Germany’s tech scene is growing fast. Get up to speed on the latest developments in banking, healthcare, blockchain, and dating innovation.
by Dana Knight
I moved from NYC to Berlin two years ago during the Berlin Film Festival with just one suitcase in search of the good — preferably better — life. It was meant to be a trial, maybe a few weeks. Two years later, I’m the proud owner of a patent in digital health and a technology startup. Mine is one of around 2,500 startups vying for attention and VC investment in Berlin, which is consistently on the up: €2.2B in the first half of 2017, more than double the money previously invested.
I discovered the startup scene in Berlin through events like TOA (the most eagerly awaited tech event in the city), Techstars Startup Weekend (an intense workshop for first time entrepreneurs who go from idea to prototype in 48h), NOAH Conference, StartupNight, Disrupt Berlin, Hub, StartupBootcamp, as well as my own participation in hackathons such as Hacking Health Berlin. These are great for taking the pulse of the city’s creativity and tech talent.
As everywhere else in the world, Berlin founders are energetic, enthusiastic people full of exciting ideas. And, certainly, anxiety as well: will their startups survive? Startup ideas look good on paper, for sure, but so did communism! Germany is known for its risk-averse business culture, the majority of big transactions here still being made by foreign investors.
With that all said, how is Berlin performing in the global startup ecosystem? If two years ago I perceived Berlin as a pale pastiche of New York and London in terms of startup fervor and innovation culture, now things are totally different. Berlin’s baby tech scene is growing up fast. The founder culture here is maturing as quickly as the rents are going up, for reasons everyone knows: Brexit, Germany’s very open visa policy, and lower overheads.
For this article, I challenged my knowledge of the Berlin startup ecosystem with hours of FOMO-fueled research in the pages of The Hundert, Berlin Valley, CoFounder Magazine, German Startup Monitor. I also ran an informal survey amongst my tech-minded friends and even asked investors. Daniel Hoepfner from b10, a boutique company builder that sees about 1,000 pitch decks every year, mentioned Get-It-Done, mHealth, Legalhero.
To mention all the names, the list would be rather long and drier than the German sense of humor. To narrow it down is an ever-changing task, since I’m constantly inundated with news of fresh startups forming through the events I attend regularly. For example…
Only the other day I was at the official launch of Kontist, a FinTech startup that offers banking services to freelancers with realtime tax calculation, automated bookkeeping and an expense management-minded Mastercard. Their product can help you escape the “tax trap”: the account automatically sets aside your income tax and value-added tax on revenues and stores them in virtual sub-accounts.
And with freelancers being the future of work, it’s no surprise that Kontist already secured €2 million in seed funding and it’s becoming very popular in Berlin. The startup has its own venue in Mitte, where they organise events every day of the week. So if you’re ever in town, pay them a visit, they are a very welcoming bunch and Olla Jongerius, the community manager can give you tips on cross-cultural communication and doing business with the Germans.
Apart from Kontist, here’s a colourful selection of Berlin startups, from two of my most beloved to the most provocative, at the time of writing.
Europe’s first digital bank offers an unparalleled user experience
N26 is a breath of fresh air compared to traditional banks. I still remember my surprise at how easy it was to open an account: you download the N26 app, fill in your name and other basic info, then a representative calls to verify your identity. I was simply asked to wave my British passport in front of the phone’s camera for the boats and sun ray glyphs on my passport to show. Done!
N26 offers many financial services in one app. You can run your entire financial life from your phone without all the bureaucracy and the paperwork. You get realtime notifications every time you make a purchase. And you can draw out cash for free, up to five times a month, from any ATM, which in Berlin comes very handy.
N26 is launching in the US mid 2018 with new features tailored to the US market. In the long-term, N26 plans on building a FinTech hub with more services to become the one-stop shop for all its customers’ financial needs.
I asked Valentin Stalf, one of the cofounders, why they decided to move to Berlin. He said that when N26 was founded in Vienna in 2013, there weren’t many VCs around. Berlin was decisively better in terms of access to investors and also for recruiting, and the move has proven to be a very good one.
A seriously smart AI doctor with a charming bedside manner
Supported by a sophisticated AI engine and curated medical knowledge base, the beautifully designed health app Ada is your intelligent personal health assistant. It offers feedback on symptoms, and even goes as far as presenting a differential diagnosis. I tried to test its medical thinking. To my surprise, I couldn’t mislead it.
You can hook up Ada with Alexa for a hands-free user experience. Will this kind of smart technology replace GPs in the future? It’s possible. At the moment, Ada augments doctors by providing decision support.
With such an ambitious vision driving its development, it’s no surprise that Ada is one of the best funded startups in Berlin, having recently raised a $47M funding round led by Access Industries, Len Blavatnik’s global investment group.
Democratized access to tokenized assets on the blockchain
It’s often claimed that Berlin is a crypto capital of the world, and Manuel Gonzalez Alzuru’s crypto workshop at Cube last week intrigued me. He introduced the startup Brickblock, which uses tokenization, blockchain technology and smart contracts to revolutionise the real estate market.
With the BrickBlock model, you can imagine tokens as the electronic equivalent of shares. As SingularDTV supporters are likely already aware, blockchain makes it possible to buy, sell or trade these electronic tokens and assets with less friction. This eliminates entry barriers and geographical restrictions, allowing, for example, investors to buy real estate in markets they might have previously been excluded from. It also means lower costs and increased tradability: Brickblock’s PoA (that’s Proof of Asset) tokens can be bought/sold/traded on the secondary market.
Brickblock is definitely one to watch in the blockchain space, having just completed the private alpha sale of the world’s first tokenized real estate asset. At the end of Q1, 2018, Brickblock aims to publicly sell the world’s first tokenized real estate asset. This will allow you to buy tokenized shares of an apartment in one of Germany’s hottest real estate markets. A world first, happening here in Berlin!
Dating as a Service from a woman-led startup
This month’s GTEC-organised Women’s Day Breakfast at WeWork Berlin was one to remember as it introduced me to a very provocative dating concept: paid dates.
Ohlala’s CEO, Pia Poppenreiter, conceived the service with a view to improve on flaws that other dating apps fall into. First, in-app chats that go nowhere, creating a sense of frustration for customers on a tight schedule. Second, expectation management. In tune with the culture of transparency, Ohlala prompts you to be upfront and clear about what you want. In this way, no one gets hurt. Or screwed for that matter. If you don’t want to have sex on your date, you say it from the outset. If you want to bring a third (perhaps a chaperone?), you can suggest that as well. Dinner, Love, Pay. Wrongly labelled as the “Uber for escorts,” Ohlala’s users extend beyond that.
If the concept makes you uncomfortable, think of Iota’s vision for the future: Everything as a service. If fairly soon you’ll be able to lease your belongings effortlessly in real-time (appliances, tools, drones, eBikes, resources such as computer storage, WiFi), why not lease your other assets (your lovely smile, your lively company), instead of having them taken for granted in a loving relationship? I may be playing the devil’s advocate here, but Ohlala perfectly sums up Berlin’s anarchic spirit, which permeates its startup culture, provoking you to keep an open mind to all kinds of ideas
History has moulded Berlin into an experimental and alternative space where free thinkers, libertarians and cypherpunks are building open source and distributed technologies that are challenging the status quo and the elites.
Based on the rapid growth seen in recent years, the diversity of the ecosystem and the fact that there’s still less competition here than in the US or Asia, Germany’s leading startup scene is definitely one to watch as it has all the ingredients it needs to nourish the next uni-and-decacorns.