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Harnessing the power of startup innovation against war and crisis

In the Ukrainian city of Lviv, sirens are howling outside while Oleksandr Rudyak sits inside, conferencing online with Professor Andreas König about his mater's thesis. And both have an idea that builds on a novel approach developed by the entrepreneur Gregor Gimmy.

A student in Passau writing his master's thesis about digital platforms and setting up one himself. That in itself would be newsworthy at a university aspiring to becoming a university of founders.

But Oleksandr Rudyak's story is even more extraordinary. The platform he is working on together with a handful of other startup enthusiasts goes by the name of Startup Impact Garage. Garage does not quite nail it – cellar or bunker would be more apt. Because while they are launching the platform, Oleksandr is staying at his small flat in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv and needs to shelter in the cellar every now and again because of the air raid sirens, or he withdraws to the windowless bathroom: the Russian troops have marched into his country and are shelling Lviv.

Up until mid-February, Oleksandr, who is called Alex, was a typical students and student assistant at the chair of Strategic Management at the University of Passau. He was just about to complete his master's degree in business administration. All the 26-year-old had left to do was to write his master's thesis. The topic had already been decided, too: He wanted to analyse the "venture client model" – a new strategic approach developed by the entrepreneur Gregor Gimmy while he was a manager at the automobile manufacturer BMW by which established companies can benefit quickly and with little risk from tech startups.

But then disturbing reports from Alex's home country became more frequent. In fear for his family, he decided to return to Lviv. His flight was scheduled for 18 February.

Russia attacked Ukraine on 24 February.

Two days later,  Alex had a Zoom meeting with his supervisor Andreas König who holds the Chair of Strategic Management, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Passau.

Oleksandr Rudyak und sein Betreuer Prof. Dr. Andreas König.

"I wanted to talk about how I should proceed with my master's thesis. Because of the war I was having a hard time concentrating on my thesis. I also wanted to do more for my country but hadn't yet decided how to go about it," says Alex as he sits in a Zoom window once again. His supervisor Andreas König has joined the conference and appears in the adjacent window: "We said to ourselves: 'Let's set up a venture client platform unit with Gregor to support Ukraine.'"

From "Startups against Corona" to "Startups against War"

Alex loved the idea. He had the essential experience and contacts. As part of his studies, he had done an internship over a period of nearly a year in Munich – with Gregor Gimmy, who had by then outsourced the startup garage idea to the BMW spin-off 27Pilots. Gimmy had launched the "Startups against Corona" initiative in the COVID pandemic – a venture client unit for the fight against COVID. Why not use the same idea but for "Startups against War" or "Startups for Ukraine"? Gimmy was won over straight away and brought other startup experts on board, notably Martin Fink and Sylvia Paersch from his team and David Zapol, a friend of his working as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. Within a week, the initial website was up and running.

Alex says: "As I follow the news, I'm overwhelmed by the willingness to help. Everyone around the world wants to help us, to support us. But as often as not, the question is: does the help actually arrive where it is needed?"

Ukraine currently has lots of problems. In Lviv, the air raid sirens go off several times a day and during the night. Aside from the air raids on the airport causing massive explosions and the shelling in the city outskirts, this large city near the Polish border has so far been spared heavy fighting. But the humanitarian crisis has reached unprecedented levels. Since the war began, Lviv has taken in 200,000 people escaping from the embattled regions. The city is facing shortages – in food, drugs and apartments. The prices for new rentals have exploded. The problems in the war regions are particularly acute.

"Of course tech startups can't come up with a solution for everything. Blankets, food – other people will do a better job when it comes to those things. But when it comes to technical problems, also those involving software, startups are often quicker in finding innovative solutions than established players. And even though the humanitarian sector may be an expert for the current problems, they often don't have technology startups on their radar," says innovation research Andreas König.

Venture clienting for the humanitarian sector

The idea of Startup Impact Garage takes the venture clienting approach. The plan behind it: The best way for established organisations to generate value with startups is to become customers of these organisations themselves and make quick and effective use of the added value that their technologies deliver – corporate venture clients instead of corporate venture capital. Explaining the approach used, Gregor Gimmy says: "Startups are particularly innovative and agile in solving the problems of established companies. A venture client platform has the goal of bringing together startups and their solutions with well-established companies and their problems."

Startup Impact Garage applies this approach to the humanitarian sector: It brings together innovation experts and well-established organisations in order to support the resolution of humanitarian issues using new technologies. The motto: Harnessing the power of startups against war and crisis.

Take the shortage of drugs, for example. Could it be due to logistical issues? That's a topic for startups. Alex knows that somewhere in this world there is a startup specialised in such issues. The algorithm delves through existing databases with thousands of startups. The team filters through the list of search results using its own experience. It shares the best search results with the organisation submitting the enquiry. Alex's team provides not only the contact details but also support and helps coordinate the initial steps towards cooperation, towards the solution.

What makes our model so delightful is that we combine algorithms with a human touch. And: If we manage to match just one hospital with a suitable startup, we've been successful.

Professor Andreas König, University of Passau

The project receives academic input from Passau. In addition to Andreas König, other management experts of the School of Business, Economics and Information Systems are involved, especially Professor Carolin Häussler, who holds the chair of Organisation, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, as well as Professor Albrecht Enders from the International Institute for Management and Development (IMD) in Lausanne. The team is currently in talks with international aid organisations. On the Ukrainian side, talks with non-governmental organisations and political decision-makers are under way.

Both Alex and his supervising professor are amazed by the dynamics and growth the project has seen. Andreas König: "What makes our model so delightful is that we combine algorithms with a human touch. And: If we manage to match just one hospital with a suitable startup, we've been successful."

Prof. Dr. Andreas König

Professor Andreas König

researches organisational change and executives’ personalities and communications

How do established organisations and their leaders respond to the discontinuities that emerge with digitalisation?

How do established organisations and their leaders respond to the discontinuities that emerge with digitalisation?

Professor Andreas König holds the Chair of Strategic Management, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship and is deputy spokesperson of the DFG Research Training Group 2720: "Digital Platform Ecosystems (DPE)" at the University of Passau. His research output is published in leading international journals such as Administrative Science Quarterly, the Academy of Management Review and Research Policy.

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