Techstars Berlin’s Jens Lapinski Q&A: ‘There is Space Here for a Horizontal, Independent Accelerator’

By David Knight | Interview

After months in the making, renowned US accelerator Techstars last week finally announced officially that it is launching a program in Berlin. The accelerator will be based in the centre of the city on Museuminsel, and the first three-month program will kick off on June 15. Silicon Allee caught up with Jens Lapinski, the head of Techstars Berlin, to see where it will fit into the city’s buzzing startup scene (and crowded accelerator landscape).

Up till last summer, Jens was a transplanted German who had spent 16 years in the UK, gaining plenty of startup experience and helping to found the country’s first startup studio called Forward Labs. Wanting to return home, he then joined Techstars in London – where he had been a mentor – before heading to Berlin to set up the Boston-based company’s second program outside the US.

Silicon Allee: You’re from Dusseldorf originally – so why did you choose Berlin?

Jens Lapinski: From a personal perspective, my wife and I always really really liked the city, but probably more importantly I think professionally, Berlin has been doing really well in the last five to ten years with regards to Internet tech startups. When you look at figures in terms of size, how many VC-backed companies there are, how much venture funding flows into those companies, how many deals there are, I think Berlin and London are by far the two biggest [in Europe]; there is a gulf between those two cities and everybody else. And Berlin has a much steeper growth rate, because the London scene has been going for 20 years or something like that, whereas Berlin is more like five to ten.

SA: Was Berlin a natural choice for Techstars for its next outpost?

JL: It was, because London and Berlin, certainly from a European perspective, are the two most significant startup centres in Europe.

SA: Techstars is rather late on the scene in Berlin with regards to accelerators – there are already a whole raft of programs ranging from corporate to independent. Where will you fit in?

JL: I get this a lot – the way in which I think about this, say if you were in Silicon Valley and you were starting a new VC fund, would people say, oh my gosh there are already so many, do you really need another one? Berlin is not like Silicon Valley so the analogy doesn’t quite work, but obviously you have already a number of players here. When I looked at the scene, one thing I noticed was that they are all actually quite specialised. So you have a lot vertical programs. Startupbootcamp is now vertical, the guys at Axel Springer Plugandplay are quite heavily focused on media-type companies. You have the guys who are very focused on hardware. Hub:raum has now become an incubator so they have stopped accelerating companies.

So my personal view is that maybe with the exception of the Microsoft accelerator – which again is a corporate one – there isn’t really an independent, horizontal classic accelerator program in Berlin.

SA: But surely that is because the trend has been towards greater specialisation, not away from it? How will Techstars prove a success in Berlin?

JL: We’re early stage investors. Early stage investments such as this are largely driven by brand. And Techstars has got an international reputation and a very strong brand. Let me answer you like this: if Jens Lapinski had come to Berlin to set up a separate, single-location accelerator, would that have been a good idea? I’m not sure about that. Does it make sense to come here with an organisation that’s got more experience than pretty much anybody else? Absolutely. Techstars has run 40 or 50 programs, graduated way over 500 companies, has a huge network, and a really strong brand. As long as you have substance in the city, and I think there is more than enough substance in Berlin to drive an accelerator, it will be fine.

SA: So the strength of the Techstars brand is key to its success?

JL: The strength of the brand is key to success for any investment fund. [Those with strong brands] attract the best entrepreneurs, they deliver the best outcome, and then the virtual cycle starts to work. I think that’s true for any investment organisation.

SA: What sort of geographical make up do you think the first program will have?

JL: We have a couple of US programs that run simultaneously so I wouldn’t expect a huge influx of US companies. But I would expect a strong German – or German-speaking – contingent. Then I would expect to see a lot of companies from Eastern Europe and from Scandinavia. We’ll see how it shakes out, but I would expect the vast majority to be from Europe.

Certainly, the two regions outside of the German-speaking world that interest me the most are Eastern Europe and Northern Europe, where there is a huge amount of talent. Five or six billion-dollar companies have come out of Scandinavia over the last few years; the guys up there definitely know how to build significant businesses.

SA: What sort of topics or spaces do you expect to be represented in the first program?

JL: What we saw in London over the last year or two is that there were far more B2B software or Internet companies now. Maybe three or four years ago there would have been a lot of B2C companies. But I can invest in anything that I like. I am totally open to anything that people come up with, but my expectation is that there will be a very large number of B2B companies.

SA: What are your aims for this first program?

JL: We want to invest into ten great companies. That’s the first thing. The second thing is we want to deliver very high quality program to those ten companies. Then we want to see them do well. I think if we have high quality teams that are very happy with how we work with them, everything else will follow from that.