Are Universities Europe’s Startup Ecosystem Secret Weapon?

By Julia Neuman | Education

The Bridge is a series of articles exploring connections between the European tech capitals of Berlin and London supported through our partnership with London & Partners.

When you think of startups, what comes to mind? We’ll bet it’s not academia, although university research institutions and programs play a pivotal role in thriving startup ecosystems.

Berlin and London’s world-renowned academic institutions set the stage for serendipitous founder meetings, late night idea exchanges and the type of meticulous research and development that can quickly shift into the next big startup success story.

They’re also home to incubators, accelerators and entrepreneurship programs which, by their very nature, tend to focus on the importance of skill-building and personal development, when laying the foundations for a company. 

Universities are home to varied student bodies from around the globe, therefore diversity and inclusion are often woven into the fabric of university-led initiatives. This makes them the prime setting for founding truly innovative companies. 

Building connections through diverse sets of ideas is what we love to explore with The Bridge. We got to know some of the institutions and programs that are best known for building links for innovation, churning out bright entrepreneurs and laying the foundations for tech companies. 

Read on for our mini exploration of university innovation hubs in both London and Berlin. 

Berlin: The right recipe for student entrepreneurs

Germany powerhouse research institutions and strong financial support for student innovation promotes academic-based entrepreneurship at all levels. Plus, the city’s relaxed vibe makes it attractive for students who value work-life balance (which, in early-stage entrepreneurial terms, often means plenty of time to let ideas germinate). 

On the one hand, students, graduates and scientists from universities have access to a federal business grant called EXIST, which gives them the financial freedom to turn ideas into companies while they’re still in school. 

There’s also START Demo Day – the largest student-run entrepreneurship and tech conference in Berlin – which brings together over 500 young entrepreneurs each year.

Berlin’s most esteemed universities – including TU Berlin, HWR Berlin and the Freie Universität – all have their own innovation centers and company incubators. TU’s Centre for Entrepreneurship combines research, courses, networking, events and counseling for students looking to get into startup mode, and it has contributed to the founding of over 135 companies between 2008 and 2018. 3D printing software company, 3YourMind, is an alumnus of the program, having begun in the university’s 3D laboratory and found traction through the innovation center’s resources and network.

The Startup Incubator at HWR Berlin is a co-working space designed to bring founders together as they take their first steps with an idea. Over 110 portfolio companies have come out of the incubator and its various competitions, contests and labs. 

The Freie Universität’s Profund Innovation supports students and alumni in funding, entrepreneurship education, founding companies and intellectual property protection. A dedicated Business and Innovation Center is set for completion next to the university in 2022.

Looking beyond the German capital, we also want to point out that Munich is quickly growing into Berlin’s tech counterpart in the south. This is thanks in part to its universities and strong academic partnerships, like the one between TU Munich and Imperial College London promoting innovation, research and education.

London: Inspiring programs and extensive resources

London’s bustling vibe coupled with its cherished research institutions attracts students from all over the world. In London, an international and diverse student population is able to catapult ideas off the ground in no time, thanks to the city’s unparalleled resources and startup infrastructure. The UK capital oozes entrepreneurial charisma.

A perfect example of this is the annual event called the London Venture Crawl, which brings students from more than 16 London universities onto double decker buses for a tour of London’s tech companies, startup hubs and innovation workspaces. Students are able to satisfy their curiosity while making plenty of connections for future initiatives.

Students who participate in these annual events may be coming from schools such as UCL, Imperial College London and King’s College London – all of which have their own innovation hubs. 

King’s College London supports 20 bright ventures each year in its King’s20 Accelerator, which focuses heavily on sustainable growth and development for student-led startups. Participants have cited a special “culture of nurture” within this program, which signals the institution’s commitment to building the key foundations necessary for a path of entrepreneurship.

In a similar 12-month time frame, UCL’s The Hatchery offers its startup incubator to companies with an ambitious solution that fits into an identified gap in the market. A recent notable alumnus from The Hatchery, Astroscreen, uses machine learning techniques to be an early warning system for information warfare on social media.

London Business School, LSE and Queen Mary University also have dedicated innovation programs for young entrepreneurs to get their ideas up and running while still in school.

When it comes to more niche university startup initiatives, Imperial College London’s White City Incubator focuses on deep tech startups, as does Conception X, a 9-month program for PhD students at UK universities. UCL also has a dedicated Edtech accelerator, Educate, which is especially relevant during Covid times, given the increased rate of Edtech adoption.

Finally, beyond London and across the UK, universities are focusing more intensely on innovation initiatives in general. Take the University of Manchester, for example: it is planning a 26-acre innovation district in the heart of the city.

Promoting innovation through diversity

Universities attract incredible, diverse talent from around the globe. As true melting pots of ideas and perspectives, they serve as an ideal stepping stone for innovation in big tech hubs such as London and Berlin.

We’ll be exploring that link between innovation and inclusion in our upcoming event, Innovation and Diversity in Tech. Hosted by Silicon Allee and London & Partners, in cooperation with UK Black Tech, BlackinTech Berlin, Techstars, Tech in Colour, and many more, it’s an open dialogue event you won’t want to miss. If you’re curious about building a more inclusive business, making funding more accessible, and creating visibility for Black and Minority Ethnic founders and tech employees, please join us!