Innovation Aus Deutschland: The Case Against Thiel’s Europe

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3D printed mesh created at the Technical University of Munich

I’m willing to wager that the majority of American entrepreneurs, VCs, and startup enthusiasts have come into contact with Peter Thiel’s Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, at some point in their careers.  It is required reading in Owen Davis’ Launch your Startup class and for founders, such as myself, the book is somewhat of holy text that must be close to arms reach at all time.  Underlying Thiel’s lessons on building monopolies, selling products, and nihilistic consultant haterade*, however, is a deeply American ideal to innovation.

*haterade – excessive negativity in the form of a beverage

He writes, “Even the Great Depression failed to impede relentless progress in the United States, which has always been home to the world’s far-seeing definite optimists.”Thiel Quote Thiel argues that it is bold planners (definite optimists) who truly innovate: “A startup is the largest endeavor over which you can have definite mastery…it begins by rejecting the unjust tyranny of chance.  You are not a lottery ticket.”

Now I’m not one to drape myself in red, white, and blue, shouting “Amuurricaa!” at a Toby Keith concert, but something about Thiel’s words evokes a strong sense of American pride (along with a montage of Michael Bay explosions, Top Gun theme music, and Steve Jobs).  Particularly, this the case when Thiel juxtaposes this depiction of American innovation with what he calls European “Indefinite pessimism.”

He writes, “Europeans just react to events as they happen, and hope things don’t get worse.  The indefinite pessimist can’t know whether the inevitable decline will be fast or slow, catastrophic or gradual.  All he can do is wait for it to happen, so he might as well eat, drink, and be merry in the meantime: hence Europe’s famous vacation mania.”  Thiel’s depiction serves to inform the foundation of the stereotype that Europe does not innovate like its American counterpart.

With all due respect to Mr. Thiel, I believe it is time for him to take a trip back to Germany (ironically, the country where he was born).

Let’s start by highlighting our trip to the Technical University of Munich (TUM), whose MakerSpace rivals any found in the United States.  TUM is the epitome of the German effort to innovate through agile practices, supplying entrepreneurs with the resources to rapidly prototype ideas and build “Minimum Viable Products.”  3D printers, laser/water jet cutters, textile and electrical facilities, and machine and woodworking shops are at fingertips of TUM students.  At this point, you may be thinking tuition must be out of control at this University (especially those of you who paid 200k+ for those English BAs) and you are right…the number is astounding.  A German citizen pays 0.00 Euros to attend the Technical University of Munich.  Moreover, there is no application process, and all are accepted!

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At this point, you may have just dropped your iPhone, so take a second to collect yourself.  Let’s reiterate, “GERMANS PAY $0 TO ATTEND TUM AND HAVE ACCESS TO MILLIONS OF DOLLARS WORTH OF EQUIPMENT!!!”  As our TUM guide Dominik Böhler stated, “We believe people should be able to kickstart their ideas…and we have a 100 million EUR fund to invest in entrepreneurs.” TUM students are working on a variety of innovations including creating a prototype of Elon Musk’s famous hyperloop.

Taking a bus ride from TUM to closer to the heart of Munich, we arrived at HYVE – the innovation company. HYVE is an innovation consultancy firm in the same vein as IDEO and Frog in the U.S., a.k.a. innovation as a service (IaaS?).  Many are familiar with design workshop magic, but something unique about HYVE is their emphasis on crowd sourcing innovation. Dr. Volker Bilgram walked us through how HYVE used posts on forums and blogs to design an IoT package locker known as PaketButler.  PaketButler is basically a virtual “doorman,” (doorperson…it’s 2018 folks), that allows a package provider to deliver goods, informs the user of the delivery via smart phone application, and securely locks the package until the user is back at home.  The iterative prototyping process was continuously informed by feedback from customers online.

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A short trip downstairs led us to the pinnacle of German engineering.  The ICAROS.  The ICAROS is a VR enabled work out machine, or as I like to call it, the Peloton for flying.  Priced at an extremely reasonable 8,000 EUR (yeah, it’s primarily B2B), the ICAROS combines your fantasy of flying with your nightmare of dying in a horrible plane crash into the side of a mountain.  I personally was pretty terrible at the game, but definitely felt it in my core afterwards (which was good considering all the Paulaner Salvators I have consumed).

The most fascinating aspect of the ICAROS is that it was developed internally by HYVE for HYVE.  This may seem weird that a consultancy firm would use its profits to develop its own innovations (that have a high chance to go bust), but this speaks to the German sense of the pride that one has no right to advise if one cannot do it on his or her own.  The ICAROS has gone on to win multiple awards and has been included in the German Accelerator – a program by the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) that helps German start-ups to get to know the US market.

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With our trip to Munich wrapping up, I think it’s safe to say that Germany has a lot to offer in terms of entrepreneurship and innovation.  I recommend that Mr. Thiel update Zero to One to reflect this (but please don’t Gawker me!  You are still right about most things…unfortunately).

Next stop is Berlin, the home of a booming startup scene!  Until then, stay classy, CBS.

-Chris Russell

Turkey and Europe: Reject or Be Rejected?

By Aziza Jamgerchinova

One of Turkey’s overriding goals has been an entry into the European Union.  In fact, the country’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was so keen on aligning the country with the Western norms that he aggressively tackled a number of thorny issues like minority and women’s rights since coming into the office in 2002.  His efforts were often in the spotlight, while the rest of the world pondered whether Europe would let a country of 80 million Muslims join the club.

Turks have soured on the idea of joining a sinking European Union.Photo: Kunal Kain
Turks have soured on the idea of joining a sinking European Union.
Photo: Kunal Kain

The potential impact of the economic and political tie to Europe was an issue discussed during every single company visit on our trip.

While individual opinions may have differed, it was clear that the on-going sovereign debt crisis, which has brought Europe to its knees, made Turkey re-consider its options.  At least within the business circles, Turks have soured on the idea of joining the EU.  The Arab Spring has created new opportunities for Turkey to wield its power in the region, and many are asking the arduous question: Should Turkey reject Europe before being rejected?

As the lure of joining the EU is fading, Turkey is increasingly looking East instead of West, embracing its Muslim identity along the way. Foreign Relations Director at MUSIAD, a religiously conservative business group of 20,000 companies that is close to the prime minister, told our group about his recent trip to Tunisia and Morocco.  Turkish manufacturing and construction companies are vying for government contracts and new business partnerships in that part of the world.  MUSIAD often finds itself in the role of a “middle man,” connecting the right companies with one another.  The demand for the Turkish know-how in road building and residential construction is high in Tunisia and Morocco, and is only expected to grow.

CEO of Abdi Ibrahim, a pharmaceutical company in Istanbul, said the firm has recently acquired the majority stake in Kazakhstan’s Global Pharm.  She emphasized that Central Asia, along with other former Soviet states, was a growing market for them with ripe opportunities that won’t be found anywhere in Europe.  Needless to say that almost half of Kazakhstan’s population is Muslim.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s membership talks have stalled, and recent public opinion polls indicate that the country’s ambition to connect itself to sinking Europe is waning.