“Boomerang, innovator and child of the mountains” — interview with Marc Tobias

Expert for business model development: Marc Tobias supports researchers as a transfer strategies speaker in considering transfer ideas early on in the project.

Marc Tobias, expert in innovation and business models, has spent much of his life outside in the mountains. His project “Kinder der Berge” (Children of the Mountains) aims to provide children who have undergone long-term intensive medical treatments with amazing experiences in nature. Between 2008 and 2009, he was the head of the Corporate and International Markets department at the Fraunhofer Center for International Management and Knowledge Economy IMW. He went on to become a management consultant for a University of St. Gallen spin-off and a senior expert for EU projects. Business models and strategies for transferring technology to industry still remain the focus of his career today. Since 2018 he is developing such strategies in his role as a techtransfer strategies advisor at the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft headquarters.


Mr. Tobias, you have returned to the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft in the Business Model Development, Techtransfer Strategies, Strategy Consulting section. What is your core mission?


We are trying to embed thinking about business models and the transfer of technology to industry early on within research projects at the institutes. Our colleagues are frequently focused on the research and there have been many cases in the past where transferring the technology to industry only became a consideration towards the end of the research project. Often it was too late at that point to steer the project in the right direction. Our goal is to make the transfer of technology to industry a consideration early on in the research process. At Fraunhofer, we tend to “get the development done” first and then approach the market. That is often a good approach, because we have a good understanding of the market, of course. But it doesn’t work in every case, and this is where we want to provide support for the projects and institutes.


So it’s about demonstrating the industrial relevance early on?


That is certainly an important part of it. But in many cases, it is often too early to decide about the industrial relevance. Sometimes we get involved in the early stages of development, which have not moved far beyond the basic research. The key thing is to include industry from the beginning. Take programmable materials, for example. This area could be ready for series production in five to ten years. If we prepare industry now for the fact that we will have solutions to offer in several years, it increases the chances of being able to implement those solutions.


What exactly does this look like?


We work with the scientists and try to embed a new way of thinking into the project teams. For example, we ran a workshop where we worked intensively with the researchers using the principles of design thinking. This involves thinking about topics such as “understanding others” or “developing empathy” — in particular, the goal is to “understand the entire ecosystem.” For example, when a new sensor is developed, it is not generally just a question of a new usage case — in fact, new value chains are created. Or take “rare-earth elements,” for example. Here the situation is significantly more complex. The problem we are facing is that we don’t currently have enough of these earth elements to facilitate the energy transition. So we then have to think about questions like: What impact would developing a recycling system for these metals have on the ecosystem? A great deal of research is currently going into using methane as a resource. But it has not yet reached the status of a fully developed new technology. We see great opportunities in the early development of new value chains. One question we might ask ourselves here is what would be the impact of famers in Germany becoming energy producers as a result?


What other forms of support do you provide?


We offer templates and outlines that can provide a way of approaching the transfer of technology to industry in a systematic manner. We also advise on questions regarding how to acquire customers and how to reach out to target groups, and we offer multistage transfer formats.

This includes, for example, a transfer catalog with best practices for transfer pathways. We also demonstrate how institutes can cooperate, for example through shared technology days, enterprise labs or shared labs. In addition to these services surrounding transfer strategies, we have developed the high-performance centers and the lead market approach, for example.

My focus is on innovation and business model methodologies. Our fantastic team in the Techtransfer Strategies department is developing transfer methods across all sections. The specialist departments have detailed approaches to specialist topics in place, for example through training courses, which we cooperate with the Fraunhofer Academy to provide. You could perhaps think of us as a sort of think tank for technology transfer.

In workshops for design thinking, as well as in other formats, Marc Tobias' team in the Transfer Strategies department encourage researchers to "think their way into ecosystems".

How did you end up working on this topic?


My background is in business model development. Before I started in my current position at HQ, I spent nine years at the University of St. Gallen working with Prof. Oliver Gassmann, head of the Institute of Technology Management, and I was also involved in the university spin-off BGW AG Management Advisory Group there. We applied the research of our St. Gallen colleagues to corporate projects. Between 2008 and 2009, I was at Fraunhofer IMW, where I headed a department within the Corporate and International Markets section. Over the years, I have stayed in touch with my former colleagues. For example, while I was still at the University of St. Gallen, I supported an EU project at Fraunhofer IMW. When it was announced that a position had opened up focusing on business models in Hanno Fischer’s department, I applied and was apparently right for the role.


Why did you decide to return to the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft?


As a management consultant, I travelled a lot for business, whereas that side of things is far more family-friendly at Fraunhofer. Fraunhofer also works on an incredibly broad range of technologies, which is extremely exciting. At the time, I was working on an EU project in parallel. It was helpful to have a certain amount of intellectual leeway to pursue other projects as well. And finally, I felt very at home in the team and got on well with the head of department.


You have now experienced working for both headquarters and one of the institutes. Are these different perspectives helpful in your work?


Headquarters and the institutes have different ways of thinking. They have different ideas, different processes and different challenges, and it is very helpful to have seen it from the other side.

Because of my background, institute representatives can be confident that my intention is not to impose the HQ view on the institute. As a former head of department managing more than ten people, I also know that not all of headquarters’ demands can be implemented immediately. This all means that I have good relationships and colleagues trust in me a lot.

© Kinder der Berge
"Children of the mountains" in action. The social start-up enables children to go on adventure trips and exercise against an impressive backdrop in the Swiss Alps or on the island of Juist following intensive therapy.

You were just saying that there is room at Fraunhofer for employees to venture own ideas...


I’m constantly coming up with ideas. Some of these relate to exciting projects running in parallel to Fraunhofer. Others have to do with the social start-up that my partner and I are creating. The project is called “Kinder der Berge” (Children of the Mountains). It was originally my partner’s idea. We want to enable children who have undergone intensive medical treatments, such as chemotherapy, to go on adventure and nature trips in the mountains with their families.


What would this type of trip look like?


My partner speaks four languages. She studied business administration and economics, then trained as a journalist and studied medicine. She is a ski instructor and has just completed vocational training as a hiking guide. This diversity in her background is what inspired this idea. The roots of the project go back to her supporting young people with cancer to climb Mont Blanc. They helped the children to climb three four-thousanders.


We love being outside in the mountains and we see from our own children how invigorating a mountain hike can be. Even after we had climbed to around 1,000 meters together, our children only needed a short break at the cabin, and they were fresh as daisies again. These trips can be hugely motivating and invigorating for children. It is an incredible feeling when you reach a summit or a lodge or traverse a glacier. Those are magical moments that give you strength and self-awareness. And that is precisely what we want the sick children to take away: “You can do it and you have already achieved so much by overcoming your illness.” We also give them free time to ski, and we travel with the kids once a year to the “sand mountains” on the island of Juist in Lower Saxony.


What do you personally get from this project?


Working with the children is very fulfilling. It gives us as the organizers incredible joy when the children describe their experiences at home afterwards. The other thing we notice is that children mainly live in the world of computer games at home. It’s easy to understand why you would keep kids busy with these sorts of things during their stays in hospital. But we want to get them back to experiencing and enjoying nature instead. Movement is important. Doctors recommend movement as a way of supporting recovery. There have also been studies on this. Movement is therefore being included more and more frequently in treatments. We also plan on combining that with our trips in the future.


How is it financed?


We collect donations through the “Kinder der Berge” (Children of the Mountains) association, and we also seek out sponsors and foundations. In the long term, we really want to offer family trips to families not affected by cancer as well, in order to cross-finance the project.

Our sponsors include foundations and associations, but we also have businesses, ranging from local bakeries that provide bread free of charge to manufacturers of sleeping bags and the sports equipment supplier Bergzeit and even Audi, our best-known company sponsor. In these initial stages, we are currently funding it ourselves, but we hope that our first successful trips and the contacts they help us establish will secure long-term financing.


Circling back from your social start-up’s “business model” to the business models of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, how well do you think spin-offs are handled here?


There is always room for improvement, of course. You always have to ask the question: Do I want to create a spin-off and why? Here at Fraunhofer, we have various forms of research in progress along with a great deal of research on behalf of other parties. When it comes to ensuring that the results of this research benefit the company, a start-up or an independent company is not always the ideal solution. Start-ups are volatile and not as reliable as, for example, a signed license agreement. However, start-ups can be used to demonstrate technologies that do not have a place in company structures, that have a business model that is too uncertain or that require a great deal of agility. And there, we can create additional supporting structures, of course.

Our employees are researchers and that is as it should be. Founding a start-up requires quite a few specific characteristics that are not necessarily a core element of the Fraunhofer employee profile. You have to put things on the market, take risks or go to the market with products that are not fully complete. We can help empower employees and provide a framework that makes creating a start-up easier. But it always has to make sense in the individual context.

It’s also a fact that Fraunhofer spin-offs have a higher survival rate and are successful over longer periods of time than other start-ups. This is due in part to the backup we provide and the foundations on which these start-ups are created. Our colleagues in Venture do great work here.


Beyond license agreements or spin-offs, are there any other models available?


Another strong option is closer cooperation with start-ups, as our colleagues in the Venture CoLab do, for example. This means that we don’t have to create everything ourselves. Instead, we can contribute technology, support and staff to start-ups and collaborate in that way. Even if you don’t get the large industrial volumes in these cases, these companies do grow, and you benefit from the lock-in effect. This is why major software manufacturers gift products to start-ups, for example. They assume that after two years, there is no way that the young company would switch to another product.

This embeds Fraunhofer technologies in companies. We can also provide other forms of support and help start-ups to expand through alternative “return models” in future.


Many thanks for your time, Mr. Tobias.