Matthias Ruhri is the Head of the Company Builder program at the Graz Up To Eleven accelerator. This is not a typical startup accelerator nor a VC fund, but rather "a company builder for startups with high ambitions", says Ruhri. They are usually the first institutional investor and work hand in hand with startups to prepare them for international breakthrough, with no time limit to their cooperation with the startups. This year they have joined forces with the PODIM Conference to connect with startups from the Alps-Adriatic region.
What are the most important aspects of managing the Company Builder at Up To Eleven (UT11) accelerator?
First, we are not a typical accelerator. We invest in or create startups in a long-term relationship. My main task is to enhance the visibility of Up to Eleven and the Company Builder program
. Therefore, you often find me at startup and entrepreneurship events. The scouting for potential Company Builder startups is crucial for the concept. It’s our aim to incubate one to two startups per year to make them ready for an international breakthrough.
What kind of companies do you at UT11 have in your portfolio and how do you choose the startups to invest in? How many startups have you invested in so far?
At the moment, we support three startups in our Company Builder. First, there is Nuki
, the 21st century alternative to your physical key, founded in 2014. It’s the first smart door lock made for Eurozone with Internet connectivity. Nuki consists of a key-turner mounted on your existing door lock, a Nuki bridge connected to a power plug near your door and apps for iOS & Android. The startup is tremendously successful and is expanding into more and more countries in Western Europe, starting with all Benelux countries and then followed by the UK, Spain and Italy. Instahelp
, founded in 2015 and another Company Builder startup, is a platform for psychological online counseling and an alternative to offline mental health services. It connects people with experienced psychologists and offers the possibility of receiving anonymous and chat-based counseling at any time on their computer, tablet or smartphone. Instahelp helps clients (B2C & B2B) by giving preventative advice to avoid serious problems. And then there is our newest project Logoshuffle
. Logoshuffle is a powerful automated logo builder, which allows anyone to generate infinite logo designs customized to your preferred brand name, tagline, font and color scheme. You only have to enter a brand name, tagline and preferred color scheme. Within seconds, the site generates a set of logos for the user to choose from. So you see there’s a big variety of concepts, industries and ideas.
UT11 is known for its hands-on approach when it comes to working and investing in startups. Can you share with us what are the amounts you invest into startups and under what conditions?
We are usually the first institutional investor in a startup and often take the lead in an investment round. The startup investments vary depending on the level of risk and the dynamic of growth. There is no fully pre-set participation model at Up to Eleven. Because we are no simple VC company, neither a simple startup accelerator program nor a simple incubator. We are a company builder for startups with high ambitions. There is no limited period of time during which startups can use our services. We focus on long-term cooperation with reliable partners rather than quick and profitable exits. Inquiries for the company builder should correspond with our requirements profile: at least one digital component, international scalability and a functioning business model.
UT11 was founded 5 years ago. How has the startup ecosystem in the region developed in the last few years?
The startups and the initiatives in the small local startup scene of Graz are well connected with one another. This allows a quick and easy exchange of experiences and new potential solutions, which is fantastic. This exchange takes place, for example, at the monthly regular’s table “Startup Spritzer
” and many other networking events. Also, the quality of life in Graz is high. The four universities, two universities of applied sciences and two university colleges of teacher education, offer enormous brainpower. A small but excellent scene has been established where the leading players in the scene talk with each other. Personal interests, attitudes and sensitivities are put aside for a good cause, which is great. There is still some potential for improvement here and there but we move in the right direction.
Why have the founders of UT11, as well as you, decided to take up an active role in helping to boost the startup ecosystem?
The answer is simple: There are a lot of amazing startups in Graz by now. Timeular
recently started the delivery of its innovative Kickstarter-funded time tracking device. I am happy about the progress of Timeular as I was able to support them at a very early stage at the term-long university course “Gründungsgarage
”. Also other startups like Studo
(organization app for students), Doro Turbine
(turbine for small-scale hydropower) and HADIapp
(online platform for service companies and craftspeople) show that it’s worth investing in support for young founders. Whether it is the organization of startup events (Startup Playground at Fifteen Seconds Festival
in cooperation with IdeenTriebwerk Graz) or the invitation of startups to expert founder workshops of the UT11 Academy. The magic happens when we foster a “give back” mentality and start to give back something to the startup community. Nothing but good has come of it.
This year, UT11 have partnered with the PODIM Conference, in order to expand your activities further into the Alps-Adriatic/Balkan region and connect with startups beyond Austrian borders. Can you tell us more about this?
We have seen a lot of startup ideas from Austria and we have a good in-depth understanding of what happens in the regional startup scene. But our ambitions are bigger. We want to attract the region’s best brains around Up to Eleven to establish a digital founder scene that is successful internationally. A bigger region means more potential. Startups from the Alps-Adriatic and Balkan regions such as Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and many more are very welcome to apply for our Company Builder.
Can you already share what would be your conditions for investing in a non-Austrian startup, if you come across interesting ones? (What industry, would they have to relocate to Austria, etc.)
The conditions are basically the same. We are open to all industries where mobile and digital technologies are the connecting elements in the respective business models. We are a company builder with experts in fields such as Marketing, ASO/SEO, Product & App Development, with office and IT infrastructure and access to extensive networks. Our concept is based around founders who can focus on taking the business forward and we will do the rest (administrative and legal activities like finance, HR, IT and more). So it is recommended that the startup is based in Graz at the latest when the startup is incubated in our Company Builder.
UT11 works closely with startups and corporates. What are the main synergies between startups and corporates that you see?
Startups drive innovation at a much faster pace than is possible in a corporate environment. Long-lasting businesses have strong know-how in specific industries. Startups can help transform their business by adding a digital skillset. In a strong partnership, the strengths of each party are multiplied.
Do the corporates recognize the opportunities that arise from cooperation with startups and vice-versa?
I know that there are still a lot of synergies between corporates and startups that are undiscovered or not encouraged. Corporates can be powerful partners in a startup ecosystem. One year ago, two big companies got in touch with us with the idea to create and grow joint ventures. This was kind of surprising as we were positioning ourselves exclusively as a Startup Company Builder and didn’t even think about building a Corporate Company Builder. In both tracks – Startup and Corporate Company Builder –, we as Up to Eleven want to provide our resources and our know-how, customized, flexible and personal.
European startups often believe that they are at a disadvantage compared to their US peers. What are the advantages of European startups that you see based on your experience with accelerating startups in UT11?
The difference between Europe and the US lies in a different mindset. We “think way too small". The whole ecosystem in the US has a more entrepreneurial attitude toward taking risks. Sure, there are advantages European startups could have. It’s positive that the tech human capital is well-educated and the life quality is high.
How can various subjects of startup ecosystems in neighboring countries (e.g. Austria and Slovenia) form partnerships to contribute to the development of startups and the ecosystem in the region?
Every single event, course or partnership counts. You don't know what happens after an international startup get-together in e.g. Maribor, Trieste or Graz. Unfortunately, events like these still happen too seldom. But we should be careful with blaming the regional governments. There is some political movement in terms of startups in Austria. And I don't want to bash politicians because we're responsible for our own and personal ecosystems. Bottom-up initiatives are more powerful than the ones from top-down. That’s why we want to encourage international exchange a little more.
What are, according to your experience, the most important factors for a startup's success?
A team that is inhomogeneous but compatible. Management skills are crucial for startup success. Strong partners like mentors, BAs, Investors. And lastly – making use of the wealth of insight, knowledge and advice from real founders.
For the end – what advice would you give to startups?
I’m convinced that real startup founders are not satisfied by only building one startup. Maybe the first startup you found is going through the roof. Maybe not. The crucial thing here is to believe in yourself and to assess your own strengths and abilities accurately. Nowhere else is the learning curve as steep as in a startup environment. Find the right partners and go up to eleven ;)