Innovation is a team game – Interview with Helmut Schönenberger

In our new interview, we had the pleasure of talking to Prof. Dr. Helmut Schönenberger. He is “Vice President Entrepreneurship” at the Technische Universität München and a real thought leader in the fields of startups, ecosystems and innovation. We thank him for his forward-looking words, which are also reflected in the vision and philosophy of Campus Founders, and wish you much inspiration while reading.

Looking back on the past year, how do you perceive the startup scene in Germany?

Despite Corona, the past year was not only crisis-ridden, but also exciting and full of opportunities for the startup scene. Quite a few startups even benefited from changes during the crisis. The topic of digitization has gained incredible momentum. 

For example, our venture capital arm UVC Partners has invested in GNA Biosolutions. That’s a PCR sensor company that actually built rapid tests for multidrug-resistant germs and other pathogens. Because of the pandemic, GNA developed a corona PCR testing solution in a matter of months and was able to continue to grow. That’s just one example where startups solved acute problems, accelerating their own growth. 

The second positive is that despite Corona, funding rounds have continued to be very strong. Our startups alone raised $1 billion in venture capital in 2020.

Do any reflections on the challenges of the past year?

It took a lot of energy for everyone to organize the additional tasks, such as hygiene measures and home office. But overall, at least in my environment, all the startups managed the change well and used the challenge as an opportunity. The scene understood that you have to approach such challenges in a solution-oriented way and look ahead.

What was difficult was that in some industries, such as the automotive sector, there was a massive cutback. When things look bad on the customer side, it’s hard for B2B startups to close deals. It’s amazing, but in our overall portfolio, fortunately, there was no collateral damage – not a single startup in our environment is currently in massive trouble.

UVC Partners has launched the Venture Capital 3.0 fund together with UnternehmerTUM. How is the cooperation going and how do B2B companies benefit from it? 

The special thing is that we have an operationally very strong network with about 1000 partner organizations. We are closely connected with medium-sized and large companies. We also have partners on the government side, such as cities and municipalities, ministries and state agencies.

We work with all of them directly on a day-to-day basis. We open up this real network to our startups and thus act very pragmatically. But we are not only door openers. Some of our cooperation partners offer experimental platforms, which can be used to initiate and test projects.

By efficiently linking our startups with each other and with partners, they are all able to integrate their actions and thinking into their everyday business more quickly than is the case with other networks.

In recent years, the focus has been more on B2C companies. Why is UnternehmerTUM focusing on the B2B sector? 

B2B is our strength. It is a competence that we, as an affiliated institute of the TU Munich, have built up over 20 years and can now put to very good use. In the last five years, many of the scalable business models have shifted from B2C to B2B models. There is a spirit of optimism there. That’s positive for us and gives us a tailwind.

If you look at the business models of our startups, they differ massively from classic B2C models. Different know-how, different tools and different people are needed here to be successful. In addition, our region is strongly characterized by medium-sized and large companies in the B2B environment. Since our startups have these companies as customers, they can use this market environment for very good and fast customer access.

How innovative are German SMEs and what are there obstacles to cooperation or the adoption of a culture of innovation in German SMEs?

From my experience, innovation culture and openness are improving rapidly. There are very strong innovation drivers among German SMEs that fall under the category of “hidden champions” and are technology or market leaders in their fields. These companies are great allies for us to take a joint innovation cluster to the next level of development. We benefit from the experience of medium-sized companies. Our startups can draw on technology and sales resources from their networks. This makes it possible to jointly address new topics quickly and in a targeted manner.

At the same time, there is a large group in the SME sector that still needs to be taken along on the innovation journey. Corona was a kind of wake-up call for many: medium-sized companies were suddenly faced with previously unknown challenges. In the process, many realized that their digital infrastructure and skills were not sufficient for new ways of working and that they needed to bring additional digital skills onto the team. We specifically help bring startups together with these companies to jointly develop and implement solutions. At the same time, the startups benefit from new customers and can thus open up new markets – a win-win situation for both sides.

The SME sector is facing a decisive phase. We should use the new momentum and openness to innovation that we have gained in our country as a result of the last year and implement it productively. 

Startup culture has so far taken place mainly in larger cities. Can regional Germany also take advantage of this momentum?

In my view, this is crucial for the success of our business location. In my view, the Dieter Schwarz Foundation and Campus Founders in Heilbronn are exemplary in this respect. Here, the topic is anchored in the region with great professionalism and implemented quickly. In addition, the initiatives have national and international visibility. These are basically the ideal constellations: A strong entrepreneur and his foundation, a university and a strong Entrepreneurship Center join forces. The Campus Founders share this strength with other entrepreneurship-based centers such as the Hasso Plattner Institute and UnternehmerTUM. These entrepreneurial initiatives do not stop at the city limits of Heilbronn, Potsdam or Munich, but are strongly networked and help each other. Thus, step by step, a nationwide network of leading entrepreneurship centers, entrepreneurial universities and strong local startup scenes is building up. With the backing of established companies and patrons like Dieter Schwarz, they are sustainable and internationally competitive.

What values do UnternehmerTUM and other startup networks stand for and why?

We are all people of conviction and stand for sustainability and initiative. We think in scalable dimensions and implement ideas in an entrepreneurial way.

Demographic development, securing social stability and solving our major environmental issues will increasingly occupy us. Added to this are the economic aspect, competitiveness, technical sovereignty and autonomy – not only in Germany but throughout Europe. We are convinced that we and future generations want to and can master these challenges. To do so, we need a solution-oriented society and founders who are capable of tackling these problems. We see this concretely in startups such as Personio and Isar Aerospace: Our task as an Entrepreneurship Center is to provide optimal support so that they can contribute to our common future with their solutions. 

What makes a real entrepreneur these days?

I believe that as an entrepreneur you don’t simply see opportunities, but are also able to creatively tackle them, implement them and lead them to success. At the same time, an entrepreneur must also be prepared to take on responsibility and be able to bear an enormous risk. It is therefore important to stand on both feet and be “robust”.

There are a lot of entrepreneurial talents among us, but ultimately it’s important to bring them together and build teams. Innovation today is a team game. In addition to analytical skills and technical expertise, founding teams need openness, a willingness to collaborate and leadership skills to not only conceive of a company, but also build it for the long term.

Why are there so few women in the startup scene? How can they be supported?

There are now more female students than male students at German universities. If you look at the grades, female students are often much better and have excellent control over their studies. I believe our responsibility as a startup center is to better address the wishes, framework conditions and questions of the female target group, to explicitly promote them and to lead them step by step to success. 

We have great role models such as Catharina van Delden, who is now one of the best-known women in the German IT industry. Thanks to such role models, we are increasingly successful in addressing a new generation of female entrepreneurs and providing them with focused support. Right now, we have the chance to significantly scale the number of successful female founders. But it takes a lot of attention and specific programs to make that happen. 

How can you maintain openness to innovation? And for which topics do you feel particular enthusiasm?

For me, it’s a gift to be in continuous exchange with exciting people in my role – it’s a kind of pressure refueling with ideas. My job is not to invent something myself, but to identify exciting people, network with them and support them. In doing so, I have to understand these people’s ideas and help them succeed on their entrepreneurial journey. 

As an aerospace engineer, the aerospace sector is particularly exciting for me. In addition, I am fascinated by solutions that contribute significantly to sustainability: climate change is probably the most important issue of our time on which we should all devote available energy. 

Campus Founders starts at a very early stage and also wants to appeal to the next generation. Who are the role models that young founders can look to for guidance?

For me, the best role models are those who are approachable. When I think of entrepreneurial role models, I like to think of founders like Daniel Metzler, who co-founded Isar Aerospace, Hanno Renner from Personio or Katharina Kreitz, who built vectoflow. These people are young, take part in our events and lectures and are so much more tangible for our students than, for example, Bill Gates.

It is great to see that this generation of founders does not forget where they come from. On the contrary, they take time to support the next generation at the university. That’s what makes a good startup ecosystem.

Prof. Dr. Helmut Schönenberger

Leading promising start-ups to success, inspiring people for innovation and entrepreneurship – this is the passion of Prof. Dr. Helmut Schönenberger, co-founder and managing director of UnternehmerTUM GmbH. As an aerospace engineer and investor, he pursues the goal of supporting scalable high-tech start-ups, founders and scientists from the initial idea to the successful product.