In the latest podcast of the German agency for leap innovations SPRIN-D, the German quantum physicist Wolfgang Schleich told an anecdote on the occasion of a reception in Stockholm at the Nobel Prize ceremony. Sitting at the table next to the professors and dissertation candidates was an American professor who asked the question in the round, “What company do you have?” He asked this question to each PhD student, and each of those present said he had no company. To which the American professor replied “How is that possible? You are all such smart people, and do research, but you don’t make a company out of your idea?“
Once again, this made Schleich aware of the difference between the Americans and the Germans. The former were much more practical with their ideas and always had a start-up idea around their research work on their radar. The American professor himself had several companies in which he implemented his research ideas, brought them to market and monetized them. Schleich himself reflected on his career, in which he, as a theoretical physicist, had so far never had the idea of thinking about commercialization. Not a single one of his 50 doctoral students to date had founded their own company either. They had either moved to large companies or remained in academic research.
I’ve been living in Silicon Valley for 20 years now, and this view of startups is particularly widespread here. It’s not just students at local universities who are toying with the idea of starting their own start-ups; I’ve come across Uber drivers and salespeople who have told me about their start-up ideas. One Uber driver, who is actually already retired, pitched his fitness startup to me during a 15-minute ride.
It is estimated that there are around 60,000 startups in Silicon Valley at any given time. Not all of them are clearly “real” startups, and the majority never get out of the idea phase. But whether it’s two students in a dorm room or one in a co-working space, you never know where the next Facebook or Google will come from.
But one place of origin is the mystical “garage”. The founding myth of many well-known American technology giants took their start in a garage. Hewlett Packard was founded in 1939 in Palo Alto in a garage. Or Google, Apple and others. Even today, they still exist, these garage startups. I visited one of them a few years ago with a German TV crew, and here we see how tightly packed this team sat together, working on the realization of their idea right next to the barbecue and sun chairs in the garden. And yes, this start-up was successful, they were bought just a few months later.
While garage startups are commonplace in the U.S., they don’t exist here. Why is that? That probably has to do with German thoroughness once again. What a garage can be used for is precisely regulated. Almost every federal state has a garage ordinance in which the equipment and the intended use are precisely prescribed. According to the usage ordinances, it is not permissible to set up a garage as a tinkering cellar, as the storage of flammable liquids such as paint or oil, for example, does not comply with the protection regulations. Garages may only be used for parking cars and car accessories. In any case, it cannot be used as a hobby cellar or rehearsal room for a rock band. Not to mention using a garage as an office, as in the case of the start-up in the picture above. Neither is there enough space for individual employees, nor is light and ergonomics guaranteed. In Germany, this garage would very quickly be a case for the cadi.
The first regulation on the use of garages was issued in Germany in the same year that HP was founded: 1939. The running gag that something is invented in the USA, copied in China and regulated in Europe is therefore not an invention of the recent past. Violations of the regulation can be punished with up to 500 euros.
Wolfgang Schleich, at any rate, took his American colleague’s question to heart. Together with partners from industry and research, he is setting about implementing his field of research, in which a huge team wants to build the German quantum computer. Not in a garage, of course, but we can be sure that there will be regulation for it very soon.