Several hundred students have already taken part in the “Let US start! Startup program. This forward-looking University of Stuttgart project familiarizes them with the methods and conceptual frameworks for entrepreneurial activities.
Several deckchairs bearing the university logo are grouped around a cube-shaped table in a room in the former university bookshop on the Vaihingen campus. The walls are ablaze with colorful sheets of paper full of ideas and sketches. Dirk Sahlmer was one of the 30 or so participants who worked on their startup concept ideas there during the 2018 winter semester, which marked the launch of the “Let US start!” program. “I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to do something of my own”, says the 29-year-old master’s student of electro mobility, “but I lacked the basic know-how: how to validate an idea, how to put a team together, and how to find customers.” He was unable to answer these questions.
Whether the specific idea works is not so important. It’s better for the students to make their mistakes in a protected environment."Dr. Eric Heintze, project manager Let US start!
Dr. Eric Heintze himself, a physicist and project manager of the “Let US start!” program, founded a startup in the field of artificial intelligence. In his view, the “Let US start!” program fills the gap he and other entrepreneurs had been all too aware of. “Whether the specific idea works is not so important”, he says: “it’s better for the students to make their mistakes in a protected environment”. The most important factors for participation in the program – as well as for founding a startup – are passion and motivation.
Generating a Startup fever
Participants acquire their know-how in such things as the intensive six-week AWAKE course, in which they draw up business plans, interview customers and present their visions to potential investors. “We know that the students have full schedules”, says Heintze. Which is why the approximately 30 attendance hours are scheduled for the evenings or Saturdays.
How much time the teams put into it beyond that is up to them. Experience has shown that a kind of startup fever can be generated within the clearly defined framework of the “Let US start! program. Participating in the program also earns the students three credit points towards their degrees. The other elements of the program are not timed quite as strictly: Prospective entrepreneurs can attend workshops and develop ideas in the ACTIVATE course. Under the keyword ASK, established entrepreneurs talk about their own careers in a relaxed setting.
“The biggest hurdle is reaching customers”, says Merve Emir, who took part in the “Let US start!” program in the 2019 summer semester. The process engineering master student and her team developed an existing product further: they worked on the business plan and project management plan for “SIMsalabim”, a simulation environment for autonomous driving systems, which had previously been developed by the “Driverless Greenteam”, a Formula Student racing team at the University of Stuttgart. Emir found the “Let US start!” program an intense experience that demanded a lot from her in addition to her studies and research and development job with a large corporation. “I learned a lot about time management”, says the 25-year-old with a laugh.
Establishing productive networks
The “‘Let US start!’ program has helped me to clarify and expedite my plans for the future”, says Dirk Sahlmer, who, together with his team, worked on “Carlotta”, an intelligent parking management system. The software is now in operation in prototype form, but the market launch is not part of the “Let US start! program. “We want to convey a desire to found a startup and support the participants through the initial steps”, says Heintze. But even though not all of them wanted to get into the startup scene afterwards, he goes on, they all gained some important experience.
We teach them team leadership skills as well as about consistent, agile project management and innovative thinking”, Heintze continues. Participants could, he adds, just as easily benefit at a later date from the methods they have learned in relation to thinking through and planning complex projects, whether in the corporate sphere or in science.
“The “Let US start!” program has met with a positive response, both from entrepreneurs and the University. Beginning with just 30 participants, the AWAKE course now caters to over 200, and about twice as many take part in the associated ACTIVATE workshops.
“What I found is that the startup scene is a good target for me to set my sights on” says Merve Emir. Although her father had once founded a company, she only discovered her own ultimate passion for the adventure of self-employment through the “Let US start!” program, in the course of which she also established a productive network: “Before the program, I had known practically no one outside of research”, she says: “now I can reach someone for help with every question”.Eric Heintze believes that the University of Stuttgart has come a good deal closer to its goal of establishing a vital startup culture. “We’ve only just drilled a well.” Who knows how many success stories might bubble up to its surface?