The Respond team with our two interview partners Heba Aguib (second from left) and Miki Yokoyama (fourth from left).
© Erol Gurian

“Viable Business Models Are Not Only Profit-Oriented, but Also Sustainable”

There has been a new start in the accelerator universe since early this year: the Respond Program. The program is a joint initiative of BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt and UnternehmerTUM. Respond aims to support founders in using innovative technologies and entrepreneurial approaches to develop sustainable solutions for global challenges. We wanted to learn more and asked Heba Aguib, Chief Executive of Respond, and Miki Yokoyama, COO of Respond to join us in a double interview.

Munich Startup: Please introduce yourself.

Heba Aguib: My name is Heba Aguib and I’ve been working for the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt since July, 2019. As the Chief Executive, I run our accelerator program Respond, which we launched in collaboration with UnternehmerTUM early this year.

Miki Yokoyama: My name is Miki Yokoyama and I’m the COO of Respond and have also been the COO of TechFounders at UnternehmerTUM since 2018, Europe’s leading center of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Heba Aguib: With Respond, we offer founders a five-month accelerator program that provides practical coaching and mentoring in the fields of business, technology, sustainability and leadership according to the highest standards.

Balancing people, profit and planet

Miki Yokoyama: Participants also benefit from both organizations’ global networks with top notch partners in the tech and business world and also from the opportunity to participate in international events.

Heba Aguib: All participants also have the opportunity to take part in a study that shows how companies can contribute to systemic transformation. Without systemic transformation, we will never strike a balance between people, profit and planet. And what that means is something everyone is now aware of. Every contribution is remunerated and will be published jointly with us at the end of the program.

Munich Startup: What do you focus on when working with startups?

Miki Yokoyama: With Respond, we support founders who want to tackle the issues of our time and employ entrepreneurial solutions to do their part in reaching the sustainable development goals in the 2030 Agenda of the United Nations. In the first year, we’ll be focusing on three of the sustainable development goals: goal 8, decent work and economic growth; goal 9, industry, innovation and infrastructure and goal 11, sustainable cities and communities.

“The problems we face today are too complex to be solved alone.”

Heba Aguib: We believe that startups can make a crucial contribution to advancing structural and economic transformation with their agility, creativity and dynamic energy. Responsible behavior by top leaders is the central tenet. We want to inspire founders to exercise their social responsibility and to commit themselves to a peaceful, fair and sustainable future.

Munich Startup: “To be successful, a startup needs to…”

Miki Yokoyama: … have a clear vision that they follow resolutely, have a good team and the right timing while also remaining humble and open to taking off in new directions.

Heba Aguib: … work with others effectively. The problems we face today are too complex to be solved alone. A good network and partners with in-depth expertise are crucial for being successful, especially for young companies.

Munich Startup: Why would a good startup even need an accelerator to back them?

Heba Aguib: Every startup — regardless of how experienced the founders are or how advanced the business model is — can draw valuable support and inspiration from an accelerator. In talking with mentors who have already experienced the highs and lows of founding a company, founders can verify their ideas, learn from others’ experience and, as a result, improve their ability to foresee some of their own future challenges. And there are many more advantages. With their reputation and external communication, for example, renowned accelerators can improve a startup’s image and its recognition.

Miki Yokoyama: What also shouldn’t be underestimated are the valuable contacts and opportunities to network and initiate cooperation — and that applies to all areas that are relevant to startups: other founders, investors, potential customers or new employees.

Munich Startup: What’s the biggest mistake a startup can make?

Miki Yokoyama: Not taking recommendations to heart and not asking other experienced founders or experts questions. Constructive feedback and outside expertise are crucial on the path to becoming a successful startup. Those who only bank on their own knowledge and experience miss the opportunity to learn from others’ mistakes and to utilize other perspectives to their own advantage.

Viable business models need more than scaling, profits and an exit strategy

Heba Aguib: When developing truly viable business models, I also see a lack of foresight as a core mistake. There are certainly still founders who build their company with their main focus on maximum scaling, profits or lucrative exits. But in my opinion, a truly viable business model takes more than that. We can’t continue to ignore the global challenges that are growing at increasing speed — and leaders in particular have special opportunities for getting involved. That is why founders should take smart and farsighted action and develop business models that not only ideally make high profits, but also make a positive contribution to society and the environment.

Munich Startup: The trend of the year is…!

Heba Aguib: … taking responsibility! Whether with regard to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic or in terms of sustainability: A lot of current topics are on the agendas of numerous startups. What we don’t want is for responsibility and a sense of community to stay trends that fade away after a while, but that these values are lived by consistently, particularly by leaders.

“Global challenges can only be solved through systemic transformation of the economic and financial system.”

Miki Yokoyama: The challenges faced by the global community affect a wide range of areas, be it the highly relevant coronavirus or long-term issues such as climate change, improved healthcare or the fight against poverty. These challenges can only be solved through systemic transformation of the economic and financial system. And that is why we are calling on leaders around the world to assume social responsibility now and in the future.

Munich Startup: What makes the Munich startup scene so special?

Heba Aguib: Munich has been a magnet for many startups for quite some time, not least due to the proximity to successful large corporations, be it BMW, Audi, Siemens, BSH or tech companies like Microsoft, Oracle or Amazon. The corporate diversity with companies of all sizes and from all industries attracts a many professionals and offers a host of opportunities for valuable partnerships.

Munich impresses with excellent educational institutions

Miki Yokoyama: Another relevant factor are the excellent educational institutions. According to Deutscher Startup Monitor 2019, the Technical University of Munich is high up on the top 10 list of startup universities. UnternehmerTUM as an institute affiliated with the university offers students, researchers, founders and startups targeted support in making their founding endeavors a reality. More than 50 rapidly growing startups come from UnternehmerTUM every year, making Munich a hotspot for founding and innovation.

Munich Startup: Last but not least: Whom should startups contact if they would like to meet with you?

Heba Aguib: Since launching Respond, the team has been approached by very enthusiastic founders, which is really exciting. We’re in daily contact with interested founders. Information and updates about the accelerator program are also available on the Respond website, and you can always contact our team by email or through social media.

Miki Yokoyama: I was also out on business a lot in the last few months and met numerous founders at events — having direct contact and getting immediate, positive feedback from founders is something I personally really enjoyed.

Munich Startup: Thank you for the interview!