Plug and Play: “Innovation is in our DNA”

The open innovation platform and Venture Capital firm Plug and Play from Silicon Valley is active in Munich with a wide range of partners and investment activities. It has made the capital city home to three of its programs: Retail, Insurtech and Health. In our interview, Frederike Rohr, Director of Health and Head of Munich of Plug and Play, gives insight into daily business, how the corona crisis has impacted her work and explains what makes Munich a particularly interesting startup city.

Munich Startup: How does daily business look at Plug and Play?

Frederike Rohr: Our CEO and founder Saeed Amidi came into contact with the startup scene as early as 2008 and was one of the first investors in startups such as Dropbox, Danger and PayPal. Therefore, classic VC early stage investments are the origins of Plug and Play and still an important part of our DNA today. We are on 5 continents around the world and clustered in 18 different industries – from mobility to fintech, health, insurance, logistics and supply chain or food and retail, we’re basically active across the board and make our own investments in all of these industries. This helped us to become the most active early stage investor in the world and we sign around 4 investments a week. Latest very successful investments in Germany include N26 or the Munich based IDNow.

To provide true value to our portfolio firms and the startup ecosystem, we have also started to build up a strong corporate partner network with +450 partners to-date.  One of the most famous programs in Germany was the Axel Springer Plug and Play partnership. While the program was quite successful, we have changed our approach with the needs of the market – We are not a classic accelerator – we don’t take equity and pitch trainings are only a side-offer for us. What differentiates us is that we have real business cases from our corporate partners in the respective industries. That means the business units come to us looking for a solution to a problem or needing support in a particular area. In such cases, we look for startups that are a perfect match and bring them together with corporates – and do so even before they start the program so they can be absolutely certain about whether they want to pilot together or work on a solution or not.

Frederike Rohr is Director Health und Head of Munich of Plug and Play.

Corporate partners should learn from each other

Munich Startup: And that then leads to commercialization.

Frederike Rohr: Ideally, yes. We firmly believe that corporate partners can learn a lot from each other. The open innovation approach is key to our activities. While corporations in the same industry are always a kind of competition for one another, they also face the same challenges. We create an open platform where they can talk about these topics and come together with startups to find solutions. We also want to continuously expand the platform. These are all things Plug and Play does, and with over 30 offices, we can be found everywhere and in all industries.

Munich Startup: How has the corona crisis affected you? You’re probably all in home office around the globe now, right?

Frederike Rohr: Yes, exactly. For me personally, it’s very, very important for us to still try to maintain communication, both within the team and with our portfolio startups and corporate partners. That means – and this is very American – we have what is known as a ‘morning huddle’ every morning, where all of us in Munich meet up at 9 am to give a brief update. We still do the same thing now digitally, because we think it’s really important to still see each other and not miss out on communication. I also just launched a ‘Lunch Learning Session,’ where each colleague can talk about any topic for ten minutes. Regardless of whether it’s about how to make banana bread or mix a caipirinha, we don’t want to forget how this kind of active, more personal contact among colleagues works. We are also in contact with our portfolio companies, predominantly to talk about how we can support them right now. We have also created helpful resources such as an overview of support programs from the government around the world and host events virtually to present them to our corporate network.  The extent to which they’ve been affected obviously depends on their industry.

‘Fireside Chats’ with the Plug and Play founder

Munich Startup: And you also hold your events digitally now. How is that working?

Frederike Rohr: We’ve taken the opportunity to offer other formats due to COVID-19. One example are our ‘Fireside Chats’ with our CEO Saeed and guests such as the Head of Digital Health Innovation from Roche Diagnostics. The chat was about the general situation and the diagnostic kit that Roche developed. Another guest was the CEO of Webasto – the company is also one of our partners and really made the headlines because it was one of the first companies hit by corona in Germany. That Fireside Chat was about how the Webasto CEO dealt with the entire situation in his company. How things will look after the crisis depends on how it develops – but we definitely want to be the last ones to push events in our office with 300 or 400 people flying in from around the world. In the follow-up to the crisis, our events will be smaller to begin with or held virtually.

Munich Startup: How is Plug and Play organized in Munich?

Frederike Rohr: We’re represented by three verticals in Munich: insurance, health and retail. We originally started with retail, which developed into the brand and retail platform. That is the program that was originally founded as a joint venture with MediaMarktSaturn. Since then, we’ve been able to get further local partners on board such as the Schwarz Gruppe, and Visa. Insurance then followed with partners such as Generali, Achmea and Versicherungskammer Bayern. The third area is health, originally with our founding partner Roche Diagnostics and now with Sanofi, Lonza, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Sana Kliniken and Universitätsklinikum Schleswig-Holstein, Accenture and Microsoft.

There are also many nice areas of overlap, particularly in health and insurance, but also in retail and health, for example when you think about wearables. Moreover, we have a team that concentrates on investments to find the right startups for our corporate partners. We also have a team that organizes events for our corporate partners and the startups in the program. And then we have our colleagues who take care of our corporate partners and make sure the platform grows continuously with new corporate partners. All together, daily business is very, very multifaceted for us.

“A lot depends on how far along companies are in their innovation process”

Munich Startup: How do you collaborate with your corporate partners?

Frederike Rohr: That is of course quite varied, because what happens depends very much on the partner. In health, for example, Roche and Sanofi are two partners who are very involved. They each have their own teams who exclusively take care of the Startup Creasphere partnership that we work with. These teams are also the in-house point of contact for departments actively looking for a new solution. But not all corporate partners have something in common – the organizational matrices of large and global companies, some of which are complex, mean we need to help with communicating with startups and in the ventures area. Our corporate partners also communicate with each other through our platform. In general, a lot depends on how far along the companies are in their innovation process and what they’re looking for. What is very important to us is being able to bring the right startups and companies together through our programs and events.

Munich Startup: How did it come about that retail, insurance and health are located in Munich?

Frederike Rohr: We select our locations based on the local industries. For insurance, Munich is incredibly well suited, and for health as well because many pharmaceutical companies and hospital chains are not too far away. We choose certain locations simply because we know a lot is happening in those local industries. Then you also have retail because MediaMarktSaturn was our joint venture partner and they are headquartered in Ingolstadt.

“Munich creates super conditions for startups”

Munich Startup: How do you view the startup scene in Munich in general?

Frederike Rohr: In my point of view, Munich offers a very strong ecosystem for startups. Through its recognized universities, a high-quality talent pool is available, which helps local startups when scaling up. Also, there are multiple very good innovation centers that help the bright minds to develop their ideas into businesses. We work closely with them and they do an excellent job in supporting the local ecosystem – For example, our portfolio companies Presize and Cliniserve came out of the CDTM program of TU and LMU university.

When we look at traction in the last years, Munich has many great companies that were founded locally, which puts a lot of startup experience in the city – Konux, Blickfeld and Celonis are only some prominent examples. And of course, you have large industrial partners who we also work with. We shouldn’t forget that the startup world is also dependent on supply and demand – Due to this strong corporate network, a high number of successful B2B firms come out of the ecosystem.

When we look into our German portfolio, this strongly supports the thesis that the ecosystem is great for forming successful company – Companies such as Cliniserve, Celus, Presize, 2trde, IDNow and i2x are only some examples.

Overall, we’re always excited to see how many fantastic new startups are founded in Munich.

Munich Startup: How far along does a startup need to be to be relevant for you?

In investment cases Plug and Play helps with scaling

Frederike Rohr: This depends on whether the startup wants to work with our corporate partners or is seeking an early stage investment. In the former, it’s important for our corporate partners that the startups know what they’re doing and have some first successful POCs. The startups need to at least have a product or prototype and be able to live up to the needs and wants of our partners’ departments. On the other side, in the investment case, we are very often the first institutional investor – here the team and market fit matter to us and we help the company to scale up to be corporate partner ready.

Munich Startup: What are the most interesting startups in Munich that you have encountered so far?

Frederike Rohr: Of course, all of our portfolio companies that I have mentioned above – Presize revolutionizes the E-Commerce shopping experience through their video-based sizing solution, i2x the customer communication quality, 2trde the dealership market, Celus how electronics are developed, IDNow the ID-verification space and Cliniserve the nursing market. Additionally, there are so many interesting early cases in Munich. As I am also the Head of our Health platform, I am particularly excited about the Health startups in Munich. There are so many incredibly interesting companies such as Wellabe (former Bodylabs, editor’s note) , who have developed a mobile laboratory for measuring health data or DeepC, who use state-of-the-art ML learning technologies to unlock big amounts of data and solve the biggest challenges in healthcare diagnostics.

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

Frederike Rohr: …be hard working, driven, on their toes, open-minded and ready for change and always strive to continuously evolve. The most important thing, however, is being dynamic and having the right skillsets in the team.

Munich Startup: Whom can startups contact if they would like to get in touch with you?

Frederike Rohr: Basically all of us. But for specific programs and investment cases, that would be Caro, who is our point of contact for retail, Fabian is our guy for all things health and medtech, and for insurance, our point of contact is Sebastien.