Dr. Andrea Otto worked for more than eight years in start-up consulting for scientific start-ups. Last summer, she finished her work at beyourpilot and went into well-deserved retirement. We asked her about her experiences.
How did you get into start-up support?
“After 20 years in marketing and sales in the life science industry, I wanted a change, I wanted to move something “new”. I wanted to continue working with teams and ideally bring in my experience from scientific and industrial activities. At the end of 2013, I came across an advertisement for the Startup Dock, which was being set up at TUHH as part of the EXIST funding. The job advertisement for start-up consultancy sounded exciting and promising. I immediately had a good gut feeling and knew that this could be something for me.
In May 2014, I then joined Startup Dock as a start-up consultant and was part of the team from the very beginning. I immediately enjoyed the work a lot. We were a team that put a lot of heart, motivation, commitment and diverse experience into motivating, promoting and supporting start-ups at TUHH and in Hamburg.”
Can you say approximately how many start-ups you have supervised over time?
“I can’t say exactly over the years, but there were really a lot of projects. Sometimes the people interested in founding a company only needed a short consultation, e.g. on developing a business model or building a pitch deck, and then they could continue on their own. In other start-up projects, the teams were accepted into our special mentoring programme after initial counselling sessions in order to provide them with intensive counselling, qualification and support over a longer period of time.”
Which startups do you remember most? Which projects did you mentor more intensively?
“I have provided intensive mentoring and support for about one and a half to two years, including numerous exciting start-up projects before and during their EXIST funding, such as bentekk (mobile gas chromatograph), nüwiel (e-bike trailer), Jetlite (jetlag-reducing light system), Bluebird Mountain (avalanche rescue drone), Beagle Systems (fully autonomous long-distance drones) , Suena (battery storage system optimisation), Mo: re (Innovative 3D cell culture), Colipi (CO2-neutral lipid production) and n2 Photonics (Innovative laser technology). “
Which of your mentored startups was the most successful?
“I can’t really answer that for a single project. As an example, I could mention the sale of bentekk to Dräger, with which the founding team was able to realise a successful exit. Other start-ups like nüwiel, Jetlite, Beagle Systems and suena founded their companies in Hamburg and are now also very successful in the market.”
Certainly, there were also projects in the collaboration where a spin-off did not happen for various reasons, but which had very exciting product and business ideas from your point of view. Can you give us some interesting examples?
“For example, the start-up idea for an innovative care wheelchair comes to mind. I met and advised the team as part of the NIT eTrack programme. Unfortunately, both guys didn’t continue with the promising start-up project after completing their Master’s degree, because they wanted to take on salaried jobs first in order to gain their first professional experience in industry.
I also found the start-up idea for faecal sludge utilisation with insects very exciting – unfortunately, no EXIST funding was obtained here, as the project still required extensive basic scientific research and was assessed as not feasible within the framework of a start-up grant.,. I was also excited by the idea of a robot for façade painting – a first prototype was already developed by two team members as part of their master’s theses. However, the team then split up and the project was not pursued further.”
What topics are you personally most interested in when it comes to the business ideas of the start-ups?
“As a natural scientist with several years of laboratory and industrial experience in the life sciences, my heart naturally always beats very strongly for projects in the field of biotechnology and medicine. This is where I quickly feel “at home” with my professional background and experience. However, I have always been open to projects in other fields as well. The extraordinary diversity and high technology in engineering has inspired and impressed me very much in all the years as a start-up consultant; I have been involved in many different projects and was thus able to learn a lot myself while advising & supporting the teams and implementing their technological product ideas. Among other things, I found the numerous hardware projects as well as the AI and VR-associated projects particularly exciting.”
Are the startups you supervise generally amenable to your tips or were there sometimes discussions?
“Yes, I think so; from my point of view, the start-up teams I supervised were always very accessible to both my positive comments and my criticisms and suggestions. As a start-up advisor, I always dealt with the teams openly and honestly, spoke plainly and sometimes challenged them a lot, but at the same time always gave constructive explanations, hints and advice. For the most part, this was well received and implemented by my teams. I think they also knew that they could count one hundred percent on my reliable support. In general, I can say that the cooperation with the teams was always and mutually characterised by open and constructive communication, trust and a sense of responsibility. I enjoyed that very much and it strengthened our cooperation! Many of the founders also impressed me with their great enthusiasm for the project, their strong will to succeed, as well as their determination and assertiveness.
In addition, I was always very pleased when people interested in founding or founders contacted me again even after years, simply wanted to get in touch with me again or had specific questions or requests for advice on a new project.”
Have you ever turned down a start-up?
“In my 8 years as a start-up consultant, I have turned down or dropped out of consulting on three or four projects for various reasons. The obvious resistance of the founders to advice and their “unwillingness” to cooperate efficiently and reliably played an important role, among other things. In one of the projects, there were also serious ethical concerns on my part.”
Have you ever considered joining a startup yourself?
“No, not as a direct team member. But I could imagine continuing to offer my support as an external advisor and mentor or working on an advisory board.”
Have you ever started a start-up yourself, or had an idea before?
“No, neither yet.
But during my time in industry I was involved several times (also as a team member of the first hour) in setting up subsidiaries in Germany or Europe for American companies. For me, it was and is always very exciting and motivating to build something new. I am always very passionate about it.
My work as a start-up consultant for the last eight years was exactly the right thing for me and a benefit. I was able to share my experience and knowledge from my industrial job in sales, marketing and management with the founders and accompany them part of the way in setting up their own start-up company with advice and coaching. That was a lot of fun for me!”
What was the biggest challenge of your job?
“It was definitely the team building, the team development and the team coaching. The right team with complementary expertise and experience as well as good, reliable and trusting cooperation between the individual founders within this constellation are of decisive importance for the successful implementation of the start-up. Investors always look very closely at the founding team. Excellent product and business ideas may well fail if the team does not fit and/or does not work together in a cooperative and goal-oriented manner.
In start-up consulting, I have always placed a strong focus on team building and team development in addition to evaluating product ideas and their economic prospects for success. Team mentoring and team coaching also played an important role here. Serious internal team disagreements, which arose in some teams sooner or later in the course of the joint work and blocked the start-up project or almost led to its termination, repeatedly required extensive coaching and moderation measures to find solutions. In the end, many founders were able to recognise the challenging crisis situations as an opportunity to go new ways, to restructure, to relax the situation, to dissolve blockades and problems and to continue the project together. For me, it was always a great sign of trust when the founders approached me because they were looking for and needed advice, moderation and coaching in dealing with conflicts.”
What did you appreciate most about your job?
“I am still happy about it today and appreciate very much that I was able to experience eight exciting, very varied, often challenging, but always inspiring and profitable years as a start-up consultant! I always enjoyed being able to accompany our founders a bit on their way to their own company and to see the “start-up babies” grow – I often felt like their “business mum”. That was a lot of fun, especially with the colleagues from beyourpilot and the other players in the Hamburg startup ecosystem! I have really met and worked with many wonderful people over the past few years. Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone once again for the time we spent together, the great collaboration and the trusting and inspiring cooperation!”
How has your everyday life changed since you left beyourpilot?
“This year, for example, my husband and I are planning a longer trip through France. We want to get to know Brittany and the Atlantic coast, finally see the blooming lavender fields in Provence and maybe ride our racing bikes there again. That’s why I’m busy polishing up my French. Maybe by then I’ll manage to be a bit more than a “beginner” and dare to communicate properly with the French!”
Do you still follow the fates of your former start-ups in retirement?
“Of course – I’m still very interested in how the teams are progressing with their companies! The topic of scientific entrepreneurship will definitely remain close to my heart…”
Thank you very much for the interview and your excellent work,
All the best for the future!
About Dr. Andrea Otto:
Andrea Otto, born in November 1957, has a PhD in biology and several years of laboratory experience in cancer research. She has 20 years of management and leadership experience in the life science & healthcare industry (sales, marketing & business management in Germany, Europe, worldwide). . As a start-up consultant, she has supported numerous technology-oriented innovation and start-up projects at Hamburg universities over the last eight years and accompanied them on the way to founding a company.