Germany has a problem: it is still strong in basic research, as recently demonstrated by the successful acquisition of a total of 61 ERC Advanced Grants, which secured the country first place in Europe. Twelve of these grants went to Max Planck researchers. But at the same time, Germany is not in a position to put this horsepower on the road and turn it into successful start-ups and companies, as Thomas Sattelberger, former State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, recently stated in an article in WirtschaftsWoche.
“In addition to a lack of entrepreneurship culture, a difficult financing environment, poor tax conditions and a lack of exit opportunities for investors, there are always delays in negotiating licensing agreements between founders and the universities or research institutions,” says Ulrich Mahr, a member of the management board of Max Planck Innovation GmbH, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Max Planck Society. In fact, the picture in Germany is very heterogeneous when it comes to supporting spin-offs from academic research. The participation and licensing conditions have changed again and again over the last 30 years - and this is also the case with the MPG.
Max Planck Innovation has already been working with a flatrate participation model since 2018. “Here, we grant the rights to use the MPG’s patents in exchange for a lump-sum participation in the newly founded company and a licence that is easy on the finances for the start-up,” explains Mahr. A similar participation model is now also being called for by politicians and the Federal Agency for Disruptive Innovation, above all to make start-ups more transparent and faster.
With the MAXpreneurs initiative, the MPG now wants to provide even better support and encouragement for scientists willing to start up their own businesses. Because: “Basic research at the highest level and its transfer into practical applications are not mutually exclusive. Scientific excellence and economic success often go hand in hand, as many of our Nobel Prize winners who are involved in start-ups or innovations have shown. With MAXpreneurs, we therefore want to encourage and enable our researchers to explore the application potential of their scientific results more fully,” says Max Planck President Martin Stratmann.
One initiative, three partners
The aim of the initiative is to motivate Max Planck scientists to consider entrepreneurship as another career option and to strengthen the start-up culture at the institutes. This requires, among other things, broad-based entrepreneurship training and intensive support for Max Planck researchers with an affinity for entrepreneurship. Partners of the MAXpreneurs Initiative are therefore not only the Planck Academy, but also Max Planck Innovation GmbH and the Max Planck Foundation.
The Planck Academy provides support on an individual level with numerous further training courses and shows young scientists career paths beyond the science sector through events such as the Career Evolution Games Week. “With events like these, we want to give our PhDs and postdocs early impulses and stimuli for entrepreneurship,” says Kerstin Dübner-Gee, Head of Human Resources Development & Opportunities. In addition, there are also special programmes for scientific managers with the aim of sensitising Max Planck directors to projects at their institutes with spin-off potential. Further education programmes on organisational development, venture capital, case studies from Berkeley and Silicon Valley round off the offer for the experienced target group.
The technology scouts of the Max Planck Foundation (MPF) carry out targeted “detective” work: they search the institutes for projects that are suitable for founding a company. If the scouts find what they are looking for, they evaluate the chances of success of a spin-off together with the scientists by examining the degree of maturity in terms of technology, team, business and market. To do this, they need to understand the scientists’ technology and the potential it holds. At the end of this process, an initial consultation follows, which ideally encourages the researchers to take the next step and seriously consider a spin-off.
New incubation programme for start-ups
This is where the new incubation programme MAX!mize, organised by Max Planck Innovation, comes in. It is the core of the MAXpreneurs initiative: experienced start-up managers advise and coach the programme participants. In addition, the teams willing to start up receive support in building networks as well as in financing and fundraising. “MAX!mize offers participants a structured framework and freedom to face the individual challenges of their start-up project over a fixed period of time. In this way, the programme intensifies and completes what the employees at Max Planck Innovation have already been providing in terms of individual support since the 1990s,” explains Mahr. The first teams have just started the first phase of the programme. In November, a balance sheet will be drawn up: Then a jury will judge how many of the participants should take the plunge and pursue a career beyond academia via phase 2.
Talha Zaman and his wife Naureen Mahmood already demonstrated this courage in 2018 when they founded their company Meshcapade. The two Max Planck researchers have just been awarded the 50,000 euro Max Planck Start-up Prize - also a component of the MAXpreneurs Initiative.
This article was first published on 8 June by Max Planck Society.