Is it a festival? Is it a flea market? From a glance into the grounds of an old carpet factory in Berlin’s Treptow district it’s not immediately clear. This is Berlin’s home-grown technology conference, Tech Open Air, and the place the young and the restless of Berlin’s tech scene will be calling home this week.
Live music, deck chairs, beers and burritos make for a summer party atmosphere, even if some things are held together by duct tape.
TOA is now in its fourth year. The conference, or “unconference” as it bills itself, is a platform for Berlin’s tech start-ups to hear talks and panel discussions from over 120 international speakers, artists and musicians. They can visit the “ask me anything” booths or speed-pitch to venture capital firms in the garden.
Young disruptors meet the establishment via “Back to the Future,” part of an initiative by the Berlin Senate Department for Economics, Technology and Research, which brings startups together with some of Germany’s most successful companies, such as Volkswagen, Bosch and Pfizer.
The highlights in this year’s speaker line-up include: Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of Hyperloop Transportation, the company bringing Elon Musk’s super-fast train vision to life; Robert Gentz, Co-Founder & CEO of Zalando; and Christian Hardenberg, CTO of Rocket Internet. Two people from Forbes’ list of the top 30 of under 30s, Rand Hindi from Snips and Lauren Talbot of PVLL, are also making an appearance.
“We see that we can create value if we bring technology change-makers together with more established companies.”
Representing science – and perhaps one of the most packed panel talks on Wednesday – were the robotics experts from Germany’s Max Planck Institute, University of Sheffield and ZenRobotics. They showed the audience how to train a robot and talked candidly about how real robotic “intelligence” is decades away.
TOA is growing steadily year on year, with between 4,500 and 5,000 visitors from 20-plus countries expected this year. The man behind the gathering is Nikolas Woischnik, a 35-year-old German, who worked in media, education and venture capital before setting up his own event company. He noticed that there was no event that brought together the city’s disparate start-ups.
“We’re the enablers, the platform; we wanted it to belong to the community, so we went out and did town-hall meetings at startups all over the city,” he said.
Mr. Woischnik is also the blogger behind TechBerlin, one of the few comprehensive English-language blogs about the much-discussed Berlin start-up scene. He realized that while interest from abroad was growing, it was rather impenetrable and confusing for non-German speakers to find out what was happening.
TOA, now operated by sister company Openers, builds on this, incorporating art and music disciplines to encourage entrepreneurs, developers, artists, and scientists to share knowledge. “In Berlin, the music, art and tech worlds live very isolated from the other, but they are similar types of people,” said Mr. Woischnik.
Unlike the huge, established conferences such as SXSW and TechCrunch Disrupt, this one is in its infancy. But it has its own personality and sense of community nonetheless, and is much less about polished sales presentations and more about an easy-going, almost playful approach to sharing learning and knowledge.
“The goal is to become an international platform for interdisciplinary knowledge exchange via collaboration around tech,” said Mr. Woischnik. “We see that we can create value if we bring technology change-makers together with more established companies.”
He cites Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster, as an example of the value of helping disruptors learn from the industries they are out to change. Napster’s file-sharing service did enormous damage to the music industry, but wasn’t a financial success itself in the end.
“He [Sean Parker] actually said, ‘If I had been a little bit more proactive about talking to the music industry rather than trying to destroy it, I would have founded Spotify’,” said Mr. Woischnik.
This year’s conference has secured sponsorship from online retail giant Zalando and MINI, with partners such as Red Bull, IBM and Kayak. Mr. Woischnik admits that attracting big name speakers is still a challenge. “It’s getting a little bit easier every year, but I wouldn’t say it’s an easy sell yet. We get a lot of referrals from past speakers, because they find it very special, unique and different.”
Mr. Woischnik says it is also difficult to assess how much Berlin’s tech start-ups are contributing financially to the local economy: “You can say how much the fashion industry contributes to the Berlin economy better than you can do with start-ups. If we look at companies like Zalando, I think they have three or four thousand employees in Berlin alone – and that was a tiny start up just a few years ago.”
His assessment is backed up by Berlin lawyer Oliver Ehrmann, a partner at BRL Boege Rohde Luebbehuesen / RSM, which advises start-ups and investors. “The Berlin start-up scene, in my opinion, is not part of the Berlin economy, it is focused rather on Germany or Europe, and that’s a strength,” he said, adding that people are coming from Israel, Ukraine and all over Eastern Europe to work in startups in the German capital.
Mr. Ehrmann says that while only a small percentage of Berlin start-ups make it to IPOs, they are attracting a lot of investors. “What’s missing in Berlin is the healthy local investor side, but more and more international investors are coming here. There are more ideas on the market than investment money, however, so it’s a bit unbalanced.”
The biggest hurdle for start-up entrepreneurs, according to the lawyer, is getting access to foreign investors, so they can scale their business internationally. “Startups don’t think big enough, they’re trying to keep their businesses going but not scaling enough,” he said.
Video: This is why they all love Tech Open Air Berlin.
Jill Petzinger is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. To contact the author: email@example.com