A higher education institution that turns students into founders

FHWS as an invaluable enabler of the companies of tomorrow

Start-ups are an elementary economic factor with their business models and innovative ideas. But there are often a few hurdles to founding a start-up – making it all the more important for FHWS to support prospective founders from among its ranks.

“The future of our economy lies in our SMEs and therefore also in each individual business start-up,” Ulrike Machalett-Gehring, start-up advisor at FHWS, is convinced. The founders thus have great responsibility – with many challenges. Ultimately, it takes more than just a good idea: a functioning regional ecosystem and a climate which is friendly to start-ups are crucial for the success of a start-up. This is understood to mean effective interaction between founders, companies, investors, customers and regional support, as well as educational institutions. According to the German Startup Monitor (DSM) 2019, 81 percent of the start-ups evaluated were founded by academics. This makes higher education institutions central actors in the start-up scene.

The relevance of higher education institutions

“Of course, it is always an important goal of education to ensure that the topic of business start-up also has some form of equivalence for people who are facing their own career decision,” says Sascha Genders, Deputy Managing Director and Head of the Companies and Region Board Division at IHK (Chamber of Industry and Commerce) Würzburg-Schweinfurt. This means that it should be communicated to students that being a founder or an employee is equally valid. Higher education institutions also offer a broad spectrum of versatile skills as well as expert knowledge. “Access to this knowledge is scarcely possible to this extent outside a higher education institution,” says Machalett-Gehring. No wonder, then, that 54.6 % of start-ups collaborate with scientific institutions according to DMS. Because, in addition to the specialist expertise, students also enjoy a sort of honeymoon period. “This support, which minimises the financial and entrepreneurial risk and provides regular feedback, helps some start-ups with the first steps which would not have been possible with such protection in the real market,” says Monika Waschik from the PIONIER founder network at FHWS. According to her, many prospective start-ups fail due to risk-aversion or bureaucratic hurdles. This is exactly where they need support. Because ultimately, every start-up pays dividends for FHWS and the region.

Monika Waschik, Jan Hofmann and Ulrike Machalett-Gehring (from the left) form the new EntrepreneurSHIP@FHWS project team. The project is funded through subsidies from the EXIST Potentials programme and started on 1 July. (Photo: Nicolas Retsch)

Individual and extensive support

FHWS’ competences cover a wide spectrum. Students have multiple ports of call here. Those who are interested in becoming founders but have little basic knowledge thus far can acquire the fundamentals and initial contacts within the framework of the Start-ups@FHWS general elective course (AWPF). The topic of start-ups has thus become established as a firm part of studying at FHWS – a milestone when it comes to teaching entrepreneurial thinking. Students and graduates who already have their own business ideas get advice on the Campus for Applied Research (CAF). FHWS, with its various institutions, thus offers a comprehensive package for students with a prospective interest in founding a start-up. “The support for founders at FHWS provides help for members of FHWS in getting started, reads and criticises business plans and makes a large network available to potential founders for almost all concerns,” explains Machalett-Gehring. The open feedback is particularly valuable here. “We have continued to develop predominantly through the feedback, which has also been critical to some extent, which we have received at FHWS,” says Simon Kühnl, who developed the online learning platform Intelligo together with Florian Zaschka in a five-person team. FHWS thus provides support and funding. Because: the team has been thrown in at the deep end multiple times. “Today, we are bolder and more self-confident as a result, and above all we are no longer anxious about speaking to potential customers,” says Kühnl.

Group of students looks at a whiteboard
Practical application is also writ large in the Start-ups@FHWS elective course – workshops, e.g. in the Vogel start-up workshop, bring students closer to the topic of start-ups.
Students do experiments with Lego bricks
Photos: Annika Kämmerer

In addition to consultations, Waschik considers the practical link to the topic of start-ups to be very important. She is certain “that the playful introduction to brainstorming, initial development of a business model and prototype building can provide the initial impetus for a start-up”. As well as the Campus Startup Night – it has provided the “there’s really something in it” moment for several students, Fabian Espach also remembers. He won the 2nd Campus Startup Night 2019 with his team with “Breaking Good”, a fungus-based insulation material. “The Campus Startup Night was a great help to us. Ultimately, it was the trigger that set everything in motion for us,” says Espach. During the Campus Startup Night, students with an interest in becoming founders go through the phases of a start-up, in addition to workshops, from the idea through to pitching to a jury. Zaschka also attests to it: “It felt like 3 months of business start-up.” 

Reinforcing the founder culture at FHWS

Thanks to funding from the EXIST Potentials programme, a funding initiative as part of the EXIST Culture of Entrepreneurship from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi), FHWS is able to further build on the existing structures with the EntrepreneurSHIP@FHWS project. “The practical culture of entrepreneurship at FHWS is significantly strengthened as a result,” Machalett-Gehring emphasises. The focus is on networking of internal and external partners, particularly alumni, who communicate leadership skills in teaching through the PIONIER module and through advice and support for founders on the Campus for Applied Research. In the PIONIER module, students initially acquire knowledge on the topic of entrepreneurship and intra/entrepreneurship in order to then develop and implement their start-up ideas. An appropriate founder portfolio is then developed in the newly opened ideas laboratory/MakerSpaces.

With the project, FHWS also wants to organise competitions and events with more of a cross-site focus, as well as concentrating on topics such as FEMpreneurship, regional aspects and digital challenges. Likewise, the topic of founding with know-how and concrete tips should be brought to young women in particular with the topic of FEMpreneurship.

Würzburg and Schweinfurt – locations with benefits

Bavaria plays a key role in the start-up ecosystem in Germany. According to DSM 2019, the highest number of start-ups come from Bavaria – after Berlin and NRW – at almost 13 percent. The Lower Franconia region in particular thrives on its economic diversity – the high importance attached to research, science and the qualified workforce create an environment which is friendly to start-ups. “The requirements are all there, in fact, and the institutional environment has also improved massively for start-ups in recent years,” says IHK Vice-President Genders. According to the 2019 Mainfranken Start-up Atlas, the city of Würzburg holds the top spot with an average of 1,201 companies founded per year. However, Würzburg and Schweinfurt cannot yet be compared with start-up hotspots like Berlin or the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area, from which some 30 percent of German start-ups originated according to DSM 2019. But prospective founders can even benefit from this: “Because you have relatively little competitive pressure, because the scene here simply isn’t as established yet and because you can develop more slowly but more purposefully as a result,” explains Espach.

Exploiting potential

“When we look at higher education institutions, we are on a good path,” says Genders. It is a different story when it comes to financing which, in addition to proximity to higher education institutions, is one of the guarantees of success for start-ups. “There is certainly room for improvement when it comes to venture capital here in the region,” says Genders. And: “In my opinion, there is still great potential in women as sources of ideas, but they are sadly still under-represented in start-ups at FHWS, as is the case throughout Germany,” says Waschik. FHWS is working on solutions here – more advertising of the founder network and its initiatives could be the key to even greater awareness among students, particularly among female students. “I do believe that if it was all advertised more widely, a more aggressive approach was taken, particularly with regard to progressive advertising in the degree programmes, then there is more to come,” says Espach. “Then it could become a cool location.”

Quote Monika Waschik: „In my opinion, there is still great potential in women as sources of ideas, but they are sadly still under-represented in start-ups at FHWS, as is the case throughout Germany.“

The numerous contacts which FHWS maintains with regional start-up centres also support this. In Schweinfurt, FHWS works together successfully with the GRIBS start-up centre, for example. This partnership has already included regular intensive seminars (general elective) and practical events on the topic of start-ups since 2009. Furthermore, GRIBS implements the Bavarian digitalisation initiative together with the Zentrum für digitale Innovationen Mainfranken (ZDI, Centre for Digital Innovations). Digital start-ups in particular therefore also receive support from the ZDI. Students dealing with high-tech topics also often turn to the Technologie- und Gründerzentrum Würzburg (TGZ, Würzburg Technology and Start-up Centre). Entrepreneurs have been receiving support in the development and implementation of their business ideas here since 1987. Würzburg-based start-ups and young entrepreneurs gather at STARTHUB again after their successful start-up. STARTHUB is a shared office funded by the Gründen@Würzburg initiative which provides sharing of experiences and mutual support above all.

FHWS is thus creating a start-up ecosystem throughout Mainfranken at the interface between science and economics together with its partners, IHK and the start-up centres in Würzburg and Schweinfurt.

Foto Selina Pellner

An article by
Selina Pellner