© Brooke Cagle / Unsplash

17 January 2022

K.I.E.Z, Germany’s first sponsorship programme especially for Artificial Intelligence gets off to a start

Setting-up AI-companies in Berlin with close ties to science is taken to the next level as from now: The newly established AI-excellence programme of the Berlin University Alliance brings together the top of the very best. The service offer of K.I.E.Z (Künstliche Intelligenz Entrepreneurship Zentrum – Artificial Intelligence Entrepreneurship Centre) comprises the overall innovation chain in order to support young AI-enterprises on their way to Unicorns: “From identifying founding potentials within AI-research, to targeted support during the Incubation phase right up to an AI-Accelerator-Programme”, summarises Dr. Tina Klüwer, Head of K.I.E.Z. and co-founder of parlamind.

At present there is still a fairly small group of start-ups within the new Berlin K.I.E.Z.: The AI-sales platform Creatext, carrying out automatic researches of potential customers and setting up hyper-personalised sales messages, is also part of this as is Green Fusion, which digitalises and optimises energy systems thanks to an AI-based energy management software to save energy and resources. They have access to events, can exchange experiences with the AI-Community of the Berlin AI Campus, and actively support in particular pilot companies to identify AI-specific requirements. Altogether “five promising start-ups were selected”, explains Klüwer. They represent a bandwidth of business models and product offers and are also in different phases of their entrepreneurial development. These five start-ups are considered only the start of a growing community.

Raising start-ups in close relation to science to the next level

K.I.E.Z. - the nationwide first sponsorship programme for AI start-ups - opened its gates end of November 2021. This is the first initiative focussed on one subject of  “Science & Start-ups“, the consortium of founding centres of consortium partners of the Berlin University Alliance (BUA) – Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Technische Universität Berlin as well as the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin”. The project is realised in close cooperation with the Berlin Institute for Foundations of Learning and Data (BIFOLD) – a beacon for AI-research nationwide. As of 2022 it will be set up permanently as the National AI-Competence Centre. “Within the section of AI research, Berlin is at a top level. However, the technology transfer does not look quite as good: Considerable action is required here”, explains computer linguist Klüwer, why the initiative is focussing on Artificial Intelligence.

Dr. Tina Klüwer, Head of K.I.E.Z © Dr. Tina Klüwer

From Incubator to Accelerator

To start with, the so-called K.I.E.Z. Incubator supports experts on their way to establishing a new AI-enterprise. “It supplements the general offer of foundations of Science & Start-ups especially for foundations in the sector of Artificial Intelligence”, according to Klüwer, who set up herself the successful ‘parlamind’ - an AI-start-up - in 2016. It is supported by the existing offer of the four partner Incubators - Profund Innovation of the Freie Universität Berlin, Centre for Entrepreneurship of the Technische Universität Berlin, Humboldt Startup-Programme of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the BIH Innovation of the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. The principle is quite simple: Following a ‘Scouting phase’, where the innovation managers identify and acquire potentially successful founders and ideas in a ‘pre-seed-stadium’ at the universities, the start-ups enter into the ‘Incubator’ phase and with its support are now able to apply for public funding such as the EXIST- founder grants or prepare a business plan. “The founding centres focus above all on the ‘Seed phase’ that is accompanying young entrepreneurs right from the first business idea to the foundation of an enterprise“, says the 40-year-old expert. “However, experience has shown that support is needed beyond the founding stage to guarantee a sustainable success of the science-based start-up.“

Individual approach to funding

And this is exactly what the K.I.E.Z. Accelerators – set up at the AI Campus Berlin - want to achieve: It is here where the most promising AI-start-ups from the founding centres are to be promoted individually and in a targeted way during their growing phase. “The application process is divided into two parts: The first application phase is a written application via the K.I.E.Z.-website“, explains Tina Klüwer. “The most promising ones are selected from the received applications and invited to attend a Pitch-Event before a jury.” In order to take part in the programme, criteria such as the relevance of AI for the main product / business model play a role, but also classic criteria such as scalability of the business model and market potential. It is also important “that the product addresses a clear cut problem”. K.I.E.Z. offers an extensive service package for the participating start-ups. If a young company may need office space or requires mentoring by an AI-expert within the scope of the ‘AI Academy’, then the service package “Growth Foundation” is exactly the right thing for them. The “Growth Hacks“- package in turn concentrates on supporting Marketing, PR, Sales or Product Development. “For us it is important to discuss with the founders where exactly they have a need for support and information and what their immediate challenges are. It is here that we want to start individually”, according to the expert, who had been working as a scientist at the Deutsche Forschungszentrum für Künstliche Intelligenz (DFKI) [German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence] at the  Universität Bonn and the Freie Universität in Berlin for ten years. “Obtaining access to sponsors is certainly an important subject as is the access to sales markets or the recruiting of experts.“ While it is always possible to apply for the Incubator, the application phases for the 6-months‘ Accelerator take place twice per year: Beginning of January to the end of February, with a start in April and beginning of July to the end of August with a start in October. The number of participating enterprises per phase is restricted to six start-ups, that is twelve start-ups per year. At the end of the programme they give a final presentation in the presence of venture capitalists and other partners from the industry in order to sound out a potential future cooperation. However, cooperation and exchange are not only part of the final presentation but take place during all innovation phases. “It is important and helpful for our start-ups to enter into personal exchange with equal-minded founders“, says Klüwer, happy to have found the ideal location at the AI Campus Berlin.  “This place offers us top modern office space directly in the centre of Berlin and at the same time the opportunity to connect with a vibrant AI-founder community.“

Berlin: Pioneer for Germany

Not only the participating start-ups benefit from K.I.E.Z., but also the whole of the Berlin AI-eco system. “I am very happy about the approval for the pilot project of the Berlin University Alliance. This success underlines the considerable innovation potential of our excellence consortium and is at the same time an important module for the strategic further development of the AI-eco system in the start-up metropolis Berlin. The students and researches at the Berlin University Alliance definitely play a central role in this”, underlines Berlin’s mayor, Michael Müller, the importance of the project in a press release. This programme is integrated into the further development of the Berlin AI-strategy and is supported and co-financed by the State of Berlin with 6.85 million Euros over four years.  The fact that even the Federal Ministry of Economics is involved in this project shows the potential of K.I.E.Z. going well beyond Berlin: The funding programme located in Berlin is the first of several nationwide model projects for more foundations within the AI-sector.