More than 70 Schleswig-Holstein representatives from politics, business and science visited the Bay Area in California from 25 to 31 August. Among them were the Kiel University (CAU) Vice-President responsible for knowledge transfer, Professor Karin Schwarz, the professor of integrated systems and photonics at the CAU, Martina Gerken, and Dr Anke Rasmus, head of the Centre for Entrepreneurship (ZfE) at the CAU. The programme during the five-day trip included visits to internationally-active companies, innovative start-ups and renowned universities, as well as discussions with local initiatives and communal institutions.
New liaison office opened
The political highlight of the trip was the opening of the Northern Germany Innovation Office (NGIO) in San Francisco. The liaison office, which is funded by the state of Schleswig-Holstein, the WTSH, the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, the state capital Kiel as well as companies from Schleswig-Holstein, will be the focal point for contacts in the Bay Area. It is headed by Tim-Ole Jöhnk, a native of Schleswig Holstein who has been working in Silicon Valley for some time, and has good contacts there.
Regarding topics such as digital teaching and knowledge transfer, the CAU representatives gathered information locally about possible exchange and guest programmes for students and researchers. "The basis for successful exchange with American universities in the Bay Area are the good personal relationships between scientists," said Martina Gerken, a doctoral researcher at Stanford University. There are many reasons why this elite university attracts students and researchers from all over the world. “Together with Berkeley, it is a driving force behind innovation in the Bay Area," added Karin Schwarz. The decisive factor is the close relationship between the graduates and their university. Schwarz commented: "They come back to Stanford, even if they completed their academic degree a long time ago, to exchange ideas on hot topics with scientists and industry representatives at this inspiring place. This is actual knowledge transfer put into practice."
For example, universities, companies and corporations in the Bay Area cooperate extensively on designing digital teaching and learning formats. At Stanford University, the Holberton School and at Ruckus, an IT company, Schwarz, Gerken and Rasmus gained insights into the joint development of such digital teaching methods. For David A. B. Miller, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University, new instruments like these are essential in an innovative environment such as Silicon Valley. For him, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) which are supplemented by in-class lectures are an appropriate means to enable students to acquire knowledge at their own pace. At the same time, the knowledge is also made accessible outside the elite university.
CAU Vice-President Schwarz was surprised by the concept of the Holberton School, which has a purely project-based and software-managed training approach, without formal guidance by lecturers. Schwarz commented: "Here, programming has become a core skill for successful graduates. I assume that in future, similar courses will also be in greater demand by students at the CAU. In some subjects, we are already preparing for this. Accordingly, we have set up professorships which relate IT to academic subjects."
Lars Thorben Neustock from Kiel is also currently a doctoral researcher at Stanford. Together with Johanna Ehlers, he showed the guests from Kiel the Stanford campus. Neustock and some of his fellow students are currently organising the German-American conference "Transatlantic Sync". The motto of the event is "building a new transatlantic bridge resting on technology cooperation". The conference at Stanford in May 2019 aims to boost transatlantic cooperation based on technological cooperation. For Neustock, the universities are the major factor in ensuring that Silicon Valley in particular attracts and produces many founders of new companies: "Plenty of entrepreneurship courses are offered at Stanford. Many of the professors have successfully established businesses here themselves. This works because they are only employed at the university for three-quarters of the year. They use the rest of the time to work in companies or to start their own businesses. Founders who have emerged from the university serve as role models for the students."
By now, he has also been infected by the start-up virus himself: "Before I got here, I didn’t dare to start a business myself. But now that I am here, and have seen people of my own age just going for it, I would also start a business." Dr Anke Rasmus, head of the Centre for Entrepreneurship (ZfE) at the CAU, derives the following conclusion: "We must use the founders, who we have already successfully produced, even more effectively as role models. The ZfE incubator, which we will open at the CAU in November this year, is excellent for this purpose. From the coming winter semester, we will regularly introduce successful founders there."
"Help students to succeed, whatever this success means." This is how Stanford professor David A. B. Miller describes the recipe for success at his university. The most important prerequisite for this is that universities remain "neutral locations", in which students, graduates and scientists can freely exchange ideas with company representatives. Miller's advice to the German guests is therefore: "Build long-term relationships with companies and other stakeholders. Both sides must benefit from this. The universities want to maintain their focus on important issues. And the companies need our fresh perspectives on new developments and opportunities. And they want our students!" In such an ecosystem, the "entrepreneurial mindset" - for which Silicon Valley is famous worldwide - can then develop, said Miller.
The visitors from Kiel experienced this principle first-hand during a visit to the "Plug and Play Tech Center", an accelerator for start-ups in Sunnyvale. The city is located in the heart of Silicon Valley. Hundreds of start-up companies from all over the world search here regularly for access to the American market and investors. Founder teams receive intensive coaching in different programmes to improve their business model. Insights into the "Silicon Valley system" were provided by Stefan Groschupf of "SalesHero" and Mostafa Akbari of "HoloBuilder". Both have been working there successfully for a long time. Like many other German start-ups, they split their activities: research and development take place in Germany, and marketing and sales in the USA. From their point of view, in Silicon Valley in particular it is easy to establish contacts and find investors to provide venture capital. However, developers are better qualified in Germany because of the higher level of education.
Year after year, thousands of new start-ups gather in Silicon Valley, to improve their chances of successful founding. "In Germany, we also need young creative people who have the courage to take their professional success into their own hands. Currently we still have far too few students and researchers who are seriously considering this option. That is what we want to change in future, through more information, attractive new event formats, and also with partners from the Bay Area," said Anke Rasmus, looking ahead. "An interdisciplinary certificate programme will be part of this strategy. And we will, of course, use the close contacts that we have made on this trip, and the relationships we have strengthened, to help us in future. Because it is only together that we in Schleswig-Holstein can energise the start-up scene, and thus create sustainable enterprises," continued Rasmus.
"We can really feel the significant efforts being made in the USA to establish and maintain contacts with Europe - and especially with Germany," summarised Karin Schwarz. Martina Gerken added: "In this positive environment, we would be delighted to enable CAU students to take part in the Transatlantic Sync conference next year". Kiel University will also further pursue the question of how exchanges between science and business can be successful. "We will identify a framework for study trips and internships," promised Karin Schwarz. Initial talks in this regard have already taken place with the Vice Consul General in San Francisco.
For more information on the Centre for Entrepreneurship at the CAU:
Prof. Dr Karin Schwarz
Vice President of research, technology transfer and young scientists
Prof. Dr Martina Gerken
Institute of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology (EE&IT) at the CAU
Professor of Integrated Systems and Photonics
Dr Anke Rasmus
Head of the Centre for Entrepreneurship (ZfE)