November 01, 2018
Since a couple of months, we at WATTx have our own incubator, Voltage. For this interview, we sat down with Leander Kirschner, the Program Manager, to discuss how the program has been shaped this far and what is next to come.
Tell me about Leander!
I’m a real Berliner, born and raised. I started pretty early diving into my own business opportunities, and opened a recording studio and label when I was 17. We renovated the whole House B of Funkhaus Nalepastrasse which was 4000m2 of dead space – that is now a vibrant place for artistry and innovation in the city.
Later, I founded a label and vinyl manufacturing company, which I successfully ran for five years and sold in the end.
I spent some more time in the music realm working at Universal Music and Spotify but quickly realized that I wanted to explore other things. At that time I discovered that I was really passionate about building new ventures and starting up new projects.
Shortly thereafter, I went to a workshop that Tristan (Head of Venture Development at WATTx) gave at ESMT. I really liked the guy, so I approached him afterwards to ask about what exactly the company was doing, how it is to work in a company builder, as well as using ideation to identify new business opportunities.
His explanation sounded exactly like the thing I wanted to do and we agreed that at some point I should join the organization. To cut a long story short, I started working at WATTx early July this year.
How would your friends describe you?
I think they would say: “Leander is a very open person, who connects with people easily. He’s also hard-working and trustworthy.”
What’s your role at Voltage? What do you do as a Program Manager?
I helped to shape Voltage into what it is today. Together with our leadership and some peers from WATTx, I created the concept, reworked the strategy, and started to market the program.
Today, I am responsible for the day-to-day operations of Voltage, managing our applicants’ journey, getting more partners on board for the program, and marketing it.
What is Voltage and why is it special?
Voltage is our new incubation program. I always feel it’s important to point out that Voltage is more than a short-term program that you join for a few weeks. Although there definitely is a need for those incubation programs too - that’s not us.
Voltage is a mix between an operational VC and an incubator. We offer financing ranging between 100k and 1 million. At the same time, we provide all the benefits of an incubator, like office space, mentoring, and access to our great network.
But what really makes us stand out is our operational team that will support you: 30+ people that help with UX, data science, software and hardware engineering, business development, and HR. We have seen quite often that there are great founding teams out there, but they may lack one or two competencies, or struggle with finding and hiring talents. So our proposal for those founding teams is to come and work with the people here at WATTx that possess the competencies they require until they are at a level where it makes sense to put their own, more permanent team in place.
The other aspect is that we go quite far with the financing: I haven’t heard of any incubator in Germany that goes up to €1m in financing. And I think that’s very special.
Additionally, we know the logistics and manufacturing spaces quite well as we’ve done a lot of projects in the past, while the Viessmann Group, that stands behind WATTx, also contributes with their vast experience. So we can really help with providing contacts and first customers.
Finally, we also know that things take longer sometimes in the industrial B2B-space. You can’t say “if we don’t get any traction in three months, we’ll move on”. If we really believe in an idea and see its potential, we are fine with taking on longer-term investments that other investors might not be as interested in - especially in the deep tech or hardware space.
The big vision is clearly to be the Number 1 B2B-incubator in Europe.
What would you say is the vision for Voltage? What do you hope to achieve?
The big vision is clearly to be the Number 1 B2B-incubator in Europe. I think we’re doing well so far, working hard towards that goal, although we have to be humble at this stage (laughs).
Based on what I know, there are not a lot of manufacturing-focused, B2B-incubators out there. How much competition do you have?
Not as much as your “usual” B2C-, eCommerce-incubator, that’s for sure. That was one of the reasons we went into this space. We saw how much capital is allocated to the B2C-space, while not too much is invested in B2B-programs - especially when it comes to deep tech.
How do you define deep tech?
To me, deep tech means advanced technologies and innovations that are going beyond incremental improvements or refinements of what already exists. It’s something new, something groundbreaking. And that’s also what we are looking for.
Who would you say would be an ideal applicant for Voltage?
That’s easy to describe as we already have one example who is now working at a WATTx venture: Donato Montanari. He’s been working in the computer vision industry for twenty years, knows the sphere well, and is in touch with every major player.
As we know, especially in B2B- and industrial applications, customers tend to be more cautious. I mean, we are talking about big contracts and big risks. It helps a lot having a person that knows the right people, that has credibility in the industry, and is able to see where things are going. WATTx can do a lot of things, but those 20 years of domain knowledge in computer vision, logistics, or realms beyond that are priceless - and that can really make or break a venture.
So to summarize: a person or team that stands behind an idea and venture, represents it in any given moment and gets it to really go - that’s the ideal applicant for Voltage.
So, let’s say I’m an applicant interested in Voltage. How does the process look like after my application?
First, you fill out our application form that you can find on our website - and I want to stress, that we can handle very early-stage ideas. You don’t need to have your founding team in place yet, we can help with that. As long as you have the right background, the right mentality, and a really good idea, we are willing to listen.
After having received your application, we will do a quick screening in-house. If the application is interesting and seems like a good fit, we will schedule an introduction call, approximately a week after the application has been received. If the introductory call also goes well, we will invite you to pitch your idea here in our office, ideally, that’d be 1-2 weeks after the first call. Finally, if the pitch goes well, and you managed to convince our investment committee, we will offer you a term sheet and negotiate a deal.
And what’s in it for WATTx? Why did you start this incubator program?
At WATTx, we have competencies that we are strong at. UX, Data Science, Engineering, to name a few. Anything you need to build complex products or services. But we have to do a lot of research to get an understanding of a specific industrial sector first, finding answers to questions such as: how do things work in that specific sector? Who are the stakeholders? What problems exist? How can we solve a problem in a way that makes sense for potential customers?
Answering all of these questions is much easier if you have existing domain knowledge. And that’s what we are aiming for with Voltage. Getting in interesting ideas from people that have been working in manufacturing or logistics for years already, that know the existing problems, and have an interesting idea on how to solve those. At the end of the day, we want to spend our time working on the most promising ideas in the fields we are concentrating on. By creating Voltage, we hope that we get a lot of different, great ideas from talents outside the organization, that can then compete with the ideas we generate internally for capital and resources, allowing us to choose the best idea out of many to work on.
I know you are also looking for partners for the Voltage program - maybe you can touch upon that?
That’s true. The most important partners we are looking for are those that can provide us with high-level applicants. We are already in talks with some other great German incubators, for example.
Universities are also very interesting, as they can provide us with both excellent people, especially potential founders that are currently doing their masters or doctorate in a specific topic, MBAs or executive MBA programs. They can also connect us to existing ventures looking for the next place to grow after graduating from their own incubator programs.
Finally, we are also talking to some great knowledge institutions in Germany, such as the KIT, Fraunhofer, and the Max-Planck-Institut.
What’s in it for the partners?
I think we can help all of our prospect partners by increasing their success rates of incubated projects, ventures, or spin-offs. There’s a lot of great work being done in Germany, especially in the areas that we specialize in. However, when we go out and talk to early-stage startups they often talk about two big problems that they encounter.
The first problem is a lack of investors that are willing to fund the longer timelines needed for startups to succeed in our target sectors. That’s something we can help with. Secondly, and more importantly, we have the people that young startups often struggle to find, and we have a lot of previous experience when it comes to going from idea to MVP and beyond. Here, what we can offer to young ventures is unique if you consider the wide diversity of skill sets that we can offer.
If anyone that’s interested in Voltage is reading this, how can they get in contact with you?
For applicants, the best way to get in touch is through our website. Go to voltage.wattx.io, read through our offering, and apply directly there. If you want to get in contact for partnering, you can always contact me via LinkedIn.
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