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German Startup Changemakers: Will Fischer

Will Fischer, the Managing Partner at Voxdale, is passionate about solving the world’s hardest problems in unique ways. He’s worked in the fields of aerospace, nanotechnology, semiconductor equipment, robotics, mechatronics, consumer products, and smart furniture. He spent years working at startups and founding two of his own. Find out what is it about entrepreneurship that particularly attracts him and what advice for founders he shared with us.
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1. Hi Will, thank you for agreeing to do the interview. Could you tell us a bit about your background and how you entered the startup world?

Believe it or not, I’m a 5th generation entrepreneur! Fischers have been starting companies since the early 1900s; first in Europe, then America, now back to Europe again.  I got my start right after engineering school, going to work for my sister’s medical device startup, based on nanotechnology research from the University of California, San Francisco.  I was in the Bay Area working for that company, Nano Precision Medical, until I went to business school at Chicago Booth in 2017. 

I started my first company, D20 Robotics, while a student at Booth.  We based the company on technology that friends and I had built for fun: a robot that uses facial detection to fire a shot of alcohol into your mouth from up to 3m away.  It was fantastic to be in business school while starting a business because many of my friends were happy to help with marketing, strategy, sales, and financials.  With their help, my classes, and a lot of trial and error, I learned how to start a startup. Even though that company didn’t work out, it gave me the foundation to move to Berlin to start my second company, Rinckl. Our product, the Halo Bed, transformed a canopy bed into a sit/stand desk or free space – perfect for a small flat like mine.

2. You’re the Managing Partner at Voxdale, a design, engineering and research agency for mechanical and mechatronic applications in the automotive, medical and industrial sectors. Tell us about your role.

My role at Voxdale combines a lot of my previous experience in several regards. I’m back to my roots, so to speak, with engineering and research. I’ve already been able to work on a couple of really neat engineering projects. I’m also using my generalist mentality to help with business development, sales, and team growth. I’ve been really impressed with the calibre and integrity of the Voxdale team, both in Berlin and in their headquarters in Belgium.  It’s simultaneously humbling and flattering to get to work with them all.

Voxdale does incredible work building brand new technologies from any stage- even just an idea – to functional, usable technology. We have really smart and engaged people with skills in mechanical engineering, electronics, mechatronics, IoT, cloud and firmware development, and embedded systems. So we have the whole stack to build every kind of smart device you can think of. A huge perk is that the Belgium office has a giant workshop with the latest prototyping technologies.  We have fun in it, but also really embrace quick prototyping.

3. As you mentioned, you founded two companies: Rinckl, a smart furniture technology company & d20 Robotics, a technology company that combines robotics with alcohol to create novel experiences in the alcoholic beverage marketing and advertising space. Could you share the top 3 lessons for founders you learned through these experiences?

  • Be careful about who you choose as cofounders. I’m on good terms with all of my former cofounders, but while we may be good friends, we didn’t necessarily match as business partners. This can be for personal reasons or factors entirely outside of one’s control, like immigration visas (thanks, America).  Choose people who work as hard as you do, who want the same exit on the same timeframe, and who give and take constructive criticism well.
  • Build a product customers want, not a product you want to build. I fall into this trap sometimes. Cocktail robots are very, very fun to build, but there isn’t much market for them. We struggled to sell robots to large liquor companies not because the marketing teams didn’t like them, but because the legal teams identified them as a massive liability.
  • Most importantly, business is about character. Be kind, good, and honest. That will always work out for you in the long run, just as scheming, lying, and cheating will always come back around to get you. So be good. Be honest. Even if it sucks right now. You’ll sleep better. I don’t have data, but I’d guess rested entrepreneurs tend to fare better.

4. What is it about entrepreneurship and the startup world that particularly attracts you? How are you contributing to the startup ecosystem in Berlin?

Entrepreneurship is the best. I’m a huge advocate for it! Starting your own company gives you control over your life in a way that nothing else really does. Startups are the subset of the entrepreneurial landscape that’s had fuel poured into it and is ready to take off. What’s not to love?

I coach at Startup Incubator Berlin, the startup ecosystem managed by Hochschule für Wirtschaft und Recht (HWR). I’ve previously coached for other accelerators here, too. While I technically coach on product development and engineering, I find I also end up helping the teams with moral support. Being an entrepreneur is hard, and it can be good to hear from someone who’s walked the path before and is still standing.

5. What are the current trends in Berlin’s startup scene and what’s coming up next? What would you like to change in the current ecosystem? What’s crucial for enhancing the ecosystem?

I want to point out that I see almost exclusively hardware startups, so I can’t speak more broadly about other startups.  

I think there’s one answer for all three questions. I don’t want to be too critical of the city and the ecosystem which have been so welcoming to me, but I do notice that a lot of the startups here are taking relatively small steps from existing companies and markets for their innovation. I see this as an opportunity for growth on both sides of the equation: first, I’d like to see founders being more ambitious with their businesses, really going for innovative changes. My experience has been that founders often have the ideas since they spend so much of their time steeped in the technologies. At the very least have those crazy ideas in your pitch deck! And second, I’d also like to see the investor community in Berlin and Europe back these wilder innovations. It’s a riskier gamble, but I suppose the funding mentality of the Bay Area has stuck with me.

I’ll add one more dream for enhancing the ecosystem: make it easier to found and fund companies. It took me 4 hours to found a company in America and 3 months and two visits to the notary to found a company in Germany. When it came time to apply for grants, it took six months to hear about our application in Germany. At that time, we could have really used that money!

Thanks a lot for sharing your story, Will. We wish you the best of luck in your future endeavours.

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