Pioneer Town West

Forget Mitte and Silicon Allee: there's a Berlin start-up hotspot hiding in plain sight on the campus of Charlottenburg's Technical University. Here's a look at what's been happening.

Image for Pioneer Town West

A counselling session at TU’s Centre for Entrepreneurship. Photo by J. Ruta

While everyone’s focused on Mitte and Silicon Allee, a Charlottenburg enterprise has been helping start-up entrepreneurs get off the ground since before the days of St. Oberholz.

Beyond Stadtmitte, beyond Potsdamer Platz and even beyond Zoologischer Garten, sits Ernst-Reuter-Platz – an enormous roundabout flanked by tall grey buildings on every side. The wide street leads back to the Brandenburg Gate in one direction, and in the other out to the depths of Charlottenburg. It’s cold, windswept and slightly drab, but still there’s a buzz around the place as it’s also home to Berlin’s third largest university, the TU (Technical University), with around 34,000 students.

Renowned for technology and innovation, and attracting students from around the world, TU is exactly the sort of place where you might find the Elon Musk and Steve Jobs of the future. And it’s precisely with tomorrow’s entrepreneurs in mind that in 2010 the university set up its Centre for Entrepreneurship, building on the support it had already been offering tech founders since 1983(!), when Amstrad computers were forward-thinking and the Web was nothing more than a distant reality.

Each year around 20 budding start-ups participate in the incubator programme, which is open, by application only, to anyone with an “innovative tech-oriented business idea” and a first prototype. Here they get access to labs and co-working spaces, courses and workshops on how to set up a company and obtain funding, as well as direct hook-ups with business angels, venture capitalists, potential business partners and the like.

As well as this private sector involvement, the centre has also been awarded support and funding through the EXIST Programme, a flagship project from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. Through the EXIST start-up grant, TU students and researchers can receive between €1000/month for undergraduates and €3000/month for PhD graduates for up to one year for the development of an idea right until the company launch. More funds are made available through the “Transfer of Research” program, which targets high-tech start-ups with intensive development periods.

One of the best examples of how the centre has actively supported a student start-up is Cellbricks, a company that 3D-prints cell structures to simulate human tissues and organs – thus ending animal drug testing and revolutionising individual medical treatment, or so founder Lutz Kloke hopes. He came up with the idea while researching various 3D bio printers for his PhD thesis, and, after presenting his idea to the Centre, secured some €500,000 through EXIST and was able to turn that thesis into a running company in just two years.

While none of the Centre’s alumni are household names yet, several are attracting buzz – and, crucially, funding. According to latest figures publicly available from the University, 253 TU-alumni companies employed 18,414 people, with a combined turnover of €2.59 billion in 2015. So who knows, maybe the next Elon Musk is over in Charlottenburg after all.