Even when UnternehmerTUM was founded in 2002, its mission was to empower people to think and act entrepreneurially. This North Start still guides the UnternehmerTUM team today, almost 20 years later.
We interviewed Oliver Bücken, Director Entrepreneurship & Tech Education, who has been leading seminars at UnternehmerTUM almost since its founding. He provided us with exciting insights into the impact through entrepreneurial education.
Every year, thousands of people take part in entrepreneurship programs offered by UnternehmerTUM and Technical University of Munich. Students, researchers, professionals, founders and lifelong learners find all the knowledge they need to equip themselves ideally for their career in their own start-up or as a manager. Even today, we start this process during the studies, e.g. with our entrepreneurship scholarship Manage and More, business plan seminars, the EMBA or the lecture "Innovative Entrepreneurs", which are now part of our new Academy for Innovators. In addition, there are specific educational offerings, e.g., from the Academy of our appliedAI initiative, which provides the bundled knowledge and tools on artificial intelligence.
Oliver, you have been involved in entrepreneurship teaching at UnternehmerTUM for 18 years. When you look back, how has the entrepreneurship education changed?
In the early 2000s, the dot.com bubble had just burst, new markets and other tech indices were on a downward slide, and there was an employment crisis – all of which led, among other things, to business policy-motivated start-up programs. The aim was to tackle an internationally low start-up rate and the associated lack of innovative strength, especially in the knowledge-based and high-tech sector. This was the context in which UnternehmerTUM was founded in 2002. The goal was to awaken entrepreneurial thinking and action among students.
Since then, the education we offer has changed a lot. Twenty years ago, I stood at the front of the seminar room and acted frontally with the students, compared to today. The topic of entrepreneurship was anything but sexy and cool - we were actively doing "sales" ourselves in the lecture halls and on campus to get students interested. At the time, it was also already unusual that the topic was not approached from an academic perspective, but focused purely on the ideas and projects of the participants.
Interdisciplinarity in the student teams was important to us from the very beginning. Today this is a no-brainer, but back then we had to fight for it. What we had misjudged in the beginning was that students had completely overestimated the importance of business plans. We were convinced that it makes sense for students to also structure a business model, write it down and continue thinking by "writing". But: if you dwell on writing a business plan too early, it creates a false sense of security. We quickly realized that it is more helpful to expose the student teams to the cold water of the market, i.e. to try out the ideas in real life, to build prototypes and to test their hypotheses iteratively on the market.
What makes entrepreneurial education at UnternehmerTUM so special?
With us, the focus is on the individual. What interests does the individual have, what passions, what is the suiting role within the team? We no longer do anything frontally but only in "Flipped Classroom" style. Entrepreneurship education is perfectly suited for this method because the students all come with knowledge and a thirst for knowledge in order to innovate. That's why our education is always project-based – we don't want to "drill" our knowledge and experience into the participants, but we support them in their projects with our knowledge, our contacts and our experience. This requires a different design of the education formats than we are used to at the university.
In your experience, how does entrepreneurship education influence the path to start-up?
I have been despairing about this question ever since I started working in entrepreneurship education. We cannot draw a direct line between an educational format and entrepreneurship. Of course, there are always clear cases, which I have also experienced myself, e.g. at KONUX, but overall, education is of course an marathon rather than a sprint. We don't want all of our participants to found a company right away, but rather to learn the tools they need to found a company at the right time and then take off in a big way. Or that they can adopt an entrepreneurial attitude in salaried professions.
We want to give people the opportunity to try things out in an environment that is protected for them and also to admit mistakes in a psychologically safe environment. As long as these only cost one's own time, they are then "productive failures and learnings". Learning by doing provokes mistakes. In our formats, mistakes are not a bad thing. As long as we learn from mistakes, that is allowed.
Moreover, our entrepreneurship education is part of a larger picture. The idea of UnternehmerTUM is much bigger – we have built a fantastic ecosystem, at TUM, one of the best technical universities in the world. It's about navigating through this ecosystem in a way that you use the time to get creative, to join teams with other talents, to be able to build prototypes in the MakerSpace almost 24/7 and test them in the market, and to learn to network and make first contacts with early-stage venture capitalists.
I take my cue from Einstein, who is credited with the following quote, "Education is not learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think." And perhaps today Einstein would add: "... and to act".
The program that really allows us to have and measure very immediate impact is Manage and More, which at its core is about innovation, start-ups and leadership. CrunchBase's start-up database shows in cold print that twelve (!) start-ups from Manage and More have made it into the CrunchBase Top 500 in the last ten years. This is an enormous achievement, considering the comparatively small budget behind the program!
You have created a new dimension of entrepreneurial education with the Academy for Innovators - what were your North Stars?
The mission of the Academy for Innovators is "Unlock the potential of those who shape the future". With the Academy, we have brought together all educators, trainers and coaches from all over UnternehmerTUM, regardless of their organizational affiliation. They equip innovators and founders with the skills, tools and mindset needed to turn a vision into action. We focus on the power of project-based learning and coaching, international reach through digital tools, lifelong learning and personal development.
We've learned over the past three years how to effectively scale our education while tailoring it to individual participants. Where it makes sense, we are expanding this peer-to-peer education and can grow by a factor of ten over the next ten years. That's ambitious, considering that we've already trained more than 3,000 participants on a project basis in 2020. In short: individualized education at scale!
What have you learned in the many years as educator?
I have become more humble, especially when it comes to assessing business models in the very early stages. Experience doesn't help much here, because the new is as slippery as a fish. It is essential to train the bright and persistent minds and give them a framework where they can experiment. Timing plays an important role in this, as it does in investing.
Entrepreneurship is not a gene or something you are born with, but something that can be taught, learned and applied. Young people and students are eager to use this knowledge anyway. They need to use us educators as coaches for a methodology and a mindset, not as a source of facts.
Thank you very much for the interview!
From entrepreneurship scholarship to successful start-up: KONUX
KONUX is one of those start-ups that UnternehmerTUM has accompanied from the very beginning and supported with various programs. In 2014, the team met in the first formation with Andreas Kunze, Dennis Humhal and Vlad Lata in the entrepreneurship fellowship Manage and More and developed there a first system from sensor technology and AI, from which the idea for sensor-based predictive maintenance in rail transport soon emerged. KONUX is now one of the pioneers of smart sensors, data fusion and AI-based analytics to increase plant availability and make maintenance easier to plan.
Commenting positively on UnternehmerTUM's support, Andreas Kunze said, "An extremely cool concept. And the requirements are more than fair. All that's required is time, motivation and performance - and you get help." The "Industrial Internet-of-Things" (IIoT) start-up only secured an 80 million US dollar Series C financing at the beginning of 2021.