The phenomenon of ‘Silicon Saxony’ as one of Europe’s most agile and innovative high-tech regions is not only the result of the presence of large chip concerns such as AMD and Infineon. The Dresden technology scene is also characterized by buoyant startup activities. One of the masterminds behind many of these innovative concerns is Gerhard Fettweis (pictured right), professor at Dresden Technical University and the Vodafone Chair for mobile communication systems. In this role, Fettweis was directly involved in the launch of several startup companies.
EE Times: You have launched eight companies. How did you become a ‘serial entrepreneur’?
Gerhard Fettweis: Having spent several years in Silicon Valley you can’t help getting infected with the virus. I worked in Berkeley for consulting company TCSI, something like McKinsey, but for the technology sector. At that time, digital mobile telecommunications was in its infancy. Everybody wanted to join the fray, but nobody knew how to do this at the chip level. We explained to them how to attack the topic.
This group of about 30, which formed TCSI’s personal communications group, has been enormously productive in launching startups. Members of this group have launched more than 30 companies. If one has worked within this group and has learned everything necessary then one eventually is so deeply embedded and involved in the business action that you simply know your way around.
EE Times: But it is a long way from the Silicon Valley to Dresden.
Fettweis: When I came to the then Mannesmann, now Vodafone chair at the Dresden Technical University, I came under the precondition that I can use the position as a platform to launch startups. I wanted to do it the same way I had seen it done amongst the many friends I made in Silicon Valley. Henry Samueli, for instance, launched Broadcom out of his professorship.
EE Times: What makes Dresden University in particular such a promising environment for entrepreneurship and startups?
Fettweis: It may sound like a platitude, but it is because the students here are hungry. They have a level of motivation like in the U.S. In other famous universities in Germany, students try to find ‘easy’ courses and seminars to get good exam results. In Dresden, they go for the difficult topics because they are aware that it will help them more in their career and in their lives. In contrast to Western Germany they typically come from a much poorer social environment. They know that they have to set up their own business to make a living, just like the first immigrants in the USA…
EE Times: An interesting analogy.
Fettweis: … and for this reason they exert themselves. They are hungry, eager for knowledge, and they are extremely committed. This is combined with a far better than average education in mathematics which is an ideal precondition to study electronic engineering.
EE Times: Does the current crisis affect the availability of venture capital, a resource as necessary for startups as is gasoline for a car?
Fettweis: There is an impact, no doubt. Nevertheless, I think that we in Europe, and in particular in Germany, have already experienced the true venture capital crisis in the year 2000. We had not yet digested the burst of the Internet bubble. This means we never managed to bring together startups and the type of venture capital that is really smart money. In Europe’s VC scene, there are only very, very few exceptions – people who have gained experience at the other side of the desk and can help startups not only in terms of finance and business administration but also with their own entrepreneurial experience.
When I was contacted by Kleiner Perkins back in Berkeley, they said "hey, two-way paging will become a hot topic." They planned to launch a startup dedicated to this topic. They wanted me as technology manager. I did not do it because I did not believe two-way messaging would be a success as a stand-alone technology. But they believed in it, having already done a market analysis, and they gathered a team.
They were really the kind of VC company that believe in a great idea and invite people to join and create a company.
The point I want to make here is that this type of creative venture capitalist – that has its own ideas and knows the right people to make it happen – rarely exists here. The founders here are generally too young. This is not a European cultural problem but just a simple generation problem.
We are now at the point where the founders of companies in the nineties, with all their experience, are becoming serial entrepreneurs. This means that in Europe, for the first time, we are in the position where it is possible to launch a company with seasoned entrepreneurs, with people who know how to do it. One does not need a manager from large concerns, because these guys do not have the SME thinking.
EE Times: Though these concerns of course run their own VC activities.
Fettweis: Yes, they cover strategic aspects. But they do not have the human capital.