On February 8, 2018, Germany’s brightest innovators met in Bielefeld to chart a digital future together with leadership from some of the hidden champions of the nation’s economy. This first-time conference called “Hinterland of Things” connected industry, SMEs, and startups in the Ostwestfalen-Lippe region, otherwise known as “OWL”. The conference triggered new knowledge-sharing and collaborative partnerships vital to both the region, and Germany's economic future.


Multiple Meanings

The invitation-only conference hosted by the progressive Founders Foundation and guided by the progressive ‘Mittelstand’ in and around Bielefeld, sparked dialogue around the power of blockchain, IoT, and digitalization to transform the German business ecosystem, with special focus on the diverse methodologies behind innovation. Mittelstand is a term that extends beyond its literal meaning of small and medium sized enterprises to now imply an approach by many family-owned German business with long-standing traditions in engineering.

Another layered aspect is the conference's name itself: Hinterland of Things refers to both a provincial space and the Internet of Things (IoT), where network or cloud-connected devices can be remotely monitored to increase insights and productivity. In this case, the hinterland is OWL with Bielefeld considered the seat of Industry 4.0. It is home to successful German companies like Miele, Oetker, Bertelsmann, Seidensticker, Claas & Co.

Although these companies are internationally successful and highly productive, they have not yet been fully recognized for their forward-thinking approach to digitalisation and IoT. Giving the stage to such local champions was very intentional; the conference drew attention to the powerhouses of the region, and planted seeds of possibilities to engage the agility of nearby startups to grow OWL’s global footprint.

The ultimate goal of the conference, according to Founders Foundation CEO Sebastian Borek, was to mix just the right people to generate connectivity and meaningful discussion around innovation, competition, and digital strategies. This meant including not only speakers from well-known, established companies like EY and XING, but also from those above-mentioned mid-size German companies, along with startups from the region, who were ready to pitch their ideas.

The event spotlighted developments in OWL and created a day-long think-tank to explore what innovative business are doing, what hurdles need to be overcome in the digital age, and how to establish a unique identity and path forward for the region – distinct from Silicon Valley, New York, or even Berlin– already recognized as hotspots for startup activity.

german innovation discussion

iot innovation in Germany

Something for Everyone

Over 250 guests met to discover and enable technologies supporting this ecosystem of ventures and makers. Attendees were evenly split among startups, corporates/investors, community, and stakeholders – including CEOs, board members, founders, investors, researchers and media representatives.

To engage each of these target audiences, the day was divided into different sections: Leaders & Makers Conference, Startup_X, and Leaders & Disrupters Night. Panels, speakers, tables, networking, and entertainment offered opportunities to exchange ideas, learn about different forms of AI, discuss robotics, VC harnessing data to improve your business, as well as adopting best practices in customer engagement. An open exhibition area encouraged visitors to test products and technologies showcased by the OWL region’s startups.

“Whoever learns fastest, wins.”

Amazon, Apple, and Google still pose the biggest competition here in Germany. What can German companies and startups do to innovate and compete on a global scale? What lessons can we share to learn faster together?

Chris Boos, angel investor, Founder and CEO of leading AI German company Arago, spoke to this. While exploring 3 types of AI, he delivered some tips on human empowerment and how to integrate machine reasoning and learning.

  • Good service still means being and behaving like a good person.
  • Machines do not have human-like brains. What machines can do is categorize or sort information, but they don’t ‘understand’ things. Humans have extensive neuronal connections and chemical systems of exchange and that is exponentially more complex and more multifaceted than machines.
  • AI and Data Protection do not contradict each other.
  • Use data better to improve your business.

Maximilian Viessmann, CEO and Member of the Board of the Veissmann Group, wants us to change our mindset. Apart from creating living spaces for future generations which are mindful of climate and energy, his group also invests in deep tech through venture capital funds and company builders. Max shared his learnings:

  • Entrepreneurship is dependent on a setting that supports trust and bravery.
  • Authenticity means be true to yourself but value ideas from those surrounding you. Include the opinions of those ‘5 guys in the garage’.
  • Flip Hierarchies: Ask “How can I support YOU?”
  • Sufficient communication is never achieved; keep working on it.
  • Organizational change starts with changing your attitude, then your behavior.

Germany’s IoT Innovation (R)evolution

Bielefeld is known to be the center of IoT evolution in Germany. So it made perfect sense to invite NBT as a representative of Germany’s IoT de:hub. During the conference, NBT’s Head of Corporate Partnerships, Falco Schütt, spoke during a table discussion entitled ‘Blockchain: Revolution or Hype?’ He focused on solutions of how to bridge the gap between the old economy and new technologies.

Falco proposed that “blockchain offers the unique opportunity for companies of this region to leap ahead. From medtech to foodtech, regulatory compliance in production and the supply chain could be fueled by this technology, insuring never-before-seen transparency.”

As a Berlin-based IoT company builder, NBT offers a complete framework for the acceleration of IoT ventures. We promote digital transformation and IoT-driven innovation for startups and companies throughout Europe, guiding companies on the path towards digital transformation with IoT, blockchain, and business acumen.

Along with other attendees at this conference, we are interested in developing smarter solutions to real world problems. Hinterland of Things revealed how much the German business scene is maturing and how strong symbiosis between corporates, SMEs, and startups is clearly the path forward. By combining the expertise and skills of each player, we’ll all reach those solutions faster.


All Images Courtesy of Founders Foundation © 2018 

If you're looking for ways to innovated with IoT in your industry, find out how NBT's company building innovation model can help you throughout the entire process.