Are Universities Rocket-fuel For Startup Innovation?

Universities fostering startups: it’s a key piece of the puzzle that is often overlooked when it comes to a thriving startup ecosystem. So how can universities help startups, startups help universities, and both parties overcome the inevitable obstacles to collaboration? We spoke to Robert Johnen, a managing partner at MOWEA – who won hubraum’s Sustainability in 5G Award last year – plus head of hubraum Krakow Jerzy Grzesiak, who runs a startup innovation course at an economic university in Poland alongside his day job.

MOWEA, a Berlin-based startup offering a unique, modular wind energy system, knows a lot about startup innovation in a university setting. They were created after co-founder Till Naumann started a PhD at the Technical University of Berlin (the university with the most startups in the federal state of Berlin-Brandenburg) on the aerodynamics of wind rotor blades. He merged his aerodynamic expertise with that of his co-founder, a research professional in electrical engineering — the pair first met at the university.

Universities’ secret weapon: equipment

Robert notes that the interdisciplinary aspect of the university – experts in a range of different fields – made for “a great springboard” for MOWEA and that it would be difficult to find this range of expertise outside of an academic setting. He points out that interdisciplinary collaboration is particularly essential for developing new hardware and that in their case, the departments of electrical and mechanical engineering worked really closely together on this project. “Another great factor was not just accessing expertise but how we were able to use all the different laboratories and their equipment and machines to carry out tests.”

Jerzy also argues that university’s ability to connect would-be entrepreneurs with equipment poses a huge advantage for startup founders working in an academic setting. According to Jerzy, universities have two types of technology infrastructure – firstly, infrastructure to support basic research which might have commercial potential in the long-term. Then, he says, there’s also infrastructure that can be of help in industrial research and development, helping to solve real problems in industry but where the equipment would be too costly for companies to be able to pay for it by themselves. This means that universities are solving real problems for entire industries within their infrastructure.

He notes that this access to infrastructure early on fosters technology-heavy startup innovation, “But we also offer this infrastructure at hubraum, so in that sense we’re doing something similar to a university, just in a different vertical.”

Using universities’ startup-specific resources

Robert argues that another really helpful aspect of Till’s time at TU Berlin was access to the Centre of Entrepreneurship, the focal point of TU Berlin’s startup activities and which boasts a team of approximately 20 staff to help students develop business models. By holding events, the Centre was able to connect students with investors and also potential customers or companies in their area of interest. Plus, he notes, they supported those who were just starting out in the business world, sitting down with students and helping them write a business plan.

But the real game-changer, Robert argues, was accessing the government funding made available to those still studying but who want to found a startup. MOWEA was able to access over a million euros in funding while Till was still at university from IBB’s Pro FIT funding source, which Robert describes as a “win-win situation,” with both the university and MOWEA getting funding thanks to MOWEA’s application. They also scored a founder’s scholarship, the EXIST Gründerstipendium, “which is also quite nice because it’s kind of a well-known name, it’s a byword for high quality innovation and research.” This effectively paid the two MOWEA co-founders a salary for one year.

The biggest advantage of all

But really, Robert argues that the biggest gift was that of time. He describes the timeframe MOWEA had to really focus and to develop a high quality product as the most valuable aspect of their university phase. “Mistakes are forgiven. If you’re about to launch, mistakes are not usually forgiven. It’s flexible, you have all this environment of different disciplinary expertise, it’s a whole different environment than a business setting.”

However, time was also a mixed blessing. He describes an “unpleasant side effect”: the lack of time pressure means that working with a university can be very slow. Robert ascribes this to both the cumbersome bureaucracy and the fact that universities tend to be less well-staffed than a startup who has managed to raise capital and hires staff quickly.

“This means at some point the startup is forced to emancipate itself from the university,” he says. “Eventually, you realize you don’t have the economic pressure which you might experience as the manager of a company. It’s a completely different mind set and you can easily get annoyed by the universities’ work processes. At a certain point, you basically can’t afford to work that slowly anymore.”

What needs to change?

Both Jerzy and Robert agree that while universities have a lot to offer startups, there’s one key issue: market-readiness. Jerzy argues universities lack something hubraum prides itself on: the market perspective, ie. knowing if a product or service is market-viable or if it responds to the customer’s needs. He believes it’s vital that universities cultivate a more commercial sensibility: “Often, the venture capital industry or corporate innovation is not bold enough in funding very capital-intensive, research-and-development intensive projects, like in biotech or these kinds of spaces. Here, the support of the infrastructure that’s in place in academia might be incredibly beneficial in the long run. “

On a similar note, Robert notes the irrationality of the funding that’s available in the market entry phase suddenly tailing off – while there’s plenty of grants available for the research stage, largely, the funding for the growth phase that’s available in Germany consists of loans. “But really,  when the product is almost ready, when this is when you need a lot of money, otherwise you start to struggle.”

All the same, Jerzy notes that universities are a key part of the equation — something suggested, he notes, by the European Union’s support of the cooperation between academia, industry and startups through increasing numbers of grants available for collaborations. He suggests this demonstrates that “We all have something to learn from each other. Startups can take inspiration from universities’ depth of research, while academia can learn from applying the lens of the market to research projects.”

Passionate about innovation? Join us on September 25-26 at hubraum’s Berlin campus for TADHack Global 2021, the world’s largest hackathon focused on programmable communications. With a total prize pool of $24,000, anyone using the sponsor’s technology is eligible to win — anyone and everyone is welcome to come collaborate. So whether you’re a student, a graphic designer, project manager, IT manager, coder or non-coder, click here to find out more.

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