When I walked into the hy! Summit on Wednesday evening, I had a moment of “Wait, what happened to Berlin in the last three months?” I had thought of hy! as one step above a meet up, but they proved me dead wrong. They stepped up their production values, offering a coat check, wifi, friendly and efficient check-in people, the right amount of seats, and – get this – headsets for the English speakers so the event could be translated.
It did not feel like a German event until the VC sitting next to me complained that they were not running on time, probably due to the government official who was from Bavaria. And the event did indeed start 30 minutes behind schedule.
The hy! Summit kicked off with a surprisingly un-cheesy video about the future of innovation, featuring music by Moderat. It did not, however, include any women, as noted by WomenShiftDigital. On that note, the women in the crowd (not counting staff or waitresses) probably accounted for 5 percent of the audience. Hy! did include Anna Alex of Outfittery (which in February announced a €13m funding round led by US-based VC Highland Capital Partners) in the panel entitled ‘(w)hy! Berlin?’.
Next up was the aforementioned Bavarian, Alexander Dobrindt, Germany’s current Federal Minister of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, but since my translation headset did not work, I spent the ten minute talk noting the other people who were listening via headsets – I counted less than ten.
Ijad Madisch, the co-founder of ResearchGate, turned out to be the most engaging German presenter I’ve ever seen. Yes, his company is one of the most interesting out there as it is solving a real problem – enabling and promoting collaboration amongst researchers around the world – and can count Bill Gates as an investor. But the story of how Ijad, a qualified doctor, forged ahead with starting the company despite being advised not to, and why he did it in Germany, was inspiring. The presentation also featured photos of fingers grafted onto mice, stories of Russians solving mathematical problems and lots of references to hair loss. Ijad is so unbelievably charming someone needs to make him the poster child of German startups.
The (w)hy! Berlin? panel was made up of Ciaran O’Leary of Earlybird, Anna Alex of Outfittery and Lucas von Cranach of THE Football App. It kicked off with moderator Hans Raffauf, founder of hy! together with Aydo Schosswald, asking about the good, then the bad, of Berlin. Ciaran’s point really stuck – Berlin is the only city on this side of world that is inspiring, English-speaking, and focused on entrepreneurship. Talent was mentioned as another plus. When they discussed the bad part of Berlin, Anna shared what was, by far, my favorite quote of the evening: “We knew it was a waste of time to talk to German investors.” There isn’t enough capital here, the Germans are too risk averse, companies sell too early, and raising money is much more challenging than it should be.
PayPal founder Peter Thiel, while clearly a brilliant entrepreneur and investor, is not a natural public speaker. He gave a very high-level, big-picture talk without any actionable insights. He started by discussing forms of progress and moved on to important questions to ask when starting out, which include: What is valuable? What can I do? What are others not doing? The audience was then invited to ask two questions, and the first person picked asked the same question everyone in Berlin asks at these events: What did Peter Thiel think of the Berlin ecosystem? To which he replied that Berlin is missing one extraordinarily big success, which is right on. For the Berlin ecosystem to thrive, investors and entrepreneurs are going to have to take more risks.
The event blew me away. Not only was the organisation flawless, but it showcased a new, more grown-up Berlin. The previous events I’ve attended in Berlin typically fell into one of two categories, either ‘Berlin is AMAZING – we are on the path to be the next Silicon Valley!’ or ‘We aren’t growing fast enough, how can we be the next Silicon Valley?’
The hy! Summit showed a more mature side of Berlin, a city comfortable in its position in the world. In 2013, everyone was talking about hype. So far this year, we’ve seen real progress, especially in terms of funding. Since January, Delivery Hero has announced a whopping $88m round, Outfittery raised a €13m in funding, TVSMILES closed a $7 million Series A and a handful of other companies including Clue, Sensorberg, and Mbrace have raised significant seed rounds. The startup system is growing and, while there is plenty that needs to change, especially when it comes to raising funds, for the first time everyone seems realistic about Berlin opportunities.
With that, the networking part of the evening commenced. Because this is Berlin, and not the US, I walked up to Peter Thiel and asked to take a selfie because I am American and have no shame.
So here it is!