduction to the subject was a film 'Vom Wissenschaftler zum Gründer' - From academic to company founder - that dealt with corresponding examples in the USA, Japan and Sweden. It demonstrated how, with the aid of impressive best practices, it is possible to form start-ups not only abroad but also in Germany.
 

Provide for a start-up-orientated mentality in higher education
Wolfgang A. Herrmann, president of the Technical University of Munich, believes that institutes of higher education should themselves adopt an approach that will facilitate the formation of start-ups. Although a commercial outlook is not necessarily required, what is essential is the promotion of an entrepreneurial and business-based mentality. Dr. Georg Schroth, director of NavVis, shares this view: "Professors need to undertake more research that is relevant to actual practice. It is important for students to experience what it is like to start a business so that they can subsequently use this for their own benefit."

Dr. Helmut Schönenberger, CEO of UnternehmerTUM is of the same opinion and added: "If we want to get this concept up and running in Germany, we need to ensure that more than 15% of our professors are willing to play along."
Forum UnternehmerTUM 2017
UnternehmerTUM GmbH // Bert Willer

Professor Rosenfeld of the Fraunhofer organisation sees it as important to prevent heads of institutes obstructing the initiatives of young start-up entrepreneurs. Sadly, it is always the best performers in a team who found a business and leave the institute and this is undoubtedly a problem. What would help here would be the introduction of an incentive scheme. By offering the option of obtaining some form of recompense, it should be possible to prevent academic institutes clinging to their best performers and encourage them to release these people to create new cash cows.

Professor Jürgen Mlynek of the Helmholtz Association suggested that all doctoral candidates should themselves flirt with the idea of forming a start-up. "When undertaking their theses, they should perhaps think about what they would do if they subsequently needed to live from the results of their research."
Forum UnternehmerTUM 2017
UnternehmerTUM GmbH // Bert Willer

Learn from other countries
In the discussion round chaired by Dominik Wichmann, the focus was on a comparison between the USA and Germany. According to Rosenfeld, it is largely intrinsic factors that motivate academics to found a business.

The start-up culture in the USA is much more extensively embedded than here and there is even acceptance of the fact that projects can fail. "We are not as willing to accept risks," explained University President Hermann. What is hindering us in Germany is excessive rigidity of outlook and readiness to conform, particularly at our universities. Our inherited German desire to be perfect does not allow for second chances.

It is the non-Americans in the USA who particularly want to be successful. "Although we already do much that is appropriate in Germany we need to persuade our own people to undertake their entrepreneurial projects here rather than in another environment." But creating the required ecosystem will take time, concluded Mlynek.

Germany has no need to hide its light under a bushel. "We're good at saying that others do it better, but that is not the case," clarified Professor Rosenfeld, who went on to report on the many start-ups that were initiated here last year.

The fundamental thing, claimed Dr. Schroth of NavVis, is to bring people together. Extensive support is required if more start-ups are to see the light of day and, in this connection, the TU Munich and UnternehmerTUM are exactly the right partners.


Fotos: Patrick Ranz / Bert Willer