Interview with start-up entrepreneur Dr Markus Bartram I recruited staff right there in the Institute lobby
In three years I managed to convert an idea from my BSc dissertation into a company with ten employees and a fully-functioning business model – thanks in no small part to the favourable environment for start-up entrepreneurs in Aachen.
Dr. Markus Bartram
- RWTH Aachen University graduand
- CEO of PicoLAS GmbH
I came to RWTH Aachen University to study electrical and electronic engineering, drawn by the university’s excellent reputation. During Freshers’ Week there was an organised tour of the city which gave me the opportunity to find my bearings. I felt at home right away. During my degree course I developed a system for industrial labelling (e.g. bottle labels) using diode lasers and made this the subject of my dissertation in 1998. Unfortunately, the state of technical progress in industry had not yet reached the point where this process could be adopted widely.
My Aachen highlights:
- Olde-worlde Aachen pubs like the Guinness-House and King’s College
- Market Square: “There’s an awful lot going on here”
- A stroll through the Christmas Market with the whole family in tow
Five years later, though, while doing my PhD on wind-power plants, the first enquiries from companies started coming in, and with the agreement of the two respective institutes I was allowed to carry on my laser research in parallel with my PhD work. If you’d asked me when starting university whether I would end up starting my own business I’d have given you a decisive “no”. I come from a family of civil servants which would tend to be fairly risk-averse.
Suddenly it all took off
But when my idea was confirmed as marketable, the idea of starting my own business was a natural progression. I’ve always been fascinated by the brass plaques of the spin-off businesses at the Institute. The enquiries from companies strengthened my determination and my confidence in what I was doing. Professor Brettel, holder of the WIN chair, drew my attention to the crash-course for start-up entrepreneurs at the university’s new-business college. I drew up a sketch of my business idea, applied and was accepted.
That’s where I got to know about the many grants and subsidies on offer from the Chamber of Trade & Industry, RWTH Aachen University and also from the provincial and central governments. From there, things happened pretty quickly – applications to consortium projects, trade fair presentations on my development work and entries to business plan competitions. With the Chamber of Trade & Industry and the new-business college behind me I felt able to step out on my own and go into business. They drew my attention to a grant from the provincial government which would pay me the equivalent of half of an assistant’s salary for two years for my work as CEO, thus overcoming the big fear of having nothing to live on. When I submitted my PhD thesis in 2005, my company – Picolas GmbH – was born.
I had no savings of my own, and the start-up equity of € 25,000 which had to go into the private limited company was an advance from family and friends. Equity stakes from the Business Start-up Initiative (Gründer-Start-Initiative, GSI) and – later – the German central government’s High-Tech Start-up Fund (High-Tech-Gründerfonds) meant my business was able to begin its high-tech development work with adequate start-up capital.
Great help for great ideas
Thanks to successful consortium projects undertaken in conjunction with some highly-regarded partners I was able to close my first financial year with a profit and had already built up a solid customer base. Many times I recruited staff right there in the Institute lobby. It was a whole new experience for me to be no longer just an engineer, but a manager and a boss as well. For all those issues I’d never learnt about as an engineer, the Chamber of Trade & Industry found me a mentor to offer helpful advice and guidance – on matters like managing staff, contract law, advising customers and all other non-engineering things.
After three years running my own business, the bottom line is: it’s all gone swimmingly. Where we used to produce 10 systems a week we’re now doing 20 a day. I’ve just recently taken on some new people, and we’re about to move to bigger premises. Aachen’s has adequate funding and a lot of assistance on offer for good start-ups, and the risk you have to bear is minimal. Anyone with a good idea who’s prepared to work hard after going out on his or her own will succeed. Today, I can no longer imagine being an employee.
My tips for start-up entrepreneurs:
- Once you’ve set up the business you’ve got to keep at it
- Create areas of responsibility fairly early on, create management structures
- Take heart: the risk is no greater than messing up in your job and having to move house.
- Whatever knowledge you, as an entrepreneur, don’t possess can be bought in. By contrast, though, the things you alone know aren’t for sale to anyone.
- Buy in services from outside (e.g. tax accountants), then your book-keeping is no more trouble than scanning in receipts
- The Chamber of Trade & Industry has people who can really help you
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