To the uninitiated, heading to Berlin, Germany – a country famed instead for its manufacturing and engineering prowess as well as its many multi-national corporations – for an overseas study mission (OSM) on entrepreneurship may seem odd. After all in the footsteps of Silicon Valley, cities around the world have also been modelling their own tech and startup ecosystems, but Berlin is not often in the conversation.
And because we – as students on the iLEAD programme, fresh from six-month internships in Singaporean companies – were uninitiated, the prospect of exploring and learning in the city was exciting. Across the ten days, we gained insights and built networks in Berlin.
The first visit to the German Tech Entrepreneurship Centre (GTEC) – Germany’s first open campus which unites technology entrepreneurship organisations, resources, and expertise – laid the groundwork for the subsequent days. Co-founder Benjamin Rohé described the landscape in Berlin as “one hundred per cent organic and home-grown, and ever-growing without massive funds from the government”, ranking it with London and Stockholm as three of the top European cities in this regard. While the availability of capital is a challenge, this weakness is compensated by the diverse talents in the city, and this influx is further accelerated by internationalisation and the lower costs of living at the moment.
These perspectives from GTEC were echoed during our visits to seven companies. In particular, Axel Heinz – CEO and founder of online craft school Makerist – recounted how he had to pitch more than 50 times in open sessions, conferences, and even through personal connections because of the slow growth of venture capital in Germany. With government regulations limiting asset allocations and the ability of private investors, Rohé of GTEC noted that German startups often reach American investors for larger rounds of funding.
Yet, at the same time, the startups displayed common strengths too. They had an international character: period-tracking app Clue had employees who were American, Australian, and Malaysian; of the 10 employees at sales assistant app Inbot, only one was a German; and at door-opening access network KIWI.KI its employees came from seven different countries. From boxes as chairs to makeshift huts to penthouses with city views to accelerator spaces in the city centre, another characteristic they shared was the well-designed work environments.
On a few off-days we also toured the city, including the borough of Spandau, where we had pork knuckles and beer in a biergarten (beer garden).
Another highlight of the OSM was participation in Tech Open Air (TOA) Berlin, an “unconference” which builds bridges between the worlds of tech, music, art, and science. The main event – of keynote addresses, panel discussions, exhibitions, as well as art and music features – lasted two days, and there was an additional day dedicated to “satellite” events across the city. I took a special interest in TOA Berlin, because not only was my internship company e27 a community partner for the event, but there were plenty of interaction opportunities with stakeholders from across the globe too.
With all these observations and lessons it is perhaps tempting to make comparisons. For instance – unlike the spontaneous TOA Berlin which was more multidisciplinary, the vibe more casual – tech and startup conferences in Singapore or even Asia tend to be more functional, focused on networking or fundraising purposes. However, context matters, and elaborate discourse must be backed with applicable knowledge from the immersion.
In this vein, it would not be fair to claim that we are completely initiated after the week-and-a-half in Berlin, even after we pen more detailed, personal reports on the experience. What is nonetheless reasonable is the inspiration gathered, the generosity and openness of the entrepreneurs and their startups, and – above all – the meaningful friendships forged.