Promoting and supporting entrepreneurship has become an important issue for universities in recent years. At the University of Siegen, a Master’s programme addresses this topic through support structures for entrepreneurs. One of its graduates, Timo Visestamkul, Co-Founder and CEO of Innofarming, writes about his experience with a university-supported startup.
Startups have become very important due to the potential disruptive impact they can have on the economy and society. Examples show that established structures can be changed by startups’ innovative impulse. Notably, this needed innovation can often be found in universities, which means they are possible enablers for disruptive change in the market. Nonetheless, to deliver the innovation created in the protected surroundings of academic institutions, a step into the market is necessary to prove the concept. Startups provide the agile structures necessary to apply the innovation to a business model by constantly adjusting to changing needs.
More specifically, disruptive change becomes important when established structures are no longer sustainable. The ambitious but also very important goals of the European Green Deal, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, are a fitting example. The goals can only be achieved when changing and further developing industry, agriculture, energy and transportation. The case of the automotive sector going electric shows that, amongst others, an initially small but highly innovative company called Tesla shifted global perspective about electric vehicles and forced the established industry to join in. Nowadays, the company founded by Elon Musk is one of the most valuable in the entire sector. Many sectors require such new and disruptive approaches to achieve the goals of the green transition while spurring more innovation.
At the University of Siegen, where I completed my Master’s in Entrepreneurship and SME Management, several classes focus on how to create a valid and sustainable business model and how to write a proper business plan. Alongside this theoretical foundation, there are events organised by the university in which young entrepreneurs can report about their experiences, both positive and negative ones, in founding a startup. This triggered my passion for startups and led me to pursue my vision. However, I was not able to do it alone and this led me to take an interdisciplinary class – likely the most important step in the creation of the startup. This is where I met my co-founders, who have backgrounds in engineering and biology. The university provided the possibility to meet like-minded people working in other academic fields, enabling us to pursue a joint vision of how to develop the agriculture of the future by saving natural resources and cultivating more efficiently than ever before.
The University of Siegen provided us with the initial financial support, office space and mentors to develop our business model and to build our first prototype of an indoor vertical farming system. Following that, we networked with the support of the university with small and medium enterprises in our city, which lead to the first technology cooperation. In addition, we gained access to a testing facility, where we are currently building our first scalable proof of concept. This kind of support holds a promise of the creation of the kind of disruptive startups, that could make a global impact.
We have also worked closely with our regional network. However, when trying to accelerate business growth, contact points with the European Union became very important due to the limited resources of the regional networks. In addition, to connect big startup clusters like in Berlin, Dublin or Lisbon, the European Union should also be in touch with smaller startup clusters such as in Siegen. Despite their size, the environment offers high potential for startups to grow. For example, Siegen has a powerful and established industry sector that is interested in cooperating with innovative startups to develop disruptive solutions. In combination with the resources of the European Union, vision can be turned into reality and this can trigger an innovative revolution. Innofarming is only one university-supported startup of potentially many more that works to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and save natural resources for the agriculture sector - all while contributing to the green transition.
Therefore, I was pleased to be invited to a workshop on young entrepreneurship and the green transition organised by the European University Association in preparation for the 2021 Research and Innovation Days, which gathered like-minded young entrepreneurs from all over Europe. We specifically discussed the question of how young entrepreneurs can support the European green transition. The majority was already working on sustainable projects, trying to improve different sectors. Some involved reusing second-hand textiles to create new clothing or developing an alternative waste disposal system to educate citizens about the impact of properly recycling and separating their waste. Moreover, we realised that as young entrepreneurs we not only trigger innovation through our projects, we also spark the willingness of like-minded people to dare to become entrepreneurs themselves.
All these insights were presented to Commissioner Mariya Gabriel at the 2021 Research and Innovation Days, which gave young entrepreneurs an opportunity to contribute to European policy processes. The future should bring more of these occasions, as young entrepreneurs from university startups have a role to play in informing European policy and in contributing to the green transition.
The author participated in the workshop on young entrepreneurship co-organised by EUA and the European Commission on 9 June 2021. In this event, young entrepreneurs from EUA member universities shared their insights on how to shape European research and innovation policy to accelerate the green transition.
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