Helmut Schönenberger: “In Times of Crisis, Companies Emerge with Disruptive Business Models”

Helmut Schönenberger started the startup center UnternehmerTUM together with entrepreneur Susanne Klatten in 2002 and has directed it ever since. Last year, TU Munich appointed him as Honorary Professor of Entrepreneurship Practice and appointed him Vice President Entrepreneurship early this year. We had the opportunity to talk with Helmut Schönenberger about how the Munich startup scene has developed over the last few decades, what he hopes to see emerge from Munich Urban Colab and the consequences of the crisis he expects for startups.

Munich Startup: Nearly twenty years ago, you compared the founder network of Stanford University with that of TU Munich in your dissertation. How has the Munich startup ecosystem developed since then?

Helmut Schönenberger: In the last few decades, Munich has developed into a cluster for tech startups with international reach and unicorns such as Celonis, Flixbus and Lilium. The pipeline is full of further high-growth startups. Munich-based companies such as Blickfeld, Fazua, Isar Aerospace, Konux, Navvis, Personio, Proglove and Twaice have a good chance of becoming stars in the European startup scene. I’m very optimistic that Munich can become the leading European B2B startup ecosystem with these success stories. A particular strength in the Munich ecosystem is that the startup centers of the major local universities – LMU, MUAS and TUM – work together very closely.

Munich Startup: Why should TU Munich graduates found companies – instead of just looking for a high-paying job at a local SME or major corporation?

Helmut Schönenberger: What’s important to us at TUM is that our graduates think long and hard about their career paths. Starting your own company is one option. What fascinates me is that as a founder, you have the opportunity to quickly make your own ideas a reality, establish a strong team and win over customers and investors. At the same time, starting your own company also means investing lots of time and energy, assuming a great deal of responsibility and dealing with uncertainty and risks. Every individual has to decide which path is right for them.

Munich Urban Colab: “A meeting place for innovators from different fields”

Munich Startup: According to Deutscher Startup Monitor, no other German university produces more startup founders than TU Munich. UnternehmerTUM has most likely played a significant role in that. What do you do better than other universities and their startup centers?

Helmut Schönenberger: Since winning the excellence initiative in 2006, we’ve resolutely followed the strategy of the “entrepreneurial university” here at TUM. With UnternehmerTUM, we have a university-based startup center that professionally implements that strategy in collaboration with TUM ForTe (Office for Research and Innovation) and the faculties and that builds a bridge between the university, established companies and the startup scene. Another important factor is that our sole shareholder and UnternehmerTUM Supervisory Board Chairwoman Susanne Klatten has backed us since our founding in 2002.

Munich Startup: Together with the city of Munich, UnternehmerTUM is currently building Munich Urban Colab on Leonrodplatz. What is planned there and what do you expect from it?

Helmut Schönenberger: The objective with Munich Urban Colab is to establish a new entrepreneurial hot spot in the city that focuses on solutions for cities of the future. It is a meeting place for innovators from different fields and organizations, such as Munich universities, established companies, startups, investors, etc. What’s wonderful is that we’re developing the building in collaboration with the state capital. Many innovative minds from the city council and municipal companies are going to be involved at Colab.

Helmut Schönenberger: “We want to make Munich’s international positioning as a startup cluster even better”

Munich Startup: UnternehmerTUM advises students, provides training, helps with founding, provides a whole host of support programs, runs a maker space and invests its own VC funds in startups. Where is this journey going? Do you have concrete future plans for UnternehmerTUM?

Helmut Schönenberger: With TUM and our other partners, we will continue on our mission to offer the next entrepreneurial generation the ideal environment for developing themselves and their young companies. In the years ahead, that most particularly means strengthening competencies in the key tech and industrial fields, such as AI, additive manufacturing and robotics. As TUM and UnternehmerTUM, we also want to continue to expand our collaboration with our colleagues and friends at LMU, the LMU Entrepreneurship Center, MUAS and SCE to make Munich’s international positioning as a startup cluster even better.

Munich Startup: With AppliedAI, UnternehmerTUM says it is running Europe’s largest initiative for artificial intelligence. Together with five other initiatives in Germany, you recently launched AI4Germany. The goal is to support SMEs in using AI. What significance and potential does artificial intelligence hold for the economy?

Helmut Schönenberger: AI is a key technology that will dramatically change our economy. The situation is similar to a good twenty years ago with the rise of the internet. Our duty as Germany’s biggest startup center is to make sure we don’t miss out on the AI wave, but instead do an excellent job riding it. Then our city will continue to be distinguished as a leading high-tech region on the world stage.

Munich Startup: What medium and long-term consequences do you think the corona crisis will have for the Munich ecosystem?

Helmut Schönenberger: In the short and medium term, it will be a challenge for many startups to find customers and investors. Especially for companies in B2B, acquisition will not get any easier in the next six to eighteen months. At the same time, it is particularly in times of crisis that extremely successful new companies emerge with disruptive business models. What’s important in this period of change is to pool the strengths of our startups and established companies, to mutually promote further digitization of our economy and to put sustainable products on the market.

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