Hello, and welcome to a series of interviews with our esteemed NEXUS mentors that we're releasing in conjunction with the second call for applications to the mentor-driven University of Helsinki incubator programme for promising ideas in Deep Tech, AI, and Sustainability. Be sure to check out our other interviews with Satu Apukka and Sam Laakkonen.
We've sat down with our mentors to discuss their own paths, what motivates them to be a mentor, their experiences with the first edition of the programme, and what words of wisdom they've got for prospective NEXUS participants. Today, we're talking with Michael Vormittag, Head of SAP Delivery, Architecture, Analytics and CTO office for Daimler Truck AG.
Collaboration, Vormittag says, is the key to sustainable progress and innovation. It has been a key passion of his for the span of his career, all the way back to his university days, "I'm a strong believer that collaboration benefits all stakeholders, and that's why I have been very active in the past years, working between the corporate world and the startup world and finding ways in how these two players can most meaningfully interact with each other."
Vormittag, who hails from Germany, is a valuable addition to the NEXUS programme mentor roster due to the combination of his rich experience in developing innovation strategies for some very big players such as Mercedes Benz and Daimler, as well as running "The Builders" startup programme based in Tel Aviv, among many other things.
"Because I've worked with many startups in my career, I have broader knowledge beyond the corporate and startup world. I've seen probably over 1000 pitches so far, and I've got a good grasp on what works and what doesn't, so I can give startups a lot of value to help them succeed."
All of his prior experience has well and truly served Vormittag's naturally broad interests.
"While I studied Industrial Engineering and Management at university, I was fascinated with the possibilities of having a foundation of business and collaboration mixed with culture and technology."
There's nothing like having a startup to get a true taste of what may or may not be coming your way. So Vormittag did just that, and while it didn't pan out as hoped, he took it as a good experience, "I attribute this more to a lack of experience than anything else, as the idea was to produce Isotonic electrolyte drinks. It could have served as a fashionable hangover drink, perhaps something handy for university life!"
Moving on from that, he decided to dig in even deeper by getting involved in a university startup incubator, with a specific interest in how to scale up IP, "I actually did my thesis on how collaboration and innovation in the energy sector can lead to better-progress products on the market and the experience solidified my desire to work in that space too."
At this time, Vormittag started to consider whether to do a PhD in this field or jump straight into a corporate career, "I found a very interesting opportunity at Daimler AG, which was looking at how innovative products can be brought into retail. This led to great exposure to just about all of the company's functions, such as app development and data analytics, as well as the various brands."
Vormittag quickly became interested in how innovation could be successfully pushed within a large-scale company such as Daimler AG and convinced the company to create its own startup programme and build an innovation network.
Having a good relationship is the key to a successful collaboration
Vormittag strongly believes that while all companies, whether large or small, greatly benefit from forging relationships with relevant ecosystems, he places particular emphasis on startups getting being active, "That skill of understanding, for example, how the social economy of a corporation works, and innovative new products can be successfully brought into large-scale companies is of great benefit to entrepreneurs who are looking to enter a market."
"In a successful collaboration, there is far less chance of mismatched expectations. If you don't have the foundation of a good relationship, you won't know if the strategy is aligned. I've seen it go very wrong when there was a mismatch in expectations, and a lot of effort was put into things that could have been understood better if more focus had been put into relationships and collaboration rather than just selling something.”
"So while I've stressed that relationships are important, and tapping into the larger picture of the corporate world is a critical step for any startup to succeed, I've seen so many startups struggle with how to do it right, and it's predominantly due to a lack of awareness in how this other world ticks, what you need to focus on, or what steps to take."
"Mentors who have had this experience can help startups at least reduce the probability of making the same mistakes. So, I want to give and make sure that the startups understand the knowledge I have acquired regarding how the corporate and startup worlds work together. Otherwise, there is a risk of failure without reason."
A big reason why Vormittag is devoting his time to being a mentor is that he believes that technology (if executed properly) should create progress, "There's a lot of value that startups can bring to the European economies and beyond, so that's why I want to help young companies to be able to contribute and not waste the great technology they developed on a bad go-to-market strategy, thereby missing out on a lot of great opportunities."
Vormittag worked with one team for the first NEXUS programme and says that while he wholeheartedly supports connecting the corporate world to the startup world, he didn't initiate that in this particular team mentorship as he felt that they weren't at the right stage of maturity, "We did, however, discuss it in depth as it's very important to at least get a good perspective of when it will be the right time to start talking to a corporate."
"Big companies have a lot of people, so from a startup's point of view, it's important to understand when I need to put my resources into this corporate game or when I should focus on making my go-to-market strategy and reach a certain level of maturity. Therefore, I gave really broad advice on the first steps of becoming a company. This was the most appropriate direction as they, along with most NEXUS companies, were at the stage of I'm now in university, I have done my research, I have an idea, and I want to forge a company out of this."
However, Vormittag is quick to point out that many unchartered waters need to be navigated between being a researcher and a startup CEO.
Even though Vormittag decided not to advance his team to the corporate world outreach stage, he is still satisfied with their growth path, "I think they grew quite a bit because we started with having a technology of creating green hydrogen from waste, and that's already a big thing. However, going from a solid idea to a hydrogen reactor, selling to a customer, and being scaleable is a long shot, and you must understand the right path forward. This particular type of company is not easy to build and is not an easy product to bring to the market. Nonetheless, I think we made good progress."
Harness your inner fire but be sure to listen
As important as having a great idea and the foundation from which to build, Vormittag stresses that having the passion and dedication to making this a success is crucial. But, also just as critical is the ability to take advice - which is what our esteemed NEXUS mentors provide.
"If you have the right advice paired with the right mindset, you stand a much better chance of attracting investors, and even if you're not initially successful, it will be ok if you do the right things and follow the right advice."
Vormittag loves being exposed to new ideas and gets personal gratification in seeing what technologies might pop up on his radar during the programme, "I think every type of technology which comes from university is immediately worth looking at from a market entry position, so while I don't have any specific technologies in mind per se, I only want that it's interesting. I also want to be surprised and find people eager to do interesting stuff with societal value. This is what's required to be successful, and if you find those people with good technology, crazy ideas, and the will to go the extra mile, it will be a fun and successful collaboration."
Get ready for some soul-searching
With the upcoming NEXUS 2 programme approaching, Vormittag has this advice for all programme hopefuls, "The number one thing for Nexus participants is they should use the opportunities that NEXUS affords them. It's very important to establish that becoming a startup differs wildly from being a researcher. And then being a startup differs from having a corporate job because it requires ultimate dedication to the project. This is where you have to do some soul-searching as an entrepreneur because I strongly advise anyone who is not convinced that what they do is great should not try to build a startup. The NEXUS programme is a unique opportunity to connect with the startup world and all available knowledge contained within, so make the most of it. And, of course, do it collaboratively.
NEXUS is the University of Helsinki's mentor-driven Deep Tech, AI, and Sustainability 6-month incubator programme designed to help teams with crystallised solutions in those domains to turn those into scalable, fundable global startups. The call for the programme’s 2nd batch is currently open until 6 August, and the programme will run from 21 August 2023 to 29 March 2024.
For additional information on the the 2023 NEXUS incubator, please contact:
Andres Peña Archila, NEXUS programme manager
Potential mentors, corporates, CVC's and investors interested in partnering with NEXUS, please contact:
Alfonso Gutierrez, Senior Manager, Global Corporate Partnerships