Ten Years of Student Startups

A main reason why I became a professor is to create and guide student startups, in general, and from my research projects in particular. It has been a bumpy ride, to say the least, but I guess, every learning curve is. Data points (startups) are still not plenty, but I can nevertheless discern some learnings. Without further ado, the usual bullet list of insights:

Learning is by person. Large companies can talk about organizational memory and capabilities building all they want, in a startup, knowledge walks in the door (and out) by person. A new person basically starts over and makes all the same mistakes the person they replace also made… two years later. So, avoid losing good people.

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Anecdotal Experience with Public Startup Funding in Germany

Sweble is a research project that I started in 2009 with the goal of helping Wikipedia. It is now a startup that is bringing GitHub-style collaboration to office documents. To that end, we acquired 720K Euro of seed funding from Germany’s EXIST Forschungstransfer (in German) startup fund. This is free money, as it is a gift and no equity is lost. However, with that, the trouble started.

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The Perfect Professor for University Startups

A professor, so my belief, can play an important role in generating startups from University research. Most professors don’t, but some do, and I wanted to summarize my experiences as to what would be the perfect combination in one person.

Situation

There are three ingredients to get a university startup set-up and off the ground: (1) team, (2) idea, and (3) seed funding. Team, as anyone in startup-land knows, is by far the most important ingredient, as the others ultimately follow from it.

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Cargo Cult Startup Incubators

The continued creation of me-too startup incubators reminds me of the (South Seas’) cargo cult. Richard Feynman tells the story this way: The cargo cult people were natives of the South Seas who, during the world war, benefited from Western civilizations bringing cargo to their land. After the war ended, and the cargo stopped coming, the natives built wooden artifacts that looked like planes in an attempt to bring back the good old days of free supplies. Obviously, it didn’t work.

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Professors and Startups

My primary goal in becoming a professor was to turn my (hoped-for excellent) research and teaching into startups. For that reason I created the Startupinformatik program and set-up my teaching to support it. Sadly, I’ve been noticing over the years that things don’t seem to get easier but harder. Specifically, “the system” (I’ll explain below) seems to view professors with mistrust rather than as the natural allies they should be when it comes to leading students to create a startup.

Let me illustrate this using two experiences:

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Entrepreneurship Panel at IT-Gipfel Göttingen #itgipfelgoe

A few days ago, I participated in a panel on entrepreneurship in the beautiful but small city of Göttingen, Germany. While a university town, it isn’t exactly the Silicon Valley either, much like my current home town of Erlangen.

Thus, on the panel, I ran into the usual German morals on what makes a good entrepreneur, respectively, how to treat one:

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Mitgründer für Startup mit Existierenden Kunden Gesucht

Für Uni1 (http://uni1.de) suchen wir mindestens einen weiteren technischen Mitgründer (oder frühen Angestellten, wenn weniger Risiko gewünscht ist).

Uni1 will die Zusammenarbeit zwischen Unternehmen und Hochschulen weltweit revolutionieren. Uni1 hat bereits Kunden und basiert auf einem erprobten Konzept. Wir können zur Zeit wg. (noch nicht) ausreichender Softwareunterstützung leider nicht skalieren.

Ideal wäre ein Full-Stack-Entwickler mit entsprechender Erfahrung in Java + Javascript und Web-Technologien. Sozialkompetenz und die Fähigkeit in einem schnellen Umfeld zu arbeiten sind ebenso wichtig. Als Ort ist Berlin oder Nürnberg ideal, aber kein Muss.

Bei Interesse bitte Email an mich.

Dirk Riehle, dirk@uni1.de