Düsseldorf may not be as famous as Berlin for its start-up scene, but the city is building on a strong ICT sector to develop an ecosystem where tech firms of all shapes and sizes can do business.
Telecoms giant Vodafone has had a presence in the city since 2000, when it merged with Mannesman and Düsseldorf became a co-headquarters for the Vodafone Group. In 2012, it opened the Vodafone campus, which employs 5000 people and hosts some group entities as well as testing facilities and other activities. “It’s the biggest testing facility for telecoms in Europe,” says Michael Reinartz, director of innovation at Vodafone. “Big telecoms providers and handset manufacturers from around the world test their equipment here before it is released to the market.
“The biggest industry here is ICT. More than 2000 ICT companies are based in Düsseldorf. This has helped some of our investments. We recently opened a new innovation lab, and in February we opened our narrowband Internet of Things [IoT] lab as a co-investment with Huawei and Ericsson. This gives companies, network partners and start-ups the opportunity to test new technology. We’re also involved in trials of autonomous and connected driving and smart cities.”
However, what Mr Reinartz says really marks the city out for him is the number of telecoms companies with bases in Düsseldorf. He adds: “We’re all within walking distance. Names such as Amdocs, Sony, Huawei and Ericsson are all very close.”
Efforts to get tech firms in Düsseldorf and the wider region to collaborate are being promoted by the city authorities, the federal state government of North Rhine-Westphalia as well as the companies themselves. “We’re seeing people from the airport, Huawei, insurance companies, Henkel and other different firms working together to foster the ecosystem for start-ups,” says Mr Reinartz. “We’re getting together and trying to find new ways to monetise new ideas such as big data and IoT.”
However, while progress has been made, he points out that the city’s universities have not traditionally focused on the ICT sector. He adds: “This has been discussed with the mayor and government, and is something people are aware of, so I anticipate that the issue will be addressed within the next three years.”
Organisations such as innovation centre Digihub are supporting start-ups. “Digihub was established by the city and federal state to bring together universities, start-ups, medium-sized companies and corporates that had traditionally been operating in their own territories,” says Peter Hornik, a Digihub managing director. “The science of innovation management shows that innovation happens on the periphery of a sector, or even better, at the interface between two different sectors, and between different groups of people in institutions. So the task of Digihub has been to bring them together, enable them to work together and to innovate.”
Although still in its infancy, Digihub has hosted events, boot camps and acceleration programmes to bring organisations together and devise new ideas. Klemens Gaida, a Digihub managing director, says: “We held a hackathon, where eight major companies were introduced to eight start-ups. The big companies discussed their challenges and ideas about big data. The start-ups could then decide which team they wanted to work with. We created four new projects, and we’re already seeing innovations.
“For example, a supplier of wind turbine drives had problems with their maintenance. They met with a start-up from the hi-fi sector that specialises in analysing and detecting anomalies in noise signals and audio streams. Although on the surface the two firms had nothing in common, they worked out that they could apply the work taking place in the hi-fi space to the wind generation sector to analyse the noise of the wind turbine and train the system to understand any problems with the turbine.
“It’s a great example of innovation happening on the edge between different sectors, and has resulted in a win-win: there’s new innovation for the big company to optimise its wind turbines and the start-up has a new customer and a new business opportunity.
“Some people compare digitisation with a football match. Clearly, Germany lost the first half to US and Asian companies, and now we have to make up time in the second half if we want to be a substantial global player. If we want to be successful in the future – as we have been in previous decades – especially with all our export companies, we have to start now.”
Trivago’s home comforts
One of the city’s most famous start-ups to have emerged from Digihub is global hotel search brand Trivago, established in 2005 as a ‘Wikipedia for travellers’. Today, the company employs more than 1000 people and will soon move into a new campus in the city’s Media Harbour, with space for up to 2000 people and room to add another 1500 by expanding into the next building.
“Companies such as Trivago are important if you want to create an ecosystem,” says Mr Hornik. “Its three founders have started investing in new start-ups. Additionally, about 100 of their employees have grown with them over the years. These people know how to build a company and they will hopefully create new businesses.”
Although Trivago has helped put Düsseldorf on the start-up map, Mr Gaida believes it is important to be realistic. “We will not be the next Silicon Valley or the next Tel Aviv but we have our own strengths,” he says. “We have a lot of successful hidden champions here, and our strength in comparison with Berlin is that industry is really well represented in the city. We have many corporate headquarters here, and there’s a lot of innovation potential inside those organisations. At the same time, we’re focused on ensuring that our strong companies don’t miss out on the opportunities of the digital revolution and become the next Nokia or Kodak.”