Research often leads to solutions for practice. The University of Vienna is following a successful path to implement academic results in an entrepreneurial and lucrative way – an interview with Dr. Irene Fialka.
Mrs. Fialka, you are the head of INiTS Universitäres Gründerservice Wien GmbH. How does the High-Tech Incubator work?
Since 2002, we have been supporting academics in the exploitation of research results by founding innovative start-ups. We are open to spin-offs from all academic and R&D institutions in Vienna. Every year, over 200 teams from a wide range of disciplines apply for the few places in the AplusB Scaleup incubation programme. We accept up to 20 start-up teams into the incubator and not only offer them intensive training and advice, but also selectively invest up to EUR 100,000 in seed capital. We also have START:IP, a programme for founders who still lack a business idea. Here we select usable technologies from universities, but also companies that remain in the drawer without a founding personality. For the owners of the intellectual property, it increases the probability of exploitation and uses dormant potential. For the entrepreneurs, START:IP may provide a basis for a more sustainable Deetech business idea.
Which start-ups are supported?
The focus of the SCALEup programme is on highly innovative, technology-driven early-stage start-up ideas, often before they are founded. They all have an academic background, have a strong growth perspective and need a lot of capital for technology development. We only accept start-ups into the incubator that are also based in Vienna or plan to conquer the world from here. In the Health Hub Vienna, on the other hand, we work with startups from all over the world. They need to offer ready-made solutions to accelerate the urgently needed change in healthcare in Austria and Europe. Our “youngest” programme is validate.global. Here, together with ADA and impact hub vienna, we pursue the goal of supporting start-ups from Europe whose technologies address one or more SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) in accessing markets, e.g. in Africa, the Middle East or other developing countries. These are difficult markets, but we cannot ignore them when it comes to these global goals.
What is your success rate?
A great comparison of the success rate was provided by the Joanneum Research study, in which our incubated start-ups were compared with a peer group of start-ups with the same industry distribution. Our alumni are better in all relevant factors: 80% survival rate after 7 years (vs. 50% in the comparison group). In the 5th year, INiTS alumni employ an average of 12 employees compared to just under 2 in companies that did not go through the incubation programme; after 10 years, there are already 10 times as many. They are also much better in terms of turnover growth and export rate. According to UBI-global, a global comparison of university business incubators (UBIs), our startups manage to raise 12 times as much capital as the incubated startups of all UBIs worldwide on average.
From your experience, what is important for startups to be successful?
At the very beginning, there is the will to just go for it and try it out. Running blindly into an adventure is of course not advisable, but if you hesitate too long, the market may have already moved on. You have to be fast and able to make quick decisions! Start-ups are successful when they really focus on the problems and the willingness to pay of their customers and especially develop new technologies not at a desk / in a laboratory, but very intensively in exchange with their target groups. We have been using LEAN Startup and other methods for many years, which every start-up team can also use themselves. Often, however, an additional, neutral view from outside and experience are needed so that not every mistake is made by the team itself. Another success factor is of course the team, the more diverse, the more successful.
How do you work as CEO?
At INiTS we also have a diverse team. Leading such a team is more strenuous, but it pays off to treat each person individually and to use the strengths of each employee in the best possible way. I myself set clear goals for myself and my colleagues and pursue them as long as there is no reason to believe that things might be going in the wrong direction. Sometimes it is necessary to recognise this and to revise decisions. It is important to learn from such mistakes and not lose sight of the big goal. I give the rough strategy, the guidelines, the team can often decide the how, what and when much better themselves.
How do you judge the quality of your work as CEO?
Apart from clear goals (e.g. financial goals, but also the number of applications), which we usually achieve together, the satisfaction of my colleagues is a decisive criterion for me. Of course, it’s not always a walk in the park, but on the whole it seems to fit: we have many long-standing employees who are passionate about working at INiTS. Many former employees still like to come back to our summer parties. Especially in times of crisis, the quality of work as a manager is put to the test. INiTS is in a better position today than ever before, and 2020 was not the only crisis. I think I did a lot of things right. But you can only do that if the team is behind you and behind the mission.
What are the most difficult challenges for you in your role as CEO?
A big personal challenge is to part with employees. In the 2020/2021 pandemic, there were also the many uncertainties, the many personal concerns and individual situations that had to be dealt with, plus the 100% home office. Decisions had to be made, but also changed in an unbelievably fast pace due to the change. I even took on female employees during that time – I would never have imagined that before. But as a CEO, you often have to try something completely new.
What are your future goals for Inits?
INiTS was founded to manage a programme where a market failure had to be covered with public funding. This early stage of high-tech start-ups will remain our core business. We are good at that and there is still a lot of potential that we want to tap, especially in areas where there are still many problems to be solved, such as the global goals, e.g. the worldwide problem of climate change. An important topic is the mission to see more women in technology. For us, female founders of technology start-ups are particularly relevant, the topic of female entrepreneurship. Today, 1/3 of the entrepreneurs admitted to INiTS are female, and almost half of the start-ups are founded in mixed teams. This means that we are already better than average. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of room for improvement. We have also decided to be entrepreneurial ourselves and realise growth potential by founding a 100% subsidiary. A very exciting combination with the non-profit approach of INiTS.
INiTS was founded in 2002 by the University of Vienna, the Vienna University of Technology and the Vienna Business Agency with the aim of promoting the exploitation of R&D results through spin-offs and start-ups in the academic environment. As a University Business Incubator (UBI), INiTS has been repeatedly selected as one of the world’s best university incubators by UBI Global since 2013.
About the person
Dr. Irene Fialka has been managing director of INiTS Universitäres Gründerservice Wien GmbH since 2012. Since 2018, she has been building up the Health Hub Vienna as Managing Director with Uniqa as a partner and many other partners. Previously, she worked in biomedical research.