Jörg Rheinboldt has been working in the Berlin tech and startup scene since 1999, way before most people knew a ‘scene’ existed. He co-founded Alando.de in 1999 alongside the Samwer brothers (which was sold to eBay shortly afterwards for $43 million USD) and became managing director at eBay Germany before going to pursue other entrepreneurial ventures, such as Betterplace.org.
Nowadays, Rheinboldt heads the Axel Springer Plug and Play Accelerator, an early-stage startup accelerator that launched in 2013 as a joint venture between German media juggernaut Axel Springer and Silicon Valley’s Plug and Play Tech Center. “I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life,” he told me modestly, “This is the first job in my life where I’m working for a company that I didn’t start myself, which is an interesting but good experience.”
Three times a year, the accelerator selects 8-12 startups for their 100-day long program and offers workshops, mentoring as well as 25,000 € in funding and office space. In return, the startups give up 5 percent of their company shares to the accelerator. As we walk through its home base in Berlin-Mitte, Rheinboldt also gives me a thorough tour of the art pieces scattered around the office. A Persian carpet embellished by strategic cutouts that look like a happy face. A ping pong ball housed in glass box that has apparently travelled to many places courtesy of the artist. Many of the works are from artists who participated in Axel Springer Plug and Play’s artist-in-residence program, a rare – and refreshing – addition to a startup accelerator.
We recently caught up with Jörg to chat about the challenge of connecting startups with corporations, the role of art for the accelerator and what he looks for in a startup.
As more and more businesses race towards digitalization, the question begs: How can startups and corporates work better together in a way that’s mutually beneficial?
It’s a huge challenge. Even with our parent company, Axel Springer, it’s been a huge challenge. What makes these times so special is that digital transformation is a huge topic for everyone, everywhere. It’s not only about transforming the business models of classic companies or new companies, it’s also present in our lives. We all have to deal with it whether you want to or not.
Related to this, bridging the gap between startups and corporates seems to be a hot topic in the tech world. Is it a point of focus for the accelerator program?
That’s super tricky because it’s not relevant for all startups. We always like when that works out, but there’s no need for any of the startups we invest in to work with Axel Springer or the some 200 companies Axel Springer consists of or any of the other partners. If that works it’s fine, if not I think the companies can and will still be very successful. However, for the ones who can benefit from it, we try to to build bridges between them and the corporates so they can work together without hugging each other to death.
It’s very interesting to see a startup accelerator also running an artist-in-residence program in parallel. Why did you decide to incorporate this part into it?
I think it’s super important. Before we moved in here, the space was an artists workshop. Before that, it was the emergency newsroom of BILD Zeitung. From the beginning, we thought having artists around would be good for everyone – for the artist and for the startups. Since we launched, we’ve always had an artist in residence. Basically, we did a handshake deal with Eigen + Art Lab in the beginning and said, ‘We’ll learn something about art and you’ll learn something about startups.’
What makes the Axel Springer Plug & Play accelerator program different from all the other ones in Berlin?
There are a lot of accelerators in Berlin, but what makes this place special is that we actually do a lot of business. We have invested into 91 companies and more than a half of them have been able to raise follow-up financing. We continue to invest in companies even if they find follow-on investors.
Also, we don’t think in verticals. If you were to ask me, I’d say we like to invest in digital customer-centric business models. I think our focus will always be more horizontal because these kinds of models work across industries. In the beginning we always thought we should invest into media-related verticals or companies that came from content advertising, etc. but we’ve learned that we can also invest in other verticals – like mobility, travel, leisure and consumer goods – because our network is super vast and a lot of big corporations are accessible to us through our parent companies and our startups. That’s something that we learned over time.
For startups interested applying to Axel Springer Plug & Play accelerator programs, do you have any tips on how to increase their chances of being accepted?
What we look for is pretty obvious – excellent teams with scaleable ideas that have the right timing. The team is the most important part of it, then comes the idea, then timing.