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Researchers as founders: Successful examples from Celonis to Biontech


The strength of German science is rarely converted into economic success. A new study is looking for ways to motivate young researchers to start up. Here are examples of entrepreneurs who have made it - this not only includes Biontech.

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Prototype of an electric flying taxi from Lilium: In the summer of 2020, the Technical University of Munich was able to celebrate its second "unicorn" (after Celonis) because Lilium's valuation rose to over a billion dollars

Photo: Daniel Karmann / dpa

After two years of research, the finding is still the same: "Germany is one of the top locations for research and innovation worldwide. But scientific findings are not used commercially enough," explains Henneke Lütgerath, head of the Joachim Herz Foundation.

At the Entrepreneurship Research Institute of the Technical University of Munich, where BMW major shareholder Susanne Klatten also finances a center for entrepreneurship, the foundation looked for reasons.

Result of the "Research and founding" project: There are mainly psychological hurdles why founding teams do not harmonize or fail due to false expectations - but also the simple realization: Many academics simply feel most comfortable in academic operations.

"They struggle with leaving the scientific community and culture behind, in the USA as well as in Germany," says study director Nicola Breugst.

Only in the USA and other countries the "maker culture" is more firmly anchored.

But there are examples of successful companies with roots in German research - now quite prominent ones too.


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State-private initiative

: In

2014, the

then Rhineland-Palatinate Minister of Economic Affairs,

Eveline Lemke,

opened the

Biontech and Ganymed research center in Mainz


Özlem Türeci


Uğur Şahin

Photo: Georg Banek

Biontech is not only the world-famous supplier of the hopefully saving corona vaccine, it is also a successful experiment by the working group of Prof. Dr.

Uğur Şahin / Prof.


Özlem Türeci for experimental and translational oncology at the Mainz University Medical Center.




continue to do basic research for new ways to fight cancer at the university.

"If we want to achieve something for the patient, it is not enough that we are medical professionals," Türeci once told the university magazine.

"We are wanderers between worlds: we also have to be entrepreneurs, engineers, IT specialists and much more."

Therefore, the two founded the company Ganymed, which was sold to the Japanese pharmaceutical company Astellas with a new gastric cancer drug in the pipeline.

Biontech was the next step in developing customized cancer therapies using mRNA technology.

That the same technology is also suitable for mass vaccination against Covid-19 - research spirit.

That the project succeeds - entrepreneurship.

The cooperation with US partner Pfizer helped achieve the commercial breakthrough.

If its prognosis is correct, the vaccine Comirnaty should become the top-selling drug in the world this year.

Biontech, traded on the New York technology exchange Nasdaq with a value of 24 billion euros, could establish itself as an independent pharmaceutical company with the inflow of money according to the will of the investors - and ultimately bring the novel cancer therapy onto the market.


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Student project:

Celonis founders

Alexander Rinke


Martin Klenk


Bastian Nominacher

at the award of the German Future Prize 2019

Photo: Peter Kneffel / picture alliance / dpa

"We didn't originally


to found a company," quotes the start-up study

Bastian Nominacher


one of the founders of Celonis


Martin Klenk




The company emerged in 2011 from the student management consultancy at the Technical University of Munich.

The theory of quickly capturing and optimizing complex IT processes with data traces has proven itself at Bayerischer Rundfunk.

Following orders from Siemens and others, it has turned into a billion-dollar business.

Celonis won the Game Changer Award 2019 and shortly afterwards the German Future Prize and is now about to go public.


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Testing, testing, testing: Metin Colpan

was a co-founder of Qiagen, longtime CEO and is still on the board today

Photo: Michael Dannenmann / picture alliance / VisualEyze

A spin-off from the University of Düsseldorf is a bit older: Qiagen dates from 1984. Biophysics professor Detlev Riesner and his doctoral students Jürgen Schumacher, Metin Colpan and Karsten Henco had developed a purification process to isolate DNA from plant pests.

This became a leading supplier of laboratory technology for genetic tests - and another success story of the Corona crisis: According to the business figures published this Wednesday, Qiagen's sales grew by 23 percent in 2020 because the boom in Covid tests made up for the slump in many other medical orders .

The stock market value has risen to over ten billion euros, a takeover attempt by the US competitor Thermo Fisher has failed - and now the rise to the Dax group beckons.


Start-up from the Nobel Prize winner:


Manfred Eigen

(pictured in 2007, died in 2019) is one of the creators of Evotec

Photo: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand / dpa

more on the subject

  • Business models: How innovations are successfulBy Volker Bilgram, Johann Füller and Michael Leitl

  • Innovation: Great technology, wrong timingBy Ron Adner and Rahul Kapoor

  • Business models: This is how the most successful founders came up with their business ideas from Alexander Nicolai and Regina Wallner

Qiagen co-founder Karsten Henco even repeated the success again, together with Nobel laureate in chemistry, Manfred Eigen and other researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen.

Evotec, which was founded in Hamburg in 1993, has long been considered the flagship of the German biotech industry.

The company has switched to just developing new active ingredients and leaving the marketing to large pharmaceutical companies.

The stock exchange currently values ​​the TecDax group at around 5.5 billion euros.

Finally, the Foundation made an investment by Bill and Melinda Gates to develop a corona drug.


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New market, even without a financial bubble: Simon Moroney

as Morphosys boss in March 2001

Photo: imago images / Plusphoto

Morphosys from Martinsried near Munich belongs to the same biotech generation.

In 1992, Simon Moroney from Cambridge University and Andreas Plückthun, then at the University of Munich, joined forces to build the world's largest library of human antibodies.

The more than ten billion antibodies recorded have since helped develop more than 100 drug candidates.

The New Zealander Moroney served as CEO for a full 27 years until he moved to the supervisory board of the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis in 2020.


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Lilium air taxi at the 2018 Digital Summit in Nuremberg

Photo: Daniel Karmann / dpa

Entrepreneurship Right Arrow

Entrepreneurs are desperately wanted today.

But dare the step from manager to entrepreneur?

Do start-ups need a strategy or should founders just get started?

How innovations are successful and what strategists can learn from start-ups.

To the topic page "Entrepreneurship" right arrow

Need a more recent example?

The Munich company Lilium only dates from 2015, again as a spin-off from the Technical University of Munich.

The company of CEO Daniel Wiegand and his fellow students Sebastian Born, Patrick Nathen and Matthias Meisner has literally set out on a vertical takeoff: with electrically powered air taxis.

The things fly.

There are still some obstacles and doubters before the market success, but in the summer of 2020 the alma mater was able to celebrate its second "unicorn" (after Celonis) because Lilium's valuation rose to over a billion dollars.

The fact that the aviation industry takes the newcomers seriously was demonstrated in January when long-time Airbus boss Tom Enders joined the supervisory board.



Volocopter founders

Alexander Zosel


Stephan Wolf

, 2013 only with simulation

Photo: DPA

Lilium's competitors include Airbus itself and the US company Archer Aviation, which is currently going public with a billion-dollar deal, as well as another German start-up with an academic background.

The idea for electric multicopters came from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in 2011.

The founders Stephan Wolf and Alexander Zosel have now left the management of Volocopter to others, but continue to collect capital from Daimler, among others.

You see a commercial use of the technology, especially in cargo drones.


Source: spiegel

All news articles on 2021-02-11

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