The Technical University of Munich (TUM) takes its start-ups to Silicon Valley. Five teams spent ten days building networks in the start-up scene, interacting with managers from global players and learning from experts. Isabell Franck from data analysis specialist IPT and Artem Kuchukov from the construction technology company KEWAZO participated in the first "US Venture Program". In an interview they talk about why a potential investor wanted to know about soccer and why the difference between Silicon Valley and the Garching Incubator is not so large after all.
Mr. Kuchukov, nine months ago you were still a student, today you've presented your company in the Promised Land of the start-up to an audience and a jury of entrepreneurship experts and investors. How fast was your heart beating?
Kuchukov: Actually I was very relaxed, since the pitch in Silicon Valley isn't really that much about product details and numbers. There you sell your vision, while in Germany investors ask us about the results of our product tests. This is because there's so much capital in the USA that investors want to close the deal as soon as possible, before somebody else takes advantage of the opportunity.
Franck: Investors in the USA start off much differently, too, they're more interested in personality than in the company. I was asked what I do in my free time – and when said I play soccer, they even wanted to know what position I play.
Sounds like a job interview.
Kuchukov: We saw that in the USA investors have a much closer relationship with founders and sometimes simply drop by for a personal visit. Something like Supervisory Board members. There's a lot of positive input, but it can also get a bit uncomfortable in some cases.
Franck: The interaction also gets started much more quickly. You meet someone for the first time and the next day you've already sent ten text messages. We still have a good relationship with the investor who asked the soccer question. It turns out he happens to play soccer himself: I simply asked him about what he does in his free time as well.
So you'll soon be opening an office in San Francisco?
Franck: The potential customers and other start-ups from the automotive sector have told us they're all looking to Germany and are waiting to see what's successful there. I didn't really expect that. So we'll continue one step at a time.
IPT helps companies in the manufacturing sector to optimize their production processes. The software developed by the start-up combines data analysis and machine learning with tested models and the expert knowledge of process engineers in the respective sectors. This is intended to facilitate more individual and more accurate recommendations, even if only a relatively small amount of data is available. IPT already works with major players in the automotive and mechanical engineering sectors as well as with medium-sized companies.
Kuchukov: Even though we do not yet have a product on the market, it was a big help to us to learn what construction companies think of our technology. And of course we're very motivated by the fact that the jury was very impressed. We had so many conversations – we wouldn't have managed even 20 percent of them without the help of TUM in organizing them.
KEWAZO has developed a robot for the installation of building scaffolding which moves all the necessary scaffolding parts not only to the necessary height, but also moves them horizontally to the place they are needed. It navigates autonomously and detects human workers. This is intended to increase safety and save 30 percent on installation costs. In addition, with machine learning it also facilitates workflow improvements. The second prototype will enter testing soon. The start-up has succeeded in convincing major industry associations and a DAX company to become development partners.
Franck: The program also had an educational side. If I had gone to Silicon Valley alone, I still would have spoken with customers, but certainly not with so many experts.
What were you able to learn from them?
Kuchukov: How to better market yourself. This may sound trivial, but the Americans are just better at that. The lesson in our workshop was: Your presentation has to be a story that others can then retell. I also learned a lot about corporate culture in the everyday working world from the big tech companies. Now we want to pay more attention to the concrete needs of our developers.
Franck: I was very impressed by the speed. Start-ups try to achieve success very quickly. And when that doesn't work out within a year, then there's no more money to be had and they move on to something completely different.
Did the famous Silicon Valley spirit catch you, then?
Franck: Yes, but I can also better understand some things that are often over-hyped. For example, there they all make a point of saying they work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. But they define work much differently than we do here, personal conversations count as well. Even sports is considered work, since it helps increase performance abilities.
Kuchukov: We have this mental image of Silicon Valley as a place with perfect people in a perfect environment. When you're actually there it looks more realistic. For example we visited several incubators in which the teams sit in smaller spaces in buildings with less comfortable designs than we have in Garching. But one thing that really encourages me: The difference between the way work is done there and the way we work here is not all that great.
US Venture Program:
The ten-day TUM "US Venture Program" is aimed at young but well-developed start-up teams and is meant to prepare them for the international market. In a large number of workshops they engaged with worldwide leading experts and trainers on topics such as corporate culture, recruitment and international law, and spoke with executives from companies like Google and Facebook, including several TUM alumni. They also get the opportunity to arrange individual meetings with potential customers and investors. TUM maintains its own office in San Francisco. One objective of the program is for the participants to share their experiences with other startups.
IPT and KEWAZO – Founded at TUM:
Dr. Isabell Franck studied Mechanical Engineering at TUM, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Cambridge, earning her doctorate at the TUM Professorship of Continuum Mechanics. In the middle of 2017 she founded IPT – Insight Perspective Technologies GmbH together with three other TUM graduates. The team received support from the TUM Start-up Advising Team and from her doctoral thesis advisor as mentor.
Artem Kuchukov studied Advanced Construction and Building Technology at TUM. He joined five other TUM graduates from the fields construction robotics, informatics, space sciences and management to found KEWAZO in 2016 in the TUM Incubator. The team members met one another in the "Think.Make.Start" course offered by UnternehmerTUM, the Center for Innovation and Business Creation. They also built prototypes there in the high-tech workshop MakerSpace.
According to the current "German Startup Monitor" TUM produces more start-up founders than any other German university. Every year more than 70 companies are founded here. The excellent support provided by TUM is confirmed by the "Start-up Radar" of the German business community's innovation agency, which ranks TUM in first place among all the major universities.