“The most important thing is: talk about your ideas, don’t keep quiet” – a conversation with Johannes Zier, International Start-up Service at the University of Potsdam.

With over 25 years of experience supporting startups, 300 of them nurtured over the last 10 years alone, and ranked 3rd in Startup Radar 2021, Potsdam Transfer’s Start-up Service is one of Germany’s most successful. In this interview we hear from its head of, Johannes Zier, on how he and the team got to this position, the advice he gives to scientists looking to found start-ups, and why the Potsdam Science Park is so important for the start-up scene in Germany and beyond.

Mr. Zier, you head up the Start-up Service at Potsdam Transfer, the University’s central institution for knowledge and technology transfer. How exactly do you support people looking at starting out with their own business?

We see ourselves as both an incubator and an accelerator, and it goes without saying that we offer both these services to start-up founders and teams. This means we are there not just for entrepreneurs who are yet to launch their company, but also companies that have already taken this step and now want to grow. In specific terms we help budding founders sharpen their business ideas and better assess their potential, come up with a roadmap for their start-up, and find suitable partners as well as financing and funding opportunities. We coach them for when their business operations actually start, and assist them with networking in and around the start-up scene.

Is there a profile of the ‘typical founder’? Who usually takes up your services?

Every start-up is special. That goes for the people behind it as well. We see a lot of diversity in the German and international start-up scenes. But as we’re part of the University of Potsdam, students are naturally one of our target groups. Most of the founders-to-be we see are close to graduating and want their start-ups to follow on directly from what they were studying. That means their field of study is usually involved to some degree, but quite often it isn’t. We have given our services to start-ups from software development, construction tech all the way to cloud security and fashion. Knowledge-based startups of course have a special position here, and in this case the founders we support are mostly current postdoc students who want to transform some of their PhD research into a concrete business idea. At the Potsdam Science Park we have so far supported numerous biotechnology and nutritional science start-ups, as well as many with a sustainability angle.

Your work sees you cooperating with various locations for science across the metropolitan region (Berlin-Brandenburg), including the Potsdam Science Park. What makes the Park such an attractive location for start-ups in your view?

First of all it’s a rapidly-growing location; this kind of momentum is very important for new companies that want to scale up quickly and for the long term. The Potsdam Science Park has the space start-ups need for quick growth. The astonishing concentration of science resources here is also a key factor for knowledge-based start-ups. Where else do you get several Fraunhofer and Max Planck Institutes and a university campus right next door? The infrastructure they need is in place too. Young companies in life sciences are often dependent on laboratory space; this is well provided for in Potsdam-Golm.

Location-wise, what kind of startups would you particularly recommend Potsdam Science Park to, or the immediate neighborhood of the University’s Golm campus?

As I mentioned, the Science Park in the city’s Golm district fits the bill not just for almost any start-up that requires laboratory infrastructure, but also for science-linked services companies. These are primarily companies in the life sciences sector. I would say in particular that start-up founders coming from materials research and especially polymer research and biotechnology should take a close look at the area, as well as companies involved in digital diagnostics.

Is the Potsdam Science Park also an important startup location in international terms?

Definitely! Particularly with the presence of many well-known researchers such as Markus Antonietti or Peter H. Seeberger, the Park’s lure and recognition go well beyond Germany when it comes to start-up founders with a natural sciences background. And the special flair of the ‘metropolitan region’ with its proximity to Berlin also help to draw in scientists and start-ups from all over the world.

Potsdam Transfer’s Startup Service is aimed at founders from all over the world. What services do you provide for them?

We are primarily concerned with start-up teams having an international mix, so as to increase the chances of having exactly the right people on board to ensure the project’s success. Let’s look at applying for an EXIST start-up grant: to qualify for funding, the company has to show it has an interdisciplinary team. In practical terms this generally means bringing founding partners together from science, IT and business backgrounds. Our international start-up services allow us to link up aspiring entrepreneurs from all over Europe and beyond. That makes for a bigger pool of potential partners for everyone and better co-selection. By the way, Potsdam Science Park makes a big difference here; nowhere else is able to reach out to so many scientists from all over the world and convince them to choose Germany, choose Brandenburg in particular, bring their skills and good ideas on board, and be successful entrepreneurs here. In particular, the Potsdam Science Park offers a regular EXIST consultation timeslot for interested parties to find out all about the requirements.

Your track record speaks for itself: over 25 years of experience supporting startups, 300 of them nurtured over the last 10 years alone, and 3rd place in Gründungsradar (Startup Radar) 2021’s rankings of Germany’s best startup services. It may be an odd thing to ask, but what is the secret of your success?

Certainly one important aspect is that the University of Potsdam takes knowledge transfer and start-ups very seriously. It sees itself as a start-up university: this has been one of the university’s strategic pillars for about 30 years. This can also be seen in the institutional arrangements; we are directly affiliated with the university President’s Office via Potsdam Transfer. In practical terms, that means our start-up service has streamlined decision-making processes and can offer quick solutions to provide star-tup founders with concentrated and committed support.

What would you say to scientists who are thinking about taking the plunge as entrepreneurs?

First of all: come and consult us! That was a bit tongue-in-cheek of course, but the most important thing is: talk about your ideas, don’t keep quiet. Find your own words to convince your colleagues and friends how your business can make the world better and why your idea is worth trying. Also, dare to think like an entrepreneur. Ask yourself, is there a market for your idea? Are there customers willing to pay? If you can say ‘yes’ to these questions, you’ve cleared the first hurdle that every start-up faces.

Thank you very much Mr. Zier.

This blog and the projects of Standortmanagement Golm GmbH in Potsdam Science Park are funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the State of Brandenburg.

Image credits: Johannes Zier © Ella Selina Fischer