5-HT: Fertile ground for ideas

Katharina Kittelberger


You never stop learning is a quote our Startup Coach, Dr. Tom Witzel, takes literally. After a 33-year career at BASF, the chemist retired at the beginning of this year 2021. But he is far from thinking about putting his feet up now that he has earned it. "I love chemistry, it's my passion," he says. In an interview with 5-HT, Mr. Witzel tells us how he can support chemistry-related startups. 

Dr. Tom Witzel spent ten years in research, including management, during his employment at BASF. However, most of his time was spent in business, where he managed regional business units in Europe as well as Asia. In the last four years of his employment, Tom switched sides and no longer worked in Production and Marketing but headed Global Purchasing for Raw Materials and Logistic Services.

From his time in Tokyo at the end of the 1990s, he remembers: "There was an incredible spirit of optimism in Asia. Although the work there was enormously exhausting, it's an unprecedented feeling to know today that you, together with your team, helped build the infrastructure that still stands today." This should sound familiar to our startups, right?

What was your motivation to get involved as a mentor at 5-HT in February 2021?

"I would claim to have a broad insight into the chemical industry. I know my way around innovation as well as sales and purchasing. On the other hand, because of my time abroad, I still have many contacts in the chemical industry worldwide. So, I asked myself: How can I use this? How can I put my knowledge and relationships to good use somewhere? Then I got the idea to try my hand as a startup coach at 5-HT."

I want to take the knowledge and relationships I have,
profitably to help young startups.

What are questions that startups can ask you?

"Since my expertise is focused on the chemical sector, of course only those questions that relate to it. So far, my experience showed me that the startups at 5-HT already know their markets very well. I can perhaps help them to sharpen one or the other aspect again or to work it out better. In addition, I try to work with the startups to determine where additional market options might arise. Ultimately, I help to establish even more global contacts in the industry, even though 5-HT is already doing that intensively through its excellent network."

What do you look for in mentoring sessions?

"What I look for is to see where I can make a concrete contribution at the end. First, the startups explain their business model to me, and then we think together about where there might be points of contact for me. Then I make a phone call or two to get back in touch with the startup, give feedback or establish a new contact. However, I don't actually see myself as a coach. Rather, I simply seek out the conversation and possibly add some new perspectives."

Mentoring has a huge fun factor. Seeing the enthusiasm with which young people have for moving things forward is good for me.

"I founded a startup for BASF in the past, together with a Dutch company in a joint venture. That's why I know how difficult it is to bring new technologies to the market. At the end of the day, unfortunately, our product did not catch on, and we remained unsuccessful. If I can help other startups in any way based on that experience, I'm happy to do it."

Has the chemistry changed so that startups today should consider factors?

"Well, in my opinion, the chemical industry has not necessarily been a nimble speedboat so far, but rather a ponderous tanker. In comparison, some other industries, when it comes to speed and agility, are already much further ahead these days. One possible reason for this could be that we in the chemical industry have so far focused primarily on the risk of change rather than the opportunity of change. But this way of thinking is currently changing at a rapid pace because the environmental conditions are changing enormously: topics such as climate neutrality, sustainability of supply chains, digitalization of the supply chain are just a few examples of the current fields of innovation. Here, the chemical industry can no longer remain slow.

Interaction with customers and their needs, as well as joint research projects with IT solutions have gained tremendous movement.

"In the past, it was usually the case that companies wanted to invent everything themselves. This phenomenon is called the 'self-invented-here' syndrome. But that's also changing now, which is a good thing. Because what companies need is open innovation, that means bringing inventions and innovations from outside the factory fence into their own company. This is precisely where there is great potential for innovation in the chemical industry, a potential that has often been neglected to date. Companies should not and must not block this - no, they must rather proactively identify it and integrate it into their innovation activities." 

How do you see the role of 5-HT in this context?

"Let me describe it like this: A good seed does not grow if the field is dry. It needs humus, and 5-HT provides it. Through their work, they create a fertile ground, even a biotope, in which they are in exchange with startups and support them. Their platform is excellent in helping to hone an idea into a business plan. Also great, of course, is that 5-HT is independent, which again gives more diversity.

 5-HT's X-Linker event was an absolute success.

"I have to admit that the last X-Linker event, which was also my first, really impressed me. Watching how the startups there presented their business idea virtually within a very short time was amazing. But also, the audience was impressive.

Through 5-HT, startups in the chemical and pharmaceutical sectors receive extensive support, which helps drive innovation even more effectively.”



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