Joerg Steinbach is not a typical educator. He worked as a chemical engineer for more than a decade and is now leading one of Europe’s most advanced research universities.
Europe is facing a significant innovation challenge. Despite an excellent research base, well-established companies and creative talent, good ideas are rarely or too slowly turned into new products or services, said the president of Technical University of Berlin.
Over the past several years, Steinbach, 57, has built a reputation for bridging academia and industry and speeding up the development of new tech start-ups.
He said that the German government realizes it needs to foster innovation and economic development as many of the big companies once located in Berlin have moved to other parts of Europe or Asia.
“I think the motivation is the same as here in Korea. Developing countries are often able to manufacture the same products we do for less money. So suddenly there is a need again to create new jobs, in order to have sufficient jobs available for our society,” he said in an interview with The Korea Herald.
|Joerg Steinbach, president of Technical University of Berlin|
He visited Seoul last week to attend the International Presidential Forum on Global Research Universities hosted by KAIST. Steinbach told the education leaders that developing entrepreneurship and spin-offs are not something technical universities should do voluntarily, but “obligatorily.”
Steinbach said now the role for technical institutions, like TU Berlin, to foster technology transfer for new innovation is growing more than ever in this new economic environment.
TU Berlin is one of the largest universities for technology and most prestigious institutions in Germany with roots going back to 1770. The school was the first in the country to offer doctoral degrees, and now specializes in engineering, architecture, mathematics, and system-oriented and natural sciences.
Steinbach was inaugurated as president of TU Berlin in April 2010. Since taking the helm of the school, the chemical engineer has been focusing on entrepreneurship education and business incubation services, reshuffling the university organization in order to flexibly address their needs, and developing project-based learning courses for all bachelor’s curricula.
And it seems to be quite successful. The school currently spins out 25 to 30 startups from their in-house incubator every year. Most of these raise money before they leave the program, and a lot grow into successful businesses.
The key to the successful start-up rate, the president said, is mostly attributed to the TU Berlin’s Center for Entrepreneurship.
The entrepreneurship center was set up in 2004 as an all-in-one zone for students, research assistants and postgraduates. The objective was to group and increase existing entrepreneurship support activities as well as to enhance opportunity.
The center currently employs 50 professionals who mentor students, faculty and researchers on how to launch a company, obtain venture capital and earn government grants to market their innovations, according to the president.
“The center had a multiplier effect on the campus, more doctorate students, who are working in the frontline of research, are curious about the possibility there, and there is now a little competition going on (to be selected to the center).”
Another key to TU Berlin’s success is its improved procedures to identify research results that have potential to be patented, he said.
He noted that the university currently provides entrepreneurship education for not only students but also faculty members.
In addition to consulting, training, access to a business and investor network and access to start-up grants, the TU Berlin also offers selected teams free use of office space in their own incubator as well satellite offices.
But he said the school limits the number of teams and also duration of time in the business incubators.
“We limit the time in the pre-incubators to 12 months, and in the incubators for up to three years maximum,” he said.
His experience is that the longer time young start-ups stay in the incubators, the faster the risk of failures they face.
“You have to be very adamant to really kick them out, because it’s actually cozy and comfortable in such incubators with supporting infrastructures,” he said.
It’s also important to work with alumni.
He added that the TU Berlin uses 8,000 entrepreneurs in an alumni network called “business angels.”
“We invite them to our events. They’re usually very interested to meet startups from their alma mater” he said.
In 2012, TU Berlin generated 1 million euros ($1.4 million) in revenue from patents and licenses ― a figure Steinbach calls “nice but small,” when compared with other leading tech institutions such as MIT, Stanford and Technion.
He said developing entrepreneurship and innovative start-ups will become “normal” for research-centered universities in coming years.
“I think in 10 years’ time there will be no competitive institute of technology in the world which ignores these areas of work and task. I think it will become normal.”
He noted that students at technical institutions traditionally think there are only three pathways to a career: pursuing an academic career, becoming a teacher or being employed in the industry.
“What we’re trying to establish is the fourth career pathway that you become your own boss,” he said.
“Berlin is becoming an industrialized city again, but without smoking chimneys. Today we have all the high-end jobs in the IT, biotech and pharmaceutical businesses.”
But the country still needs to tackle societal challenges in order to produce more high-tech entrepreneurs, he said.
“(In Germany) we are not good at taking risks and that is one of the key factors we are addressing at the university,” said Steinbach.
He cited Korea as also having the same problem: “As far as I learned in Korea you have a very strict perception of failure in your life career. Germany has the same problem ― we’re a risk-avoiding society, and we are always ‘the safer the better.’”
“This societal perception has to be changed. We should acknowledge sometimes it takes three or more failures till you are successful, and this must be accepted by society,” he added.Joerg Steinbach's profile
By Oh Kyu-wook (firstname.lastname@example.org)