Within the scope of the German Accelerator Tech program, the Munich startup Toposens was given the opportunity to get to know and test out the US market. And what better place to do so than Silicon Valley? At the end of June, the young sensor company completed the first three months of their experience and extended their stay by another six months. During that time, the team will be able to use resources from German Accelerator Tech such as office space and their mentor network. We spoke with co-founder Tobias Bahnemann about the first steps taken by the Munich company in the US.
Hi Tobias, as a quick intro: What does Toposens do, when was the company founded and where are you at the moment?
Toposens develops sensor systems and software that make it possible for autonomous technologies to recognize their environment in 3D and to interact with it as well. We developed the world’s first 3D sensor that can recognize its environment using ultrasound, much like a bat. We focus particularly on robotics and autonomous driving with the aim of making the systems safer, better and more comfortable. Our sensor technology fundamentally differs from previous 3D sensor systems that effectively function on an optical basis. Instead, our system is super for near-field recognition, is very resource friendly and also extremely resistant to environmental influences.
The company was founded in 2015 by Alexander Rudoy, Rinaldo Persichini and myself and has managed to gain several large companies as customers including BMW, Intel and Continental. We even have positive cash flow now. We just recently introduced our new product TS ALPHA to the market, the first commercialized sensor, which will also be available in large numbers in Q4. Otherwise, we’re working on extremely exciting projects that we unfortunately are not allowed to talk about yet.
The key factor is networking
How did you decide that now is the time for US expansion?
We’ve seen a great deal of interest from the US on our website for quite some time, particularly from Silicon Valley. Because the market is currently very active and extremely innovative in our focus markets, it was a logical conclusion to also be present in the US for the market launch of TS ALPHA.
How did you learn about the German Accelerator Tech program and what prompted you to apply?
We had been written to and contacted by German Accelerator Tech repeatedly, but our response was always that it was still too soon for us. We decided last year that the timing was finally right for us!
What are your goals in the US?
The key factor is networking with all of the car manufacturers’ innovation centers and the local high-tech companies. Of course we’ve also met up with investors here and there, but that’s not the main focus. We will also most likely found a US corporation next quarter to send a strong signal to our US customers.
“Silicon Valley is unbelievably fast”
What would you call the greatest challenge for Toposens in the US? What initial knowledge and lessons have you learned in the land of opportunity?
Managing to enter the market and to make a name for ourselves as a company located in the US, not just one that has stopped by for a bit from Europe, but one that you can have long-term customer relationships with. If you’ve managed all that and also gotten the first customers on board, the biggest step has been accomplished.
Silicon Valley is unbelievably fast. The contacts I’ve made here in three months would have probably taken nine to twelve months in Europe. That’s due to how extremely social people are, a great mentor network from the German Accelerator and most particularly the short distance between all relevant companies. It’s not unusual for me ti have two or three meetings each day and perhaps six to ten each week – you can hardly keep up. Here you learn the American style of storytelling and about Americans’ open character and fundamental curiosity about new topics. You also learn that the startups here have the same problems as German startups in a lot of areas (however, there are also some significant differences in some areas).
Just today, I heard another story about an investor sliding a check for more than 20 million dollars under a startup’s door. You would NEVER hear anything like that in Germany. Although that’s an exception, it shows that some things just work differently here.
Ask the mentors the right questions
Has everything gone as you’d expected until now, or have there been some surprises?
It’s going better than expected. The speed, as mentioned, is simply unbelievable and I feel very strongly that we will only continue to benefit from this step. Of course you need to be a bit patient until all of the work turns into success at some point, but we already have our first customers for our development kit!
How were the first few weeks in the German Accelerator Tech program?
I didn’t have any major expectations in the beginning, but instead assumed that most of our success would come from our own work and not just from the German Accelerator. That made me all the more surprised to see how much input we received from the sessions in the first few weeks and from the extremely experienced network of mentors. In retrospect, I can only say: it’s an unbelievable opportunity to get started in the US, to learn so much so quickly and to also make good progress by investing the necessary work. I’ve already been able to establish a very good network which basically grows by one to two people each day.
How do you work together with the mentors?
The mentors are extremely valuable, but you need to first find the right mentors for your business model and for the market. As soon as you have the right mentors, you can learn a lot, provided that you ask the right questions. In addition, all of the mentors have a very strong network and can establish some great contacts. In general, it all happens on a very individual basis, which is why you need to make sure to make good use of the mentor’s time and to ask the right questions.
Plans for a financing round and conquering the US market
What makes Silicon Valley special?
For me, it’s the interplay of all of the extremely relevant players in such a compact area along with the attitude that you can basically achieve anything and change the world just a bit as long as you work hard enough and believe in your dream. It’s also very international here and you meet people from all over the world.
Where do you see Toposens in one year?
Toposens has a really exciting year ahead because our technology has achieved market maturity and can finally be launched. As a result, you’ll be able to find us in several products and we’re going to develop large-scale production with our customers. Moreover, we’ll have a reasonably established business in the US and will have completed our first major round of financing.