Welcome to the German start-up scene

Welcome to the german start up scene 1
Participants of the Innovation Week at the Kick-off Meeting in Berlin.

15 young researchers from around the world were able to advance their start-up idea in mid-November at a business incubator at one of several Technical Universities in Germany. This was made possible by Innovation Week, an initiative of ‘Research in Germany – Land of Ideas’, organised by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in cooperation with the TU9, the alliance of leading Technical Universities in Germany.

The aim of Innovation Week, which took place from 11 to 15 November in Berlin, Braunschweig and Munich, was to give a very hands-on experience of starting a business in Germany. Its organisers aimed to demonstrate that in Germany, international students and young researchers have the perfect conditions to turn their start-up idea into a business. These young researchers included Charlotte Abena Benyarku from Ghana, Riku Yamada from Japan and Isra Ali from Egypt. These three, along with twelve other talented researchers, qualified for Innovation Week with their idea for a start-up.

Innovation Week and Falling Walls

This was the first year that Innovation Week has taken place. It was combined with the conference ‘Falling Walls’, which has been successfully held in Berlin since 2009. Every year on 8 and 9 November - the day commemorating the Fall of the Berlin Wall - Falling Walls brings together leading international researchers as well as up-and-coming researchers. In the space of two days they have the opportunity to present their current work in a variety of formats and to exchange ideas with one another. One of the formats is the Falling Walls Lab for young researchers. The DAAD, supported by the Federal Foreign Ministry, takes part in the selection of participants and uses its worldwide network for this purpose. Those who want to take part in the Falling Walls Lab have to first take part in a local competition in their home country. The winners of the hundreds of labs worldwide are invited to Berlin to present what they are currently researching. Innovation Week aimed to capitalise on the assembled talent of young researchers and offered 15 people, including Falling Walls Lab participants and DAAD scholarship holders, intensive training in starting a business. An essential prerequisite was that the participants have a research idea that they could use to launch a start-up. Benyarku, Yamada and Ali did just that: they came up with a way to develop an alternative source of wood fuels from the waste material of agricultural crops, a way to create a super compost using the black soldier fly and a way to transport or store food and pharmaceutical products using intelligent packaging made from self-cooling materials.

The TU9 and its business incubators

Innovation week was supposed to be more than just a theoretical exercise for the 15 participants. That is why the organisers – Research in Germany and TU9 – developed a practically-focussed programme. Research in Germany is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Its aim is to make Germany known as an outstanding place for science, development and research and to strengthen international cooperation. TU9 is the alliance of nine leading Technical Universities in Germany. Three of these universities, Technische Universität (TU) Berlin, TU Braunschweig and TU Munich, were responsible for looking after the 15 candidates this year.

1. RWTH Aachen University
2. Technische Universität Berlin
3. Technische Universität Braunschweig
4. Technische Universität Darmstadt
5. Technische Universität Dresden
6. Leibniz Universität Hannover
7. Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
8. Technische Universität Munich
9. University of Stuttgart

  • 2003 Established as an informal group
  • 2006 Founded as a non-profit organisation and opened an office in Berlin

on a national level: Be an advocate for engineering, and a lobbyist for partners in academia, business and politics

on a European level: Develop partnerships with other affiliated Technical Universities, providing mutual support in relation to EU initiatives

on an international level: Develop institutional networks and research partnerships; recruit outstanding talent at all levels; strengthen German Engineering’s brand and German’s visibility as a place of innovation and research.

Nicole Saverschek, CEO of TU9, commented: “The DAAD – in partnership with Research in Germany – were looking for a strong university partner for Innovation Week, which could give an insight into the start-up scene in Germany. We are very well-positioned to do this as Technical Universities.  All TU9 universities are well-equipped in this area and through our business incubators we advise and support students and researchers in launching a business, start-ups and entrepreneurship.”

And that was what was unique for the participants in Innovation Week: They didn’t just get a general overview of the start-up scene in Germany, but also an exclusive insight into a particular business incubator, where they played an active role with their business idea.

Berlin, Braunschweig, Munich – experiencing business incubators first hand

Welcome to the german start up scene 2
The team of the Entrepreneurship HUB of the TU Braunschweig with Prof. Reza Ashari (first row third from left)

After meeting in Berlin, the candidates dispersed to different universities. Charlotte Abena Benyarku from Ghana, for example, went to the Centre for Entrepreneurship, TU Berlin´s business incubator. The Japanese researcher Riku Yamada got to know the Entrepreneurship HUB at TU Braunschweig and Isra Ali from Egypt worked alongside advisers at the TUM ForTe Office for Research & Innovation at TU Munich. Throughout the week all the participants worked on the business model for their start-up idea. They worked in highly diverse teams so they could network and exchange ideas with others.

“I’m excited to see how the participants from the different countries and the German students and PhD students interact with each other”, said Reza Asghari, who is Professor for Entrepreneurship at TU Braunschweig and the Ostfalia University of Applied Sciences and leads the entrepreneurship hubs at both universities. The researchers invited to Innovation Week came from Egypt, Argentina, Brazil, Gaza, Ghana, India, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, Russia, Turkey and the USA. Asghari saw this as a big challenge in terms of intercultural management: “People need to learn from each other. For us it is very instructive to learn how we can achieve harmony and what lessons we can draw for our work from this.” Because high-potential internationals are important for Germany, says Asghari. “We need to win more of them over to be entrepreneurs in Germany and that’s why Innovation Week is a good opportunity for us as participating Technical Universities to test our approaches.”

Networking and finance

Karin Kricheldorff, leader of the Centre for Entrepreneurship in Berlin, also underlined how important the right network is: “We show the Innovation Week participants that we can open doors for them and give them market access through our established business networks.” That’s really important since in general, start-ups don’t have name recognition yet and are dependent on partners in industry. During the week, the 15 candidates get to know coaches, mentors and business angels – the full range of support a start-up can get.

The question of finance – from funding opportunities in Germany to contact with investors for follow-up financing – is also an important element. Kricheldorff explained further: “Germany offers start-ups funding opportunities that almost no other country offers and which young researchers need to know about. Business development plans are mostly fully funded for a year. If you start a business in Germany, you won’t have to worry about living expenses.”

Experimenting and exchanging ideas

In order to also practically advance their ideas, the 15 candidates used the business incubators’ infrastructure: fully equipped workspaces, so-called incubators, prototype workshops, so-called Maker Spaces, in which they were able to construct, build and experiment, as well as the laboratories in the different faculties. “This infrastructure is essential for launching a start-up,” explained Belinda Büchner, incubator manager at TU Munich. “Through this free provision of facilities the start-ups save an enormous amount of money on rent – an important factor if you aren’t making any money yet.” Besides that you also find a place early on in the start-up community since you share the facilities with others interested in setting up a business.

All three centres focus on technology start-ups. Since they have direct access to the extensive resources of all departments through their connection to a university and work closely with professors and researchers, start-up ideas and teams can be developed particularly well in this technology-based environment. They work in all fields of technology and develop relationships with researchers, students and alumni interested in starting a business. All the business incubators are experts in implementing new technologies.

Centre for Entrepreneurship (TU Berlin)

  • Founded in 2007 as one of the first university business start-up networks in Germany
  • Masters in Innovation Management, Entrepreneurship & Sustainability 
  • One of its methods: structured, systematic, milestone-based start-up incubation process; start-ups get market feedback early to ensure they are in line with demand (quality management process).
  • Emphasis: start-ups with a tech focus and triple bottom line (i.e. financial, environmental and societal aspects are considered from the beginning)

Entrepreneurship HUB (TU Braunschweig)

  • Founded in 2009, responsible for TU Braunschweig and the Ostfalia University of Applied Sciences
  • Due to the proximity to Volkswagen, emphases include mobility research, sustainability, energy generation and efficiency and air travel
  • One of its methods: translate scientific discoveries (especially from doctoral theses) into marketable services; commercialising in-house research findings

TUM ForTe – Office for Research and Innovation (TU Munich)

  • TUM’s start-up advice centre – a partnership of TUM and UnternehmerTUM – is the main point of contact for all questions concerning start-ups
  • Individual advice from the idea stage to creating a business plan and prototypes to founding the business
  • Among other services: arranging and delivering of workshops, seminars, lectures and events to build competency; subjects include: market assessment, how to think and act in business, technology evaluation, business model and plan development

TU Berlin/Co-Working-Space EINS

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TU München/Maker Space

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Hopes for Innovation Week

The representatives of the three business incubators and the TU9 were agreed that “starting a business is an important form of technology transfer, and Innovation Week is bringing important people to Germany to do this.” They were all pleased that the DAAD was able to use its international network to gain the best possible access to the scientific community and to interesting business founders from around the world. At the end of Innovation Week Charlotte Abena Benyarku, Riku Yamada, Isra Ali and the other 12 participants came together again to present the progress they had made during the week. For Asghari, Kricheldorff and Büchner the best outcome would be “if the participants wanted to stay here straight away or remembered our business incubators and the economic hubs of Berlin, Braunschweig and Munich in such a way that they come back, that they recommend us and that they know they are welcome here.”

Next year, three other Technical Universities in the TU9 Alliance will organise Innovation Week: RWTH Aachen University, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and the University of Stuttgart. They attended the closing event on 15 November and gathered insights for 2020.

Contact TU9 and its business incubators


Centre for Entrepreneurship (TU Berlin)

Entrepreneurship HUB (TU Braunschweig)

TUM ForTe – Office for Research and Innovation (TU Munich)

Further links

  • Falling Walls – The International Conference on Future Breakthroughs in Science and Society is an annual event which is supported by the Federal Foreign Office. (link: www.falling-walls.com)

Author: Astrid Hopp (14 November 2019)