When Tom Plümmer and Jonathan Hesselbarth arrived for a meeting at HIGHEST in 2015, they already had a three-year-old patent, prototypes and a vision for how to turn their technology into a marketable product: a long-range drone that combines the advantages of a multicopter and a plane and can reach even the remotest of locations. However, they had never founded a company before. In the start-up consultation at HIGHEST, the first point on the agenda was to hold a strategy session to clarify some fundamental questions: What is the compass for my start-up? What are my medium and long-term plans? What applications can the technology be used for? How can we narrow down the business model?
The big picture
“Irrespective of when we are approached by a student or scientist who is interested in starting a company: We always start with the big picture”, explains Harald Holzer, Managing Director of HIGHEST. A method that should prove beneficial for Wingcopter. The founders fundamentally ruled out using their technology for military applications. “This clearly defined our profile and ultimately laid the foundations for the success we have had on the market with our humanitarian and commercial solutions”, says Plümmer. To generate some financial leeway, the start-up team, which now also includes the former intern Ansgar Kadura, applied for an EXIST Business Start-up Grant from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) in 2017. The HIGHEST team accompanied Wingcopter though the complex application processes, coached them during the development of the business model, connected them with an advisor for specialist issues and maintained regular feedback channels with the young entrepreneurs.
“They supported us from day one”, emphasises CEO Plümmer. Wingcopter is one of more than hundred technology and knowledge-based start-ups that have received an EXIST grant with the support of HIGHEST. The advisers at HIGHEST have a good track record with a funding rate of 90 percent. Yet even companies like Wingcopter who made rapid progress in the beginning cannot obscure the fact that it is a long journey from the invention through to founding a company or securing a patent. Harald Holzer relies on both exploitation strategies so that innovations from TU Darmstadt can be transferred to the economy and society: “We take every idea seriously and we also take a really close look at every inventor and entrepreneur but we don’t place anybody in a straitjacket. HIGHEST accompanies its customers at the university throughout the entire process – starting with the scientific results, securing the corresponding intellectual property (IP) and applying for a patent through to the start-up and licensing stages.
Identify, secure and exploit
Our motto here is “identify, secure and exploit”. “The trick is to identify the value of an invention and then to use this information to select the right design options”, says the Managing Director of HIGHEST. This is the first thing that is required, long before we give any thought to founding a company. In numerous personal meetings, the HIGHEST team explore the available potential with the inventors – an internal examination that can last several weeks and includes checks of the current situation with respect to technology and the market. If the innovation revolutionises “state-of-the-art” technology, has commercial applications and it is necessary to apply for a patent, it requires a lot of patience. “It can take years until everything has been thoroughly checked”, explains Felix Hausch. He is a Biochemistry Professor at TU Darmstadt. He is a regular customer at HIGHEST and one of the scientists who always keeps a close eye on the market to identify opportunities for commercialising their research results.
Patents as a performance indicator
Hausch is an internationally leading researcher into the protein FKBP51. It is found in muscle and adipose tissue and can cause diabetes, adiposity, chronic pain and depression. Since 2016, Hausch and TU Darmstadt have secured five patents for substances that bind with this harmful protein and could thus be used as an active ingredient by the pharmaceutical industry. His team of researchers has just started another sponsored project with start-up funding from the HIGHEST Pioneer Fund to carry out research into an active agent to combat adiposity and diabetes. This is a good example of the strategic benefits offered by patents because they improve the reputation of researchers within the scientific community and amongst sponsors and potential users. The process also demonstrates from patent to patent how the path to a licence for the corresponding patent – which will also ultimately improve the competitiveness of the university – opens up even further.
A start-up will fail without IP management
“Good IP management is also the basis for a successful start-up”, emphasises Holzer. This has also been the experience of Onur Karabey. He is the co-founder of ALCAN Systems. This start-up that was founded in 2017 is – just like Wingcopter – one of the flagship start-ups from TU Darmstadt. The company produces smart antennas based on electronically controlled liquid crystals that automatically align with satellites. There are a diverse and broad range of applications for this technology. Karabey’s pioneering spirit already found fertile ground at TU Darmstadt back in 2011. He built on the basic research of his father and mentor Prof. Dr. Rolf Jakoby into microwave technology, won the Idea Competition at TU Darmstadt and rigorously pushed forward the research in order to find a practical application. HIGHEST also provided crucial assistance during the start-up phase of the company – from financial funding from the EXIST Transfer of Research programme, which allowed Karabey to produce the prototypes and establish his start-up team, and the sale of the patents to ALCAN Systems. “The fact that we owned these patents was a decisive aspect for subsequent investors”, says Karabey.
Springboard from science to the market
For start-ups such as Wingcopter and ALCAN Systems, HIGHEST acts as an incubator, allowing them to further develop their innovations to maturity, and a springboard towards an accelerator or the next decisive financing phase after the seed and start-up phase and last but not least to the market. And for scientists such as Felix Hausch, the ongoing IP management prescribed by the HIGHEST Startup and Innovation Center opens up doors for commercial success in the future. Everybody benefits from the expertise and commitment of the HIGHEST consulting team and from a network of investors, renowned companies, associations, accelerators, universities and other experts from patent lawyers through to managers that has been built up over many years and who can add their know-how to the process as required. “We are a central point of contact throughout the entire process for inventors and entrepreneurs”, says Harald Holzer.
Collaboration: Astrid Ludwig