Chemistry Drives Innovation

Chemistry Drives Innovation

Author: Vera Köster, Thorsten Daubenfeld

Professor Thorsten Daubenfeld is responsible for the business chemistry study program at the Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Idstein, Germany, and was moderator of the Chemistry as Engine of Innovation workshop (Workshop Innovationsmotor Chemie) summarizing the startup landscape in the field of chemistry in Germany with its characteristics, needs, and opportunities.

Here he talks to Dr. Vera Koester for ChemViews Magazine about the state of chemical startups in Germany, their importance for innovation, and entrepreneurship in chemical training.


Why is it important to have startups in chemistry?

It is important both for the competitive environment of the chemical industry and the attractiveness of the industry from an employer’s perspective. Startup companies are usually more flexible in spotting and reacting to changing trends in the market. A sustainable competitive environment thus requires a vibrant ecosystem of startups interacting with established companies.

Figuratively speaking, ideas thrive in a startup in the same way they do in a greenhouse. Startups are more flexible and lateral thinking is easier within their structures than in big companies. It is important to quickly test what works in the market, and then adjust in the right direction. Only then can the ideas be scaled up by a big company – or to stay with the analogy – be brought to the field, where the product can then be harvested. This requires cooperation on a level playing field between large companies and startups.

Additionally, startups offer the opportunity for young graduates to take responsibility for their own company from the very beginning of their careers. This is simply impossible in large multinational companies.


What is needed to encourage the formation of startups?

To continue the analogy: we need both more seeds and more rain to get them growing. The seeds are the university graduates who should be better prepared to meet the challenges of a startup environment. The rain is the amount of venture capital, which is significantly smaller in Germany than in other regions such as the USA.


So what do you think has to change to increase the number of chemistry startups?

Some people may argue that the chemical industry in Germany is very diverse with a multitude of existing career opportunities for university graduates. Thus, many potential entrepreneurs may become “absorbed” by the existing industry environment. But I think this is only half the truth. University graduates are simply not aware of the opportunities that they have outside of classical career paths. And additionally, they are not sufficiently prepared to meet the challenging environment of a startup.

What we need is higher permeability between the academic world at universities and the dynamic world of industry startups, for example, through industrial experts giving lectures. Thus, students would be confronted much earlier with the business world and could make more informed decisions about their career path.

It is also important for universities to understand that ideas need time to mature. It is not always immediately clear whether an idea is suitable for a company spinoff. If the idea is, however, already published, a patent can no longer be applied for. We need entrepreneurial professors such as Professor Stefan Seeger at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.


What do students have to learn to become academic entrepreneurs?

Scientific knowledge in chemistry is a necessary prerequisite. Otherwise, you would not be able to evaluate the technical feasibility of any project underlying your startup. Secondly, you need a sound understanding of business fundamentals, such as how to calculate a profit or a return on an investment. Finally, students need to develop their professional skill set, such as, the ability to work in a team, flexibility, and communication skills.

In summary: your thinking should go beyond the molecule to the market!


How important is it to include economic and intellectual property courses in science studies?

Courses in economics are of crucial importance, as they give students the opportunity to learn and adapt to the approach of a completely different scientific discipline. This is an essential step toward the interdisciplinary thinking required for entrepreneurs.

Courses on intellectual property (IP) are important at any university with a strong focus on fundamental research where patents are filed regularly. An example could be the Technical Universities (TU) like Munich, Aix-en-Chapelle, or Dortmund. Universities of Applied Science (Fachhochschulen) on the other hand, which focus on applied research and are sometimes less involved in patent filing, have to judge individually whether IP courses are of relevance.


What special features, requirements, opportunities, and risks are related to founding a startup?

I never founded a startup, so I can only try to give an overview of what we see in the market. The most important features seem to be a great endurance to withstand drawbacks; flexibility to quickly adopt to changing situations; and high motivation and commitment as you typically have a 24/7 job.

Whether you see these characteristics as requirements, opportunities, or risks might already point towards your capability to become an entrepreneur. Whether someone has what it takes to be an entrepreneur lies in their personality. However, it is important that we do not stifle the openness and curiosity of such personalities during their studies with too many facts.


Where can interested students get advice/help/support? Where can they find mentors, advisors, potential investors?

Building up a broad and strong professional network is of vital importance to get early feedback from the market. The Association of Business and Chemistry (Vereinigung für Chemie und Wirtschaft, VCW) of the German Chemical Society (Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker, GDCh) is a good starting point for building up such a network.

As for investors, one can get in touch with the High-Tech Gründerfonds or with the Business Angels. Another well-established opportunity is the participation in business plan challenges such as Science4Life through which you can also strengthen your network and get professional advice on how to bring your business idea to life.


Who are good role models in your opinion?

Someone who takes responsibility by founding a startup. Let me give you a vivid example from my personal experience. A good friend of mine, Andreas Gebhard, started his business, Tribologic GmbH in Kaiserslautern in 2007. The interesting point is that he is a chemist (Dipl.-Chem.) by training, but switched his focus to mechanical engineering, materials testing, and software programming. As auxiliary skills he picked up measurement and control technology, economics, negotiation, and labor law by training on the job. Interdisciplinarity, flexibility, and motivation – all combined in one person. And, of course, there is more to his life beyond a mere startup: he is married and has three children.

Anyone dreaming about a fancy startup should first speak with someone like him – not to become disenchanted, but to come down to earth. Because this is where the magic of startups happens.


What got you interested in entrepreneurship?

I am responsible for the Business Chemistry bachelor’s and master’s course at the Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Idstein. Working together with chemistry students who embark on the voyage towards economics and the business world always gives me a vivid picture of the challenges ahead in this journey.

Connecting these two disciplines, chemistry and economics, yields many fascinating opportunities. It is a privilege for me to support and coach undergraduate students in this interdisciplinary field. Additionally, this also reflects my personal career path that led me from academic research in analytical chemistry to strategy consulting and back again.


Please tell us about your career path.

I studied chemistry in Kaiserslautern and received my doctorate from the École Polytechnique in France in 2006. At the time, I was interested in biomolecular mass spectrometry, a field that fascinates me to this day. However, after my doctorate, I wanted to get a deeper insight into the chemical industry and, therefore, joined the Duesseldorf office of The Boston Consulting Group (BCG). I had the opportunity to work together with many multinational chemical companies in the EU and the USA and get a better understanding of both the economic background necessary for successfully starting in the market as well as the inherent difficulties that arise when a chemist starts to learn this background.

In 2010, I decided to build on these experiences by training students in business chemistry.

Thorsten DaubenfeldThorsten Daubenfeld studied chemistry at the University of Kaiserslautern, Germany, and obtained his doctorate from the École Polytechnique, Palaiseau, France, in 2006. He then joined the Duesseldorf office of The Boston Consulting Group as Consultant where he was involved in strategy projects for multinational companies from the chemical industry and other industrial goods sectors. In 2010, he joined the Fresenius University of Applied Sciences, Idstein, Germany, as lecturer for physical chemistry. After receiving his professorship in 2011, he took over responsibility for the business chemistry study program.

Daubenfeld’s current research interests include strategic market analysis and development of innovative teaching methods including digital learning.



Selected Awards

  • 2014 Ars legend-Fakultätenpreis Mathematik und Naturwissenschaften (Kategorie: Chemie)
  • 2005 CEO of the future award (2nd prize)
  • 2003 Steinhofer Award (University of Kaiserslautern)

Selected Publications


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