Studying and starting up!
MCEI - Mannheim Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation
Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Marc Zuckerberg dropped out of college to pursue their visions. The Mannheim Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (MCEI) offers an alternative. The programs offered at the Mannheim University are set out to give optimal conditions to help balance both a startup and an academic career.
Jan, what idea led to the creation of the Mannheim Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation?
Jan Zybura: The MCEI is designed as an interdisciplinary center for entrepreneurship and innovation at the Mannheim University. We offer a platform for young entrepreneurs, people interested in setting up their own business, university students, sponsors and investors. To be exact our roots lie in startup consulting for the Institute for MidSized-Business Research of the university. When we launched the MCEI in early 2013, business development had a more decentralized structure. Startup Mannheim did not yet exist, but the startup ecosystem was already strongly developing. Especially university students had a hard time understanding how funding measures worked and were connected. We’ve made it our goal to point out the wide variety of measures, and to make them more accessible. To achieve this goal we have created a platform to allow different protagonists to exchange themselves, and also to give university students direct access to the startup scene. Our strategy stands on three pillars: inspiration, teaching and support. In spite of our small team we have managed to develop a wide variety of support measures, and to bring to life an inspiring and well-functioning support network. We are well-supported in our work by many partners, which we integrate into our support programs. For instance the student business consultancy INTEGRA e.V. (advisory projects), the Mannheim startup centers, Osborne Clarke (legal), and many business angels, startups and coaches.
This means that university students and startups will connect at the university to cooperate on startup projects?
Jan: Yes. The „Inside the Venture Programm“ offers students the possibility to actively take part in the work processes of our participating startups. Others will bring their own projects to the table. The classroom teaching style is mostly obsolete within these measures. The knowledge transfer is handled directly between the students and startups. Nowadays it is quite possible to finish ones master thesis within a startup — maybe even your own startup. By now we oversee 20 to 30 projects per semester.
Steffen Alesch: With our startup Freachly the initial team consisted of three students. Everyone was active in all aspects of the project, and everyone was 100% motivated. And along with the great commitment came high-quality results. We offered the students a twelve-week program. Halfway through they gave an interim presentation of their project, and at the end a final presentation. One of the three students, Felix, was so motivated that we just had to keep him with us. After an initial internship here he is now a student trainee at Freachly. He’s our guy for Mannheim. And we really hope he considers coming aboard full-time once he finishes university.
Marko Jeftic: With our startup Orderpoints we actually had two whole teams this semester. The enthusiasm was great and the onrush impressive. In the end we had eight students in our offices over the course of twelve weeks, which was a real breeze of fresh air for us. It was great to see them develop fresh perspectives and problem-solving approaches in their work.
Jan, how long have you been a part of the MCEI and what does your work there consist of?
Jan: The MCEI was founded in 2013. I am a co-founder and am currently head of operations. This semester we are supervising three courses with Prof. Woywode. These projects are all focused on achieving synergy between theoretical teaching and hands-on work over at the MCEI. The course „Creativity and Entrepreneurship in Practice“ for example start everyone off at zero. At the beginning of the semester there are no teams, no business idea and no business model. All this is developed over the course of the semester using various processes. What makes this special is that we develop real projects, not showcases. By the end of the course every participant will have conceived a ten-page business plan, including a well sourced validation paper. The projects are then pitched to real investors. A second format we offer are the „Inside-The-Venture“ projects. For one these measures offer students the possibility to write their bachelor’s and master’s thesis within a startup. On the other hand the MCEI also functions as an accelerator in a more classic sense. Within the framework of a mentoring program we connect student projects with established startups in similar areas. We will then collectively reach milestones, supervise the projects step by step and determine future prospects. At the end of the course a pitch to real investors is also scheduled.
What are thee differences among the projects from the various faculties participating?
Jan: The range of services offered by the MCEI very deliberately target all students of the Mannheim University, and their co-founders. The interdisciplinary nature of our initiative is very important to us. We want to achieve a real clash of minds. Performance records in economic sciences are not required for many university students. But ironically often the students of computer sciences, mathematics or cultural studies will often come up with great business concepts. I also find it fascinating to see the exciting, creative concepts that linguists and historians will pursue. The classic business management student is not the ideal candidate for a creative startup. In Germany business administration traditionally consists of a lot of memorizing information. This form of knowledge acquisition is nor mandatory for a startup. Our goal is to activate potential in people. We connect people that live and love the startup mindset. The network revolves around founder-talks, startup lounges and other forms of events that focus on the startup ethos.
Jan, have you founded something of your own?
Jan: Not in the sense of a classic startup. I came to Mannheim to do my doctorate. Das MCEI functions very similarly to a startup though, and has a disruptive attitude, with its new and innovative methodology. When I came to Mannheim they way things were taught was very different to what I had experienced during my studies in Maastricht. Classroom teaching style was the predominant form of teaching here, while we had been setup in teams in Maastricht. At MCEI we see business start-ups from a solution-oriented perspective and offer a lot of hands-on experience. This is key to getting the students highly motivated and it brings a new energy to the university. We aim for a creative and critical approach to the concept of starting up. Not everyone has to be part of their own business after finishing their studies.
Steffen: The practical courses are super fun. I visited MCEI programs I couldn’t even get credit for, just because the material was so interesting. The interdisciplinary character of the measures opens up completely new perspectives. The MCEI brings together different ways of thinking, producing great output. Initially the exchange can be challenging, as us business students tend to prefer a straight-forward approach. In the end though the combination of these different approaches yields superior results. MCEI means teamwork and learning to back ones hypotheses. After founding Freachly, in the wild business world, I often thought back to what I had learned here, and had to admit that the professors and scientists had really put a lot of thought into what they had taught us.
Marko: I can only concur. I took part in the courses „Advanced Entrepreneurship“ and „Entrepreneural Spirit“ during my time at the MCEI. And very special thanks to Jan and Nora Zybura! Their advice and support within and outside of the case studies really helped all of the commercial computer scientists a great deal. To witness and understand the problems of other startups, to apply this knowledge to ones own projects and to learn to accept solution suggestions, was so very valuable! Aside from this we also received great coaching from the Institut für Entreprise Systems (InES) of the Mannheim University. Aside from helping us develop our software professor Dr. Christian Bartelt from InES successfully connected us with clients, business partners and investors.
Ok. Enough theory! Let’s hear about your own startups! What is it that you guys do?
Marko: We started up in 2017 and run the ciconia Software UG. Two parallel approaches are followed: For one we develop apps for other startups in the region, and secondly we offer an own solution called Orderpoints. Here we digitize regional vendors and offer the end customer the possibility to place orders on their products. By doing this we help small businesses transition into the digital market. An organic farmer, an apiarist or wine maker can place their products with us, while consumers can comfortably place orders using their smartphones. What makes it special is that we are also breaking new ground with our logistics approach. We developed a matching algorithm, which allows us to analyze movement profiles based on available transportation capacities. Let’s say you order Honey from an apiarist and incidentally my neighbor is at the winery next door. In this case the app will notify my neighbor that I would be happy if he could bring along the honey in exchange for a small transportation fee. The app is applicable in a wide variety of contexts and can be branded at your discretion. We are currently running a series of pilot projects, including a cooperation with a hotel in Mannheim. In this case guests cann access all services the hotel offers via the app.
Steffen: Freachly went live in early June of 2017. This was a mere five months after the business idea was conceived and the team put together – while we were also still studying! Freachly is an app for influencer marketing. We connect local influencers with local businesses. You can imagine it like this: Someone with a few thousand followers on Instagram opens up the app and registers. They will then be shown our deal-map. The map displays offers by restaurants, shops and hotels. These range from discounts to freebies, that can be accessed in exchange for a „thank you“ post. Depending on the range of ones influence these deals will vary. It could be a 20 Euro discount on breakfast, all the way to a weekend stay in a premium hotel. The hashtags are predefined by the vendor. Freachly is mainly focused on Instagram and the system is invite-only to assure quality influence. So called „hyper local“ influencers with a thousand followers can use Freachly as a companion in everyday life. The top deals are reserved for users with 250.000 followers and beyond. Aside from this we are currently also running tests within the realm of „nano influencers“. These are users with around 250 followers. Their posts are seen as very authentic by their followers, which is very interesting for restaurateurs for example.
How did you come up with the idea for Freachly?
Steffen: Influencer marketing has become a billion euro business. The problem was that it was quite difficult for regional small businesses to access the market. What profit do I have if 20.000 Australians are suddenly made aware of my business. The idea will only make profit if I can find the right influencer for me. We handle the entire process, fully automated. This begins with communication, continues with brokering the right deal, and ends with evaluating the achieved reach.
What are the future plans for the MCEI?
Jan: The MCEI team, consisting of Nora Zybura, Elisabeth Gourlin, Thomas Hipp, Kai Bruchmüller and myself, is constantly working on expanding our network. Freachly and Orderpoints are ideally suited for scalability. Our goal is to enhance the exchange within the startup ecosystem. We have almost endless possibilities here in Mannheim: high-tech, mid-tech, becoming a founder with an immigration background, female entrepreneurship, startups in the textile industry – anything is possible, as the support system is very well-rounded. With the MCEI and the research group of Prof. Dr. Woywode we want to help change the idea of what the university can be. Knowledge shouldn’t just be pushed out into the world by universities, rather something can also be returned. Universities create values and occupations. But to optimize an exchange we need to find the right touch points, that are in pace with the times. The MCEI offers a platform and measures to facilitate just that. During my time at Berkeley and Stanford I was able to experience how networking happens in California. The customary and open discussions, the honest feedback culture and their constructive criticism were fascinating to me. In spite of a high level of competition people listened to each other and helped each other out. We live exactly this spirit in the MCEI. We teach the students solution-oriented thinking. They can make valuable experiences for themselves and are invested in the projects and/or their Thesis with real founding energy. Starting up does not mean you have to drop out in Mannheim. Quite the contrary, it can be a very rewarding experience, with credits as a Bonus on top.
Interview: Andreas Stanita / LA.MAG
Photos: Sebastian Weindel