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„What we need to teach people is how to validate an idea and how it can be developed“

An interview with Professor Dr. Nils Högsdal, vice-chancellor of innovation and a professor of corporate finance and entrepreneurship at Stuttgart Media University

Professor Dr. Nils Högsdal talked to TRANSFER magazine about his affinity for the “Jugend gründet” contest for young business founders, also explaining how young people deal with the opportunities offered by entrepreneurship and the support universities can give them.

Hello Professor Högsdal, you were one of the driving forces behind “Jugend gründet”, the German competition for schoolchildren, and you’re still actively involved in the initiative as one of the judges. Why are you so committed to the competition?

At the beginning, which was about 15 years ago, “Jugend grundet” and our new startup was part of an exciting development project awarded to us by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research, or BMBF. It was about fostering an interactive web-based learning environment through business simulations – a chance for thousands of schoolchildren to become more familiar with the topic of entrepreneurship and business startups. In technology terms, it was unexplored territory.

We were lucky to have the Steinbeis Innovation Center for Business Development at Pforzheim University on board to help with implementation. They’d already gained experience with running business simulations for schoolchildren in Baden-Wurttemberg thanks to a project called “PriManager”. We knew from the first round that this initiative was about more than just running business simulations. The enthusiasm at the finals of the first competition in 2003/2004 and the reactions during the trip for the winners, which I accompanied to Silicon Valley, showed that what we had here was nothing less than the younger sister of “Jugend forscht” – the youth research initiative. Innovations are basically a good idea for which you can issue an invoice, and much too often it’s not that there’s a lack of ideas, the problem is developing them into sustainable business models.

The running of the competition has been in good hands for years with the Steinbeis team in Pforzheim. Despite this, I feel a close affinity for “Jugend grundet” and in my role as a jury member, I also help mentor the winning team. One of the highlights is flying out with them to Silicon Valley for a week. I still draw fresh inspiration from it every time we go, and the idea is to offer a prize that money alone can’t buy: personal contacts that will help people in the future, exciting ideas, and exposure to a mindset that you can achieve great things.

You spend time with young people every day as part of your job as a university professor. How well do you think they’re prepared to recognize the opportunities of entrepreneurship?

I think there’s a lot happening in this area. There’s a quote I like to use: “we hire for the attitude and train for the skills.” A number of years ago, the topic of entrepreneurship and self-employment was met with little enthusiasm among young people. That’s changed now. The underlying attitude is positive these days and people are more open. But what’s still missing is recognition of the tools you need to turn ideas into effective business models, although there are simple ways to teach that through college education and “Jugend grundet” also does a lot to address these issues.

Are young people in a position to recognize the opportunities by themselves or do they need help? If they do, what help would that be?

I think there are lots of areas where help is needed, so people can help themselves. We now know there are structured methods and processes. These include design thinking and the principles of lean startups, including use of the business model canvas. What we need to teach people is how to validate an idea and how it can be developed. I never tell people to forget an idea, instead I get students to go through the validation process step by step with customers and other stakeholders. It’s not uncommon for what looks like a useless concept to go through several rounds of iteration and transform into a business concept that can be implemented. Starting a business is now an agile process and if people understand this they can even push ahead with innovations in big companies.

What can the universities do to provide more help to students and even graduates, so they can take a perceived entrepreneurial opportunity and actually make it happen?

Actually your previous question already raised an important issue: Even established companies now draw on insights gained in the world of startups – along the lines of corporate entrepreneurship – and use these to facilitate quick and targeted innovation processes. Our goal at the Media University is to forge links to students at least once during their studies. The idea of this is not to turn everyone into a business founder, but to establish entrepreneurship on a broader base as a key skill. This isn’t about the detailed stuff like planning the finances of a startup to go into a business plan, it’s about the underlying principles. Students need to know they’ll receive all sorts of support from the university. This doesn’t just apply to the students, but also to alumni after they’ve finished their degree. The support is not just about the topics themselves, it’s also of a financial nature through a variety of funding options like the Exist startup grants, the “Young Innovators” program, and innovation vouchers. At the same time, it’s also important to share new insights along the lines of life-long learning. We’ve been offering a master’s degree since the winter semester in collaboration with the University of Stuttgart on the topic of “Intra- and Entrepreneurship (tech).” This degree can be pursued in parallel to work and running a startup. People can also attend individual modules. There’s a classroom- based course in design thinking and business model generation, which has almost established itself as a tradition now. In many cases it earns 6 ECTS credits to go toward a subsequent master’s degree. The thing that’s still not in place for the future is the right infrastructure based on the example set by American universities, which make it possible for universities to become shareholders in student startups. Maybe something can be done about this in the Steinbeis Network in the future.