29. April 2021

Researchers starting companies

Berlin pools its start-up activities in the Science & Startups network to promote science spin-offs

Workshop Kopfsachen e. V. © Nils Lucas

The team of Kopfsachen e.V. conceptualising a workshop on “Coronavirus & Self-care”, aimed at giving best-possible support to teenagers faced with the challenges of the pandemic. © Nils Lucas

The economic potential of science spin-offs is indisputable. Despite government incentives, however, their number remains comparatively low. Berlin is now pooling together all its start-up promotion activities in a network project called Science & Startups.

“Why are Germany’s researchers not founding more start-ups?” This is the question guiding a current study by Technical University Munich and Joachim Herz Foundation on the psychology of business founding, investigating why the national start-up rate remains low despite excellent conditions.

“Far too few of our outstanding researchers are starting companies — or are giving up too early”, according to the study. This is the case despite over 70 funding programmes by the EU, the federal government, and the German Länder, 560 full-time start-up consultants at this country’s universities, and increasingly good conditions for start-ups.

The study identifies several key points. Start-up teams with a scientific background sometimes struggle with entrepreneurial thinking and a pragmatic focus on the market. They underestimate group dynamics and, in two thirds of the examined cases, fail to tap into existing interdisciplinary potential. The interaction with coaches could also be better, according to the study. Every other team also embellishes reports and tries to hide conflicts. To summarise: Researchers have hard time shedding their academic skin, overspend time on technological optimisation instead of focusing on business, and fail to exploit their own potential as well as the potential of working with their coaches.

However, the situation is not quite as bleak as it may sound. Despite the pandemic, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy reported 426 applications for the EXIST grant for knowledge-based start-ups in 2020. This the highest number since the programme started in 2007. Berlin is way ahead in the general statistics. Three of the German capital’s universities — Free University, Humboldt-Universität, and Technical University — are among the top 5 EXIST universities with the most approved start-up grants in the country. According to Christina Lüdtke, however, head of the Science & Startups project office, they will not content themselves with this. On the contrary, the three unis and Charité, Berlin’s university hospital, are now pooling together their resources in a joint project with the aim of creating a “leading and globally visible ecosystem for research and knowledge-based start-ups in Europe.”

There are plenty of promising teams about. Take QoD Technologies GmbH, based at Dahlem’s start-up mansion, which provides a platform to researchers from the chemical industry to access artificial intelligence and quantum simulation — a growing business.
At CHIC in Charlottenburg, there’s the young Oculid GmbH, which is building eye-tracking software that is single-handedly transforming regular smartphones, turning them into sensitive testing devices for market and attention research. Or look at Kopfsachen e.V., who focus on the mental health of young people. Science & Startups provides teams like these with spaces at start-up centres, comprehensive services, coaching, funding support as well as access to potential co-founders and scientific mentors.

The joint project is offering all this from a single source and aims at creating synergies, strengthening networks, and providing a structure to match their extensive experience. When four universities as renowned as these pull together, it is also worth the effort to standardise quality, share workshop and training formats — and to set up a coordinated business office.

Julia Busch is responsible for communications at Science & Startups. She and Ms. Lüdtke agree with the findings of the study from Munich. However, they both see many opportunities for action — especially with regard to the make-up, dynamic, and psychology of start-up teams, or in terms of changing mindsets from meticulous research to a more hands-on start-up spirit. Since customer focus is something that can be learned through individual coaching, workshops, and in-depth support, facilitating this is one of the most important tasks of university start-up services. In addition, the project aims at supporting teams in the concept and research phase: “With an event like Pitching for Competences, we help them to find the right co-founders,” explains Busch. Lastly, however, the work of Science & Start-ups begins even earlier. To better exploit the potential of scientific spin-offs, researchers have to be made aware of this alternative career path — many wouldn’t think of using their research results and innovations to start their own company.

By Peter Trechow for Potenzial – The WISTA Magazine
 

Potenzial: Science transfer (in German)
Potenzial – The WISTA Magazine. Edition: Science transfer 2021