The Founder Generation 2.0: A Look at Germany's New Generation of Entrepreneurs
A new spirit is embracing Germany. More and more people are starting their own businesses. Sometimes the idea takes them straight to the top of the international league.
Despite the crisis, they numbered 410,000 in 2009, an increase of 2.7 per cent against the previous year. The financial press is full of stories about young entrepreneurs. Books on how to start up your own business abound on Amazon. And the competitions for successful start-ups are receiving hundreds of applications.
A newsletter article published by the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology (BMWi) is titled “A Start-Up Surge in 2010?” The ministry sees pressures in the labor market as the major driving force behind the trend. In contrast to the start-up boom around the year 2000, when young people gave up well-paid positions to benefit from the prosperous new Internet market, people today are opting for their own business mainly because of impending, or actual, unemployment. The most popular field of experimentation is the service sector. The spectrum ranges from the one-man business in the commercial cleaning sector to engineering services.
We take a look at some successful examples of entrepreneurship in Germany.
Enlarge image Daniela Steinberger, left, founder and director, with Ulrike Groß and Michael Lindemann of the management team. (© bio.logis) "You have just witnessed an unprecedented world discovery in DNA mutation,” says Daniela Steinberger. “This transformation most probably leads to diabetes.”
This sounds like a momentous international breakthrough, but it’s a normal everyday occurrence for the general manager and medical director of the fledgling company bio.logis. She then gets up from her monitor and calmly leads the way through the laboratories of the new Science City Frankfurt Riedberg, quietly explaining the complex processes in simple terms.
“In the lab we investigate human genetic data and then present the information on a special IT platform in such a way that everyone is able to use it,” says Daniela Steinberger. “It means that illnesses can be identified and treated more quickly. It also means that people can be helped who are suffering from something that has not yet been diagnosed, or who find that certain medications are unsuited to them.”
In contrast to other companies, bio.logis not only analyzes genetic samples, it also interprets the changes, thus making the findings useful to medicine. The company is a world leader in this area.
The rapid development experienced by bio.logis has much to do with Daniela Steinberger personally. She is highly qualified, has an inquiring mind and an enterprising spirit. She worked for almost five years as a doctor in the operating theater before turning to human genetics at the beginning of the 1990s. She became a scientist at the University Hospital of Giessen, where she habilitated with tenure as a civil servant. Then she received a call from a headhunter with the news that a leading laboratory in the Wiesbaden area would like her to develop the human genetics department.
Although she wasn’t particularly interested, she listened to the offer, and the company’s charismatic head persuaded her to move into industry. That’s where she discovered her flair for enterprise.
“Developing a business organism is almost as exciting as biology,” says Daniela Steinberger.
She wanted to know all about it and studied health economics at the European Business School parallel to her job, adding an MBA to her name. After that she made a far-reaching observation: “More and more genetic information can be discovered at increasingly lower costs,” she says. “Eventually, analyses will be available free of charge at every chemist’s shop. So I asked myself, if that’s the case, what’s my task in the immediate future?”
Her conclusion was: the interpretation of the genetic information. The idea matured into a business plan. Steinberger convinced a banker of its viability and on January 1, 2009, became the head of bio.logis.
Meanwhile, the company has acquired analytical equipment worth millions and 24 employees. And the enterprise is still expanding.
“Diagnostic genetics is still not used enough in medicine. But the potential here is enormous.”
In the near future the company is planning to open up its speedy and affordable service to private customers as well. The magic formula is: “Personal Genomics Services.”
Bio.logis is the classic example of a successful start-up enterprise.
Enlarge image Juwi co-founder Fred Jung (r) joins Brandenburg Minister President Matthias Platzeck (SPD), former Federal Transportation Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee, and Managing Director of First Solar Stephan Hansen at the start-up of a large photovoltaic facility in southern Brandenburg. (© picture-alliance/dpa) Juwi is just such a new company that has rapidly worked its way into the international elite with know-how. Named after its founders, Fred Jung and Matthias Willenbacher, the company specializes in planning, implementing and operating renewable energy concepts. Its success can be translated into figures: 400 wind turbines at 65 locations around the globe; 500 megawatts of solar energy installations; billions in investments and a ten-fold increase in turnover from 2005 to 2010. What’s more, this year the company is taking on a new employee every day. It will most likely be welcoming its 1000th employee in October.
The busy founder Matthias Willenbacher is sitting in his office on the top floor of the new company headquarters in Wörrstadt, Rhinehessen. The world’s most energy-efficient office building has already been extended twice since 2008.
“It won’t be the last time either,” says Willenbacher and recalls the modest beginnings. “In 1995 I read about a group of environmentalists who wanted to produce environmentally friendly electricity in the Eifel. The idea fascinated me.”
He said to himself, well, if it works in the north of the Rhineland-Palatinate, it should function here at home in the Lower Palatinate as well. The qualified physicist informed himself in the Eifel, monitored the wind conditions in the Lower Palatinate, and got to know the agricultural economist Fred Jung during the preparations. Despite all objections, they installed their first wind turbine in 1996, and founded Juwi.
The business is based on the initial insight from the founding phase: to produce renewable energy you not only need a wind turbine, you also need consulting expertise when selecting a location, designing, financing, and constructing the installations.
Juwi is now active in all areas of renewable energy, which it skilfully combines to serve the needs of house owners, municipal suppliers, local authorities, and institutional investors.
The highly innovative company announces new projects almost every day. It is currently developing the energy-efficient construction department. And electro-mobility is also high in the agenda. A showroom has been set up in the company grounds. The boss steps up the pace – in the Tesla electric sports car.
Enlarge image The brothers Cevat Yerli, Avni Yerli, Faruk Yerli (l-r) founded the video game company "Crytek" in Frankfurt. (© Crytek) At a former jade factory in the eastern district of Frankfurt am Main, 300 young developers, graphic designers, and programmers from more than 40 countries are working on new games in darkened open-plan studios.
The international games community can’t wait for the release of Crysis 2 by Crytek. The German video games developer is one of the world’s most innovative players with its convincing cutting-edge technology and graphics innovations which have made the company’s name, with games such as Far Cry, Crysis, and Crysis Warhead selling millions of copies.
“In terms of graphics Crysis 2 outshines all previous games and gives a new meaning to the term photorealism,” says Cevat Yerli, one of the three brothers with Turkish roots who founded the company. “We collaborate with Electronic Arts.” EA is the world’s largest publisher of computer and video games with its headquarters in California.
At the end of the 1980s, the three brothers Avni, Cevat, and Faruk Yerli are sitting in their room in the town of Coburg, North Bavaria, playing Donkey Kong on their Commodore C-64.
At the age of 12, Cevat starts experimenting. Kindred spirits gradually join the brothers on the crytek.com virtual platform. In 1999 they complete the first demo version. Then, in 2000 the three brothers take a chance and travel to the world’s largest games convention, E3 in Los Angeles.
“I had the impression we were the only ones who had paid for an entrance ticket,” says Avni.
They had to beg for appointments at the convention. Finally, a representative of the graphics cards manufacturer Nvidia gave in: “Just come along to the reception at 5 pm,” he said.
As soon as their demo started running, everyone fell silent at the exhibition stand. The guests were glued to the screen. The West Coast graphics professionals had never seen anything like this before. Within half an hour the Yerli brothers had bookings for follow-up talks with the celebrities of the sector, and soon found themselves with their first signed and sealed contract. That marked the birth of Crytek.
The company is now based in Frankfurt, with subsidiary studios in Kiev, Budapest, Sofia, Seoul and Nottingham. Avni heads the business side, Cevat is in charge of creativity and Faruk coordinates the international branches. They’re not worried about the future.
“Technologically we’re five years ahead of the film industry,” says Avni.
Vapiano Co-Founder Gregor Gerlach in one of his restaurants in Hamburg.
Hot on the heels of software giant SAP and the biotech company Qiagen, which are doubtless the most successful German companies founded in recent decades, a new generation of start-up entrepreneurs is entering the market. They are well-educated, full of good ideas, have an eye for early developments in the market, and have the courage to start their own businesses. They are active in growth sectors, such as biotechnology, environmental technology, and the creative economy, convinced that Germany is a great business location and have an international orientation.
By international comparison Germany is not generally seen as a country of start-up founders. According to a recent study carried out by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), which analyzes international entrepreneurial activity, Germany ranks 15th among the 20 innovation-based economies. But this type of study only says something about the quantity, not the quality of newly founded businesses.
The example of Vapiano goes to show that hi-tech is not the only answer to success. However, in this case as well, it was a matter of being in touch with the market and having a good antenna for the zeitgeist. When he started his business, the specialist in system gastronomy promised a relaxed atmosphere, Mediterranean ease, and the sparkle of the south. He wanted to serve food in such a way that “you feel good friends have invited you home for a meal.”
The first restaurant opened in Hamburg in 2002. Two years later Vapiano sold the first franchise. Today there are 76 restaurants around the globe, 31 in Germany, and 45 in 31 countries abroad, for instance in Washington, Brisbane, and Dubai.
Kent Hahne, a man with a sunny personality and the son of German immigrants to the USA, soon joined the team. He grew up in the USA and started his own catering career with a sports bar in Bonn. He then became the youngest McDonalds franchisee in Germany, where he successfully ran numerous branches throughout the country.
“I learnt all I needed to know with McDonalds,” he says. In 2006 he sold his franchises to focus on his favorite: Vapiano. He recalls that the legendary entrepreneur Rudolf-August Oetker, a general partner at Vapiano’s house bank, always personally initialled Vapiano’s transactions right up to his death in 2007. The signature is like a seal of quality for the founder generation 2.0.