Munich Startup: Amanda, you work as an investment manager at UVC Partners. Before we talk about that, please tell us a bit about your professional career.
Amanda-Stella Birkenholz: I studied industrial engineering (specializing in mechanical engineering) at RWTH Aachen University and did an international trainee program at Bombardier Transportation after my studies. I went through various positions in the company and worked in Berlin, London and Bangkok, where I finally helped build the new headquarters for Asia for two years. During that time, I worked very closely with executive boards and realized that I didn’t want to just pursue a career in the corporation.
I came back to Munich in 2015, which is where I grew up, and discovered the startup world. In recent years, I worked for a company builder and built B2B tech startups there. A year ago, I switched to the investor side at UVC Partners.
Munich Startup: As already mentioned, you’re now working at UVC Partners, the investment arm of UnternehmerTUM. Could you please briefly introduce UVC Partners?
Amanda-Stella Birkenholz: UVC Partners is a spin-off of UnternehmerTUM and an independent VC fund that we use to invest in B2B tech startups in Europe. Our focus is on industrial tech, enterprise SaaS and mobility, and we make both hardware and software investments in pre-seed to Series A companies. Our third fund has 250 million euros of capital and we initially invest 500,000 to 10 million euros and can then continue to finance them with up to 30 million euros per company in subsequent rounds.
Focus on hardware fields
Munich Startup: What exactly does your job entail there?
Amanda-Stella Birkenholz: The range of tasks is quite broad and covers everything from looking for exciting startups all the way to support. More specifically, that means screening startups, conducting due diligence to understand the product, technology and market and also assessing the team, making investment decisions with the team, negotiating contracts with the startups and subsequently collaborating with the board to make strategic decisions and also support further financing rounds.
Munich Startup: What technologies or industries do you focus on?
Amanda-Stella Birkenholz: I’m responsible for many fields in hardware, such as quantum computing, robotics, energy, space and also proptech.
Munich Startup: What startups have impressed you in particular recently?
Amanda-Stella Birkenholz: We recently announced one of my investments in the field of quantum computers. We invested in Planqc, a company from the Munich Quantum Valley that is going to build quantum computers that operate at room temperature. The team consists of world-renowned experts who bring a wealth of experience in research in their field and who are now building a company with the knowledge gained. I’m convinced that quantum computers will significantly change the world as we know it and I’m delighted to be part of it.
“Unconscious bias plays a role”
Munich Startup: There are still far fewer female investors than male investors and the share of female founders in Germany is less than 18 percent according to the German Startup Monitor 2021. Do you see a relation between the two issues?
Amanda-Stella Birkenholz: Certainly, and there are also various aspects to consider. On the one hand, unconscious bias plays a role, which we all have and is natural. We connect better with people who are similar to us, and gender obviously plays a role. The industry is still dominated by male investors, so it’s not uncommon for them to see more potential in male teams that are similar to them. On the other hand, the industry is already very much aware of the fact that diverse teams perform better. As a result, there are now certainly more opportunities for female founders to raise capital than a few years ago.
The other very important aspect, from my point of view, is networks. Men’s networks are usually larger than women’s, which unfortunately is often a key factor. Both in company development and fundraising, there are already best practices that increase success rates, and knowing them is of great value. This is why communicating with other founders is very important and also helps get you introduced to VCs, which always works better than sending a pitch deck to a homepage.
Munich Startup: In your experience, do women invest differently than men?
Amanda-Stella Birkenholz: Especially in impact funds, the partners are often women, but this is unfortunately still rarely the case with classic financial funds. I think that in classic VC, the way women and men make decisions is similar, even though women certainly have a different perspective on issues.
More bootstrapping, less VC
Munich Startup: And do women also found companies differently than men?
Amanda-Stella Birkenholz: Women more often feel the need to do something that makes an impact. Because of that, and also because there are more female partners in the area, the share of female teams that receive funding from impact investors is significantly higher than from classic financial investors.
I’ve also often observed that women focus more on bootstrapping and want to build something really solid first before getting into financing. Men, on the other hand, raise money earlier and are more likely to do so based on a vision than women. As a result, companies founded by women also have a solid foundation more often, but do not always grow as strongly as companies of all-male teams.
Munich Startup: Do you think networks exclusively for women are needed to motivate more women to start companies and invest? If so, can you recommend any?
Amanda-Stella Birkenholz: I think that women as a whole should network more and that a women’s network can be a good framework for speaking openly about certain topics in a closed group. That’s why we founded the Female Founders Office Hours, where we offer assistance to female teams on topics such as financing, startup programs and the development of startups.
That being said, the network needs to be gender-blind. What women need in particular is to network with successful founders and investors – who are still often male – in order to build up knowledge and also gain access to customers and investors.
Munich Startup: Balancing work and family life is an important issue for many women who want to start a business. From your point of view, what needs to change so women who already have children or want to start a family are not deterred from starting a business?
Amanda-Stella Birkenholz: There are some teams that start directly from university. This has many advantages, because you have a low cost of living and also don’t know what isn’t possible yet. So you just do what you think of and suddenly things work that no one else had managed to pull off before. But there are many other teams that start businesses after they have several years of experience and have established expertise in a field. That’s when founders are around 30 years old and, particularly for women, this is when starting a family is often a very present topic. Many want a family, so they think they have to put their careers on hold. The concept of parental leave is great, but unfortunately, most parents do the following: the wife takes 12 months, the husband two, and during that time, they go on vacation to New Zealand or somewhere. Many women then end up working part time and bear the primary responsibility for their children. Building a startup at the same time is virtually impossible and is certainly a reason why many women shy away from it.
At the same time, most of the male founders I interact with have young children. For men, this aspect doesn’t seem to play as important a role as it does for women.
For women who want to start a business, it’s important how childcare is divided between the parents and for men to also take on a large portion of the tasks and responsibilities. Having this conversation at an early stage and also getting men to take on more responsibility is crucial. Because then you no longer have to make a compromise between founding and family, but can instead combine the two.
I have a daughter myself and my partner and I both work full time. Our daughter is in childcare all day, where she is integrated very well and is also very happy. We’ve divided parental leave equally, and in our daily routine, he takes on just as many tasks as I do. It’s only as a team that we can be a success as a family and in our careers and find a framework in which we’re both fulfilled.
Munich Startup: Do you think now is a good time to start a company?
Amanda-Stella Birkenholz: I think it’s never been easier to build a startup than it is now. The ecosystem has seen strong development in the last ten years, there’s a lot of capital in the market and the big companies want to work with startups now more than ever before. This is a huge gain, especially for B2B startups, and is tremendously helpful for providing speed and growth.
There are many concerns about there being less money in the market for startups now due to the Ukraine crisis. I think that despite the upcoming recession, there will still be enough funding opportunities for good teams. What we’ve also seen in the past is that innovations often arise in times of crisis.
Munich Startup: What do you think could still use some improvement in Munich as a startup location?
Amanda-Stella Birkenholz: Munich has become a startup hub in Germany. The first wave of startups was in Berlin, which is where many B2C companies were founded. Of course, southern Germany also has a lot to offer tech startups with its strong focus on industry and its talented individuals. UnternehmerTUM is now the largest entrepreneurship network in Europe, which makes it a great place for startups to find their feet and grow.
A city with a great quality of life where BMW, Google and Amazon are located and pay very high salaries obviously entails high living costs, and I think it would be nice if there was more support for affordable housing here. The availability of affordable childcare spots with long opening hours would also be desirable, because especially for female founders, it shouldn’t be necessary to compromise between a family and a career. To achieve that, however, women also need more framework conditions that make it possible to set up a business.
Role model: Spanx founder Sarah Blake
Munich Startup: What founder would you like to meet in person some day? And what would you ask them?
Amanda-Stella Birkenholz: Unfortunately, there are far too few role models. One of my role models is Sarah Blakey, the founder of Spanx. Without capital or coming from an entrepreneurial family, she built a billion-dollar company and heard a lot of “no, that’s never going to work” along the way. Now she helps women in building their businesses. What I find impressive is how she has resolutely gone her own way, and what I would be most interested in is how she had the staying power to go her own way despite so many setbacks.