“Colibri Photonics” has existed since 2010. The company produces tiny sensors that scientists or medical doctors use for non-contact measurement of the oxygen content in very small tissue samples. The technology is based on dyes that phosphoresce more or less intensively when exposed to laser light depending on the concentration of oxygen.
Even to those who are not very experienced in business it will make sense that founding a high-tech company like Colibri Photonics needs three things: First you need technical expertise, second business know-how and third entrepreneurial spirit. The founding team of Colibri meets these prerequisites perfectly. Physicochemist Elmar Schmälzlin is mainly in charge of the technical aspects. He took his doctoral degree in nonlinear optics and worked as a sales engineer for optical communication technologies. In 2003 he started work at the University of Potsdam. Marvin Stolz, who graduated in business administration, has the logical, organisational, and strategic expertise.
Both of them have entrepreneurial spirit, clearly proven by the fact that they dared to set up a company. The University of Potsdam gave both the impulse and comprehensive support for their undertaking. Schmälzlin and Stolz did not meet by chance, but as a result of the university’s long-term strategy to promote start-ups consistently and to distinguish itself as an entrepreneurial university.
Dieter Wagner, who was professor of business studies from 1993 to 2012 with the key areas organisation and HR management as well as Vice President of the University of Potsdam for many years, explains what this means. “From its very beginning, the University supported spinoffs of students and alumni. In the course of time this became more and more systematic. We were able to develop an integrated concept that links science and technology transfer with setting up companies. It is our vision that we can anchor the idea of using scientific findings in an entrepreneurial way throughout the university.”
Dieter Wagner is also Director of “Potsdam Transfer,” the central scientific institution for start-ups, innovation, knowledge and technology transfer, which the university established in 2011 to streamline all activities that had existed so far. Patent services are among the traditional tasks of technology transfer. The location managers of the centre provide assistance to prospective founders and support them when they prepare their business plans. They also give them access to know-how and support programmes or establish contacts with a “Senior Coach,” who helps them and shares his or her experience with them.
“Scouting” is another field of activity for Potsdam Transfer: collaborators who are familiar with the university and the markets look for applicable research results. They do this not only at the university but also at extramural institutions in Potsdam. If they have identified an interesting project, they will contact the scientists to explore any potential marketing opportunities and analyse the demand. It happens quite often that research scientists have to be convinced that their interesting results do not automatically mean climbing the next step on the academic career ladder.
This can change if you already encourage and practise entrepreneurship during the early stages of university career. Katharina Hölzle and her chair “Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship” work in this particular field. They offer courses for Master and Bachelor students in which the students can learn the basics of setting up a business. If they are interested, they can continue with technology and investment management as well as entrepreneurship, i.e. finding and implementing business ideas. These offers are not only for future graduates in business administration but also for those in other study courses and departments.
“Entrepreneurial personalities need a good deal of self-confidence and some role models for orientation,” Katharina Hölzle says, “the rest is skills that you can learn.” Topics of these courses are market analyses, marketing, cost-benefit analysis and legal questions. However, as Hölzle says, in the course of their school time young people have often lost the courage to even consider setting up a business. “They often have the idea that thinking in an entrepreneurial way just means being eager for big money although it primarily means undertaking something.” This is why the chair offers plenty of methods and formats to arouse interest among students to take their first steps towards self-employment while weighing the chances and risks objectively. The offers range from seminars and workshops for small groups to summer schools and business plan competitions. The participants practise by using fictitious firms, their own projects and case studies from the real world. Knowledge and experience of the consultants and scouts of Potsdam Transfer are often an integrated element. “We adjust the curriculum flexibly to the existing needs,” Katharina Hölzle says.
Not only teaching but also research helps to introduce entrepreneurship at universities – and to make the entrepreneurial university the model for academia. Scientists of Potsdam Transfer, for instance, examine how to improve knowledge transfer, how careers of women in research develop and how small and medium-sized enterprises can employ their staff more flexibly.
The results of their efforts speak for themselves. The number of spin-offs has increased from about 17 to more than 30 annually in the last four years. In 2011 there were even 37 start-ups, which came into being due to the support of scouts and consultants. For eight years in a row the teams from Potsdam have been awarded the top position of the “Ideenschmiede,” a prize of the Berlin-Brandenburg Business Plan Competition for People Starting up in Business. In 2009 the University of Potsdam was among the ten universities that were chosen for the support programme “EXIST-IV” of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology (BMWi).
“Teaching and research will always remain an irreplaceable asset of our university,” Dieter Wagner, who is meanwhile emeritus professor, says, “but universities are being made increasingly responsible for bringing something back to the region from the investment for progress in knowledge.” Potsdam’s starting point is ideal. It is in an economically weak region that has an enormous potential for innovation because the university is well networked with other scientific institutions in Potsdam, such as the Max Planck, Fraunhofer, Helmholtz, and Leibniz Institutes.
Start-up companies find appropriate locations and contacts at the “GO:IN” Innovation Centre in Potsdam-Golm as well as in the start-up rooms of Potsdam Transfer. There is still a lot of space in the vicinity of Golm where high-tech companies could set up their businesses close to the research institutes.
The newly established companies work predominantly in the fields of services and consultancy. The percentage of technology-based start-ups is to be increased in the future. At the same time, it is important to spread entrepreneurship throughout the university. “Entrepreneurship culture, as it is sometimes called today, is to be established in all departments, from natural sciences to humanities, among professors and students, in management and administration. “As experts of start-ups we are the innovative core,” says Enrico Sass, who is in charge of all services at Potsdam Transfer and head of the EXIST project, “but we continue to ensure that everybody identifies with the idea of an entrepreneurial university.”
Back to Colibri Photonics. Elmar Schmälzlin and Marvin Stolz met during the project “Research for the Market in Teams” (ForMaT) of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Interdisciplinary teams of scientists and economists had to analyse the marketing potential of selected technologies during the first phase of the project. This was how Stolz, graduate in business administration, came to the Institute of Chemistry in 2008 where Schmälzlin was doing some research on the miniaturization of molecular oxygen probes.
It did not take long until the two had joined forces and started to find out what niches there are for these instruments. “We spent the first three years talking to biologists, medical staff, and biotechnologists,” Schmälzlin says. Stolz prepared a business plan with the assistance of the GO:IN Innovation Centre. It took three months until the finances were in place after the funding by ForMaT had expired. And in summer 2012 Colibri sold the first instruments to university labs. If things go well, the company will pass the break-even point for the first time in 2014. And the location Potsdam-Golm has another innovative company.
Colibri Photonics specializes in minimally invasive, laserbased measurements of oxygen. The phosphorescent sensor material is either embedded in thin glass fibre or optical probes or extremely small polymer beads. Physicochemist Dr. Elmar Schmälzlin developed these sensors to application maturity, starting in 2003 as a Postdoc in the working groups of Professor Hans-Gerd Löhmannsröben at the Institute of Chemistry of the University of Potsdam. From 2011 to 2012 he was group leader at the Fraunhofer Institute of Applied Polymer Research IAP in Potsdam-Golm. Dipl. Kfm. Marvin Stolz, M. Sc. joined the working group in 2008 in the course of the project “InnoLaserSensor” of the ForMaT programme funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research at the Chair of Physical Chemistry. In 2010 Schmälzlin and Stolz founded their company and since 2012 they have both worked as entrepreneurs.
Colibri Photonics GmbH
Am Mühlenberg 11
Professor Katharina Hölzle has held the Chair of Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship since May 2011. She advises companies on questions of strategic technology and innovation management.
Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftliche Fakultät
Professor Dieter Wagner held the Chair of Organisation and HR Management from 1993 until his retirement at the end of September 2012. His research interest focused on start-up management. Wagner was founding director of the Brandenburg Institute for Entrepreneurship and Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (BiEM), that was established in 2001. In 2005 he set up the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation of the University of Potsdam (BIEM-CEIP) together with his deceased colleague Professor Guido Reger. It was merged with Technology Transfer of the University of Potsdam (UP Transfer) in 2011. This is how Potsdam Transfer was established with Dieter Wagner as its director. Scientific assistant and head of Transfer Services is Dr. Enrico Sass. He is in charge of the EXIST-IV project at Potsdam Transfer.
Text: Sabine Sütterlin, Web Content Editing: Julia Schwaibold, Translatoin: Susanne Voigt