Getting business-minded researchers off to a strong start

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Dr Julio Pastrana will soon be setting up his own company. A computer scientist, he is developing a laser-based robotic system to automatically combat weeds – in the interests of sustainable farming without the use of pesticides. Currently, Pastrana is still working on finalising his prototype in the lab at the University of Bonn. He has been able to finance the equipment he needs and the development of his innovative product thanks to an EXIST Business Start-up Grant that his university managed to secure for him.

A start-up boost

The grant is awarded by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. "EXIST provides students, university graduates and researchers with support over a period of twelve months", explains DAAD alumnus Pastrana. "They receive a regular income and a budget to cover resources. Thanks to EXIST, I am able to concentrate all of my attention on my start-up and my business plan. In addition, I have been able to buy in material such as cameras, robotic technology and computers that I need to develop my product."

Getting a product ready for the market requires a great deal more, however. Which is why the universities and non-university research institutions that apply for EXIST also make infrastructure and mentoring programmes available for their budding entrepreneurs. Pastrana for example is able to use the photogrammetry lab at the University of Bonn’s Institute for Geodesy and Geoinformation. "I have also been given excellent mentoring and press and media support by my uni", says Pastrana.

Networking and learning about contracts

"At the same time, my colleague and I were also given a course in business coaching by the Digital Hub Bonn." An initiative of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Innovation, Digitisation and Energy of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, the Digital Hub supports regional start-ups with mentoring and coaching, among other things. "The Digital Hub not only provided us with the necessary networking opportunities, it also showed us how to set up a company from a legal viewpoint, pay taxes and enter into contracts with staff – all of which was invaluable for us", he recalls.

Close cooperation between entrepreneurs, universities and grant programmes

As soon as the twelve-month EXIST grant ends, Julio Pastrana will apply for further funding that will enable him to properly establish his firm, Escarda Technologies. START-UP university spin-offs (START-UP-Hochschul-Ausgründungen, only in German) is the name of the programme run by the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. One of the ways in which it supports academics wishing to start their own business is by providing funding to cover certain personnel expenses and material costs.

Pastrana is gradually coming closer to his goal of setting up his own company thanks to such support programmes. Still, he has not forgotten how difficult things were at first. There is one piece of advice in particular that he would like to give to budding entrepreneurs: "Before you do anything else, talk to a professor from the department in question, present your idea and explain how you intend to establish it on the market. On this basis the university can then apply for funding on behalf of the entrepreneur and make infrastructure and a contact person available." When picking a grant programme, it often matters whether a company has already been founded or not. "A condition of many grants such as EXIST is that researchers are still in the pre-start-up phase", explains Julio Pastrana. “This is not the case with other funding programmes such as Eurostars and Horizon2020, however.”

Many possible paths to one’s own business

Numerous funding programmes are available to support international academics wishing to turn their research into a marketable product and set up their own company. Here are some examples at federal and state level in Germany:

EXIST Business Start-up Grant
Junge Innovatoren (only in German)
Validierungsförderung – VIP+ (only in German)
EFRE.NRW START-UP-Hochschul-Ausgründungen NRW (only in German)
FLÜGGE (only in German)

Further funding options can be found in a funding database (only in German) maintained by Germany’s federal and state governments and by the EU.

The following funding programmes make resources available to graduates who have already founded their own companies and are in possession of the necessary initial capital:



BMWi business start-up portal

The business start-up portal run by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) is intended for anyone toying with the idea of setting up their own company. Academic entrepreneurs will also find what they are looking for here. The portal’s extensive information and numerous resources range from online training and contact addresses to services targeted at specific groups such as female entrepreneurs. > Starting your own business