Munich Startup: Please start by outlining the most important milestones of your professional career.
Sohaila Ouffata: I serve as the Director of Platform in the global BMW i Ventures team. In this role, I make sure we strategically develop our portfolio startups and help them grow. The focus of these activities is the successful establishment of strategic partnerships – both between the startups and the BMW Group and with partners outside the industry. All “value-adding” activities of our venture platform are aimed at promoting both the financial development of the portfolio companies as well as strategic added value. Since 2016, I’ve also been the Managing Director of the European Business Unit of BMW i Ventures. Before joining BMW i Ventures, I worked in management consulting and in the telecommunications industry for several years and spent a lot of time evaluating and developing digital business models.
Munich Startup: BMW i Ventures’ second fund, which amounts to 300 million dollars, focuses not only on transportation, production and supply chain, but also on sustainability. Why is the topic given such a prominent position?
Sohaila Ouffata: The use of innovative and disruptive technologies offers an incredible number of opportunities for the sustainable development of all economic sectors towards greater efficiency. This can involve the more efficient use of resources, the development of a circular economy, the reduction of CO2 emissions or the improved use of energy in industrial production. One example is our investment in Boston Metal. The US company has found a way to produce steel with lower CO2 emissions by eliminating the use of coal and relying instead on electrolysis. This benefits not only the mobility industry, but also all other sectors that can’t function without steel. The effect can be tremendous: About two billion tons of steel are produced annually, which accounts for about ten percent of global carbon emissions. Supporting these kinds of technology on their growth trajectory inspires me every day. Given the global challenges we face, I feel certain that we’ll be seeing a lot more disruptive solutions in this area in the future.
Innovations for transformation in the mobility industry
Munich Startup: What solutions are you looking for?
Sohaila Ouffata: We’re interested in solutions that drive transformation in the mobility industry with technological and sustainable innovations. Taking a look at our portfolio makes it easy to see which companies inspire us. One of them is ONE – our next Energy, which has developed a hybrid technology to improve the safety and range of batteries. Or Lilac Solutions, which has developed an environmentally friendly process for extracting lithium, and also BComp, with its natural fiber composites made from flax that can be used in vehicles, airplanes and even ships. Many of the tech companies we invest in often have applications in other industries as well, which means we can drive innovation across industries. Our target markets are currently Europe including the UK, Israel and the US. We’re particularly interested in young startups, which are most commonly in their Series A or Series B funding round.
Munich Startup: What technology or industry do you find particularly interesting at the moment?
Sohaila Ouffata: Generally, our focus is extremely dynamic – we’re constantly looking at promising technologies. But if I had to pick, I would say primarily solutions in the area of circular economy that contribute to making the entire value and supply chain more sustainable, as well as the entire field of battery technologies. There will certainly be some innovative developments in these areas in the near future.
Munich Startup: What do you think makes a pitch great?
Sohaila Ouffata: A good pitch immediately demonstrates that a relevant problem is being solved in a large market with an attractive business model. If you want to pitch well, you have to be able to tell a “good” story and be very good at talking with financial backers. A convincing criterion for me is often the competence of the founders and of the team. If the foundation is right, that’s a good prerequisite. We know from experience that the business model can often change or shift in the process.
A systemic problem
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?
Sohaila Ouffata: I firmly believe that access to capital for female founders correlates closely with the number of female investors. It’s a systemic problem that needs to be tackled by both sides – both the next generation of female founders and future investors must be systematically developed. We could lay the foundation for this development during training. At the moment, neither entrepreneurship nor financial literacy are taught in our schools. On the investor side, I see great potential in established businesswomen who could be introduced to investing, for example, through angel programs. Through targeted regulation, investments in women’s business models could be given tax breaks to additionally encourage investment. An area that is of particular importance to me is female founders with a migrant background. This target group is disproportionately underrepresented, and while investments in “minority founders” are already a relevant topic in the US, it isn’t on the agenda in Germany yet.
Munich Startup: In your opinion, what are the advantages of diverse founding teams?
Sohaila Ouffata: Quite a few studies have made it clear that diversity and inclusion in companies contribute to the economic success of a company. In my experience, the teams that are particularly successful are those that are diverse, both in terms of competences and in terms of gender distribution and where the team members are from.
Munich on the international startup map
Munich Startup: What do you think could still use some improvement in Munich as a startup location?
Sohaila Ouffata: “Double-down on our competences” means we have to invest a lot more in our competences – especially in the field of greentech. When I started to get more involved in the Munich startup ecosystem about 13 years ago, the region wasn’t on the radar internationally yet. Since then, Munich has become the “Isar Valley” for deeptech expertise in Europe. If we also succeed in developing our competences in the field of green industrial tech, Munich will become an integral part of the international startup map in the future. In this context, the ecosystem needs to be expanded further by all of the stakeholders involved – universities with relevant courses of study, investors with a local presence in both early and late phases, as well as targeted government funding programs and formats.
Munich Startup: What founder would you like to meet in person some day? And what would you ask them?
Sohaila Ouffata: I would like to answer the question a bit differently, because I usually only find people really interesting after getting to know them, instead of just following them from a distance. This year, I met Lubna Olaya at a small event in Davos. She is a Saudi Arabian businesswoman and an investor who was the “first” in many areas. She talked about her career and personal motivation with such incredible authenticity.