Startups can’t do it on their own. We met some of the people who give Austrian entrepreneurs the support they need, through technical know-how, state funding, angel investment, or mentoring
Photos: Lennart Horst
Assistant Professor of Informatics & Head of the Informatics Innovation Center (i2c)
Start-ups seek a connection to science. Scientists investigate business potential of conducted R&D. Industry seeks connection to start-ups and science. Investors seek for disruptive ideas. We want to bridge this gap.
If disruption is needed for innovation to flourish, the Vienna University of Technology (TU) is in luck. Birgit Hofreiter, an energetic young assistant professor at the TU’s Institute for Software Technology, is leaving no file “un-defragmented” in her quest to create the ecosystem of a true “entrepreneurial university.”
It’s clear she has been very busy since she launched the i2c at the TU in 2012: All TU students can now choose a three-semester course in “Intra- & Entrepreneurship”, taught completely in English by professors from universities around the world, including MIT and HEC Lausanne. There’s the “Start Academy” – dubbed “boot camp” by Hofreiter – where entrepreneurs teach scientists how to turn their research into a business. Regular events like the “Founder’s Talks,” the “Networking Friday” and a distinguished speaker’s series offer mentoring and networking. Finally, the TU offers a Founders Space, an incubator with practical support for young startups.
“This is just the beginning,” she says.
Since January 2016, all these activities have been collected under the umbrella of the TU Wien Entrepreneurship & Innovation Center, headed by Hofreiter. “The TU Wien has 29,000 students and trains two thirds of all Austrian informatics students. The potential is huge,” Hofreiter says. Although the Austrian media “still prefer to write stories on the best schnitzel” rather than cutting-edge research, she sees attitudes slowly changing. But her ambitions are higher still:
“We need an innovation campus,” she asserts, “whose billboard is the very first thing you see when you arrive at the Vienna Airport.”
Co-Founder & Partner at Speedinvest
We are tracking down the super nerds wherever they are in Europe. The innovation is out there, we just have to find it.
It’s somehow fitting talking to Erik Bovee in the storied rooms of the Palais Eschenbach, teaming up the buzz of Silicon Valley with the engineering of 19th century Austria-Hungary. Here, where architects pondered the plans for the Wiener Urania and Vienna’s World Exposition of 1873, is where today Speedinvest brings together young Austrians, Czechs, Hungarians and Americans bristling with ideas and eager to put them into practice.
“We built a bridge between the U.S. and Europe,” says Bovee. “Bringing together the excellent technical education and talent of Europeans with American expertise and market access is our goal.” The Californian-born investor, who moved to Europe for university, is well placed to take on this challenge. After co-founding his first tech company in London in 1999, he exited in 2002/03 and subsequently worked as managing director for the emerging technology leaders eMeta and VeriSign, sold to Macrovision and Syniverse in 2006 and 2009 respectively. Then in 2011, with Austrian colleagues he launched his own startup, the venture-fund Speedinvest, which promptly got a $55 million investment from top U.S. venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates.
“The number and quality of European startups is growing quickly,” Bovee enthuses. “They can build on an outstanding technical education. In Central Europe you have double the output of engineers per capita than in the U.S.” What is missing is entrepreneurial experience – something Speedinvest wants to provide, along with funding and networking. Bovee also wants to bring some American chutzpah to Europe.
“There are lot of very solid but overly modest projects here in Europe. In Silicon Valley they try to cure cancer, in Austria they work on productivity. We want to find the Europeans with game-changing technology and give them the money and resources to change the world.”
Startup service of the Vienna Business Agency
We want to foster innovations of all kinds – from social to high-tech. That’s why our funding landscape is so broad. There are many ways to improve the world.
Navigating Austria’s Kafkaesque bureaucracy can be quite a challenge, especially for wannabe entrepreneurs planning to set up a company. Gabriele Tatzberger, responsible for the startup service of the Vienna Business Agency (Wirtschaftsagentur Wien), is there to guide young founders around the rocks and help them find their own way.
“Everybody is welcome,” Tatzberger says.“ Whether you have concrete questions and a business plan already, or only a vague idea, we are here to give advice and take your plans to the next level.” With a background from the TU Wien and plenty of experience in project management, coaching and leading workshops, Tatzberger knows a great deal about the chances and pitfalls of starting something new.
With the explicit goal of transforming Vienna into a “startup city”, the Wirtschaftsagentur offers a “Startup Academy” (a one-day workshop in German or English) with up to three extensive additional coaching sessions. Everything from the business plan, to the best legal status, to funding and potential expansion plans can be put on the table. “When I started here in 2008, nothing was happening,” says Tatzberger. “Now the startup scene is so dynamic that for the first time, I’m starting to lose track.”
What is special in Vienna, she reports, are the many startups focusing on social issues, such as MySugr, which helps diabetics organize their food intake, or the Caritas project Magdas Hotel, run entirely by refugees. Innovation can make the world a better place.
Business angel & impact investor
Research is creating something new out of money. But it is innovation which makes money again out of something new.
If you have ever paid for something on the internet, chances are that the payment was processed by one of the companies founded by Michael Altrichter. The first was Paysafecard, launched in 2000 when the Lower Austrian was only 28. After steering it successfully through the bursting dotcom bubble, Altrichter made Paysafecard the leading e-payment provider in Europe, before selling it to the English company Skrill in 2013 for €140 million.
Now he wants to share his success with others. With stakes in ten internet companies, the entrepreneur turned “business angel” is lighting a fire under the Austrian startup scene. “It is fun, pleasurable and exciting, to build something from scratch and put crazy ideas into practice,” he tells enthusiastically. As an impact investor, he helps guide the companies he invests in. “Some are too focused on their products and forget the market,” he asserts. “Others want to scale up way too early. You have to have the right mix.”
As a venture capitalist, Altrichter is tempted to invest when the idea is innovative, the product revolutionary, the market unlimited and the founding team “smashing”. He believes the Austrian startup scene is strong and seed funding and subsidies are available to founders. However, what is still totally lacking is the money for expanding companies globally. “If Europe is already behind the curve in that respect, Austria is still looking for the car keys.”