Frank Thelen: “The Campus Founders are a great symbol for the region.”

Translated into English.

Frank Thelen tells us in an interview why he doesn’t have to live in Berlin to be successful in the startup business and why German mid-sized companies (Mittelstand) urgently need to change their mindset.

Hey Frank, your new book “10xDNA – The Mindset of the Future” is very successful. But we ask ourselves whether Germany is really ready to think differently and pursue new approaches?

Frank: I believe that due to the crisis we experience great momentum in terms of readiness for change. Germany has woken up, our politicians act agile again and our companies are tackling digitalization. Yes, I think Germany is ready for a 10x mindset and this is what we urgently need.

With Freigeist you have started to fight for Startup- and Digital-Germany out of Bonn. Wouldn’t you reach your goals faster if you worked out of the startup hotspot Berlin, for example?

Frank: I have built all my companies from Bonn, I grew up here and my wife has her medical office here. We see no need to go to Berlin. We see a lot of potential here and in other regions in Germany. Many of our portfolio companies are located in Munich, for example. Berlin may have a startup hub, but the deep-tech startups we are specialized in often come from the German top tech-universities: TUM, KIT, RWTH and so forth. It makes no difference whether we are based in Bonn or Berlin. And with Lilium, Germany will become one city soon 🙂

How do you evaluate the smaller urban regions in Germany from a VC point of view? How important are startup ecosystems in regions where the traditional economy is at home?

Frank: Startup ecosystems can be very useful when it comes to building a network, finding investors or participating in certain programs. I have often argued that more traditional companies should invest in startups. We have very strong German mid-sized companies and startups with a lot of innovation potential. If we can create synergies here, it would be very beneficial to our economy.

If you were a founder – what opportunities would you identify in the region around Heilbronn?

Frank: I would try to associate with the local mid-sized companies (Mittelstand) and Hidden Champions there and find companies in my sector that are willing to embrace innovation. A network can be established from any location and is always valuable. I am excited that the Campus Founders are cranking things up and boosting the ecosystem. This is a great signal for the whole region!

Currently, a startup trend is developing towards the new “digital Mittelstand”. Do you really believe in founders and VCs turning away from the Unicorn mentality? 

Frank: That always depends on the industry. I think our economy needs both: Unicorns and strong, innovative SMEs. Generally, founders should not be driven by the vision of building a Unicorn, but by their product or service. Nevertheless, we Germans often lack the ability to think big and set big goals. A bit more of a „Unicorn mentality“ would perhaps be good thing.

What do you think the current backbone of the German economy, the German Mittelstand, will look like in ten years’ time if we carry on as before? 

Frank: I would like to see German mid-sized companies now investing boldly in new technologies, taking advantage of the upcoming revolution in order to remain the backbone of our economy. Unfortunately, I do not see the necessary courage and consistent action in many places yet. If we do not change our minds soon, this could end badly for our economy. For that reason, I want to give an impulse to rethink and published the book “10xDNA“.

What hopes and expectations do you have towards startups for a new, digital future?

Frank: With their innovations, startups will make our world more sustainable, efficient and secure in the future. I am looking forward to new developments in the fields of AI, automation, mobility, nutrition and so forth and I assume that the startup community will make an enormous contribution here. That’s why at Freigeist. we focus on disruptive deep-tech startups.

What or who do you need to create a desirable digital future? How big do you think? 

Frank: I need outstanding, visionary, and innovative startup teams that have the potential and the drive to make the world a better place. We seek these and want to support them with our capital and expertise to become tech champions. This is my big 10-year plan: I want to help build a tech champion out of Europe.

Many thanks Frank Thelen for this interview. These ideas definitely inspire to reflect and act on! They also strengthen us at Campus Founders in our mission to promote entrepreneurship and to support startup founders on their entrepreneurial journey. 

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