Tim Ole Jöhnk, Leiter des Office © WTSH

SMEs stand good chances in Silicon Valley

Tim Ole Jöhnk, sums up first year in San Francisco and tells Hamburg News about "hot shit"

Companies and founders from Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg have liaised closely with Silicon Valley since the Northern Germany Innovation Office Schleswig-Holstein/Hamburg opened last August in San Francisco. The office, managed by Tim Ole Jöhnk, links up companies in Silicon Valley and San Francisco with players in Northern Germany.

Hamburg News: Tim, the office has been open for a year now. How does the valley “tick”? What were the biggest lessons this year?

Tim Ole Jöhnk: Focus, focus, focus. The valley works swiftly and on so many things that it is impossible to watch every area at the same time. Of the 23 new companies traded on the NYSE this year, eleven are from Silicon Valley alone. That shows the number of happenings here. It is important for us to remain focused and to look for industries that are particularly interesting for northern Germany e.g. the maritime sector or the energy industry. Then, we have to find local companies including start-ups that fit into those sectors and link them up with companies in Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Bremen. This results in partnerships, which in turn ideally lead to investments, joint development, white labelling or establishing new companies or branches of existing ones. We also found that while start-ups are keen to work with big companies, SMEs often pose a simpler alternative and this leads to a successful proof of concept and associated partnership and/or investment.

Hamburg News: What’s the biggest “hot shit” in the valley these days? What is the scene talking about?

Tim Ole Jöhnk: I’m hearing more and more talk of a guaranteed, unconditional basic income. People like Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk have been talking about it for quite some time. According to the logics of the debate, “the more we automate, the more jobs are lost” and thus purchasing power. Proponents of a basic income are calling for taxes on robots to cover the costs of such a service.

Hamburg News: Which technology trends are currently the most hyped in the valley?

Tim Ole Jöhnk: Edge computing or in other words, decentralised collection and processing of data on the “edge” of a network. Instead of first sending data from sensors to (central) data centres located far away, data is often processed on the spot. This can happen either on the end device or in the factory. The big advantage is that you are still in the cloud, but the individual devices do not have to be constantly connected to the network (ad hoc connections). Together with 5G in particular, this offers an opportunity to link clearly identifiable physical objects (things) with a virtual representation in an Internet-like structure. Latency times and transmission costs are reduced and, thanks to highly specialized AI chips, terminal devices become even more powerful. This technology is crucial for spreading artificial intelligence to all areas.

Hamburg News: Have you been able to build the first bridges between Hamburg and San Francisco?

Tim Ole Jöhnk: We were involved in establishing Plug and Plays in Hamburg. The company is one of the best-known accelerator programmes worldwide and the most active investor in Silicon Valley in terms of investment numbers. The company connects start-ups with companies all over the world and plays an important role in scaling these fledgling companies. Plug and Play moved its European logistics and supply chain headquarters to Hamburg in June. From October, companies such as Tchibo, FIEGE and Panalpina will meet with start-ups to jointly solve the most pressing challenges in the supply chain and logistics industry through technology. Saeed Amidi, CEO of Plug and Play, has also announced plans or rather goal of investing in ten start-ups in Hamburg every year. We have also welcomed delegations from HSBA to our office and supported them on their trips to Silicon Valley. We have worked with colleagues from Hamburg Invest on exciting projects and helped Hanseatic start-ups in Silicon Valley make contacts with companies, investors and mentors.

Hamburg News: Where do you see similarities between the valley and Hamburg and differences?

Tim Ole Jöhnk: Hamburg is a cosmopolitan and international city. Companies from all over the world have settled there and for very good reasons. We have this trait in common with Silicon Valley. At the same time, a certain Hanseatic caution prevails in Hamburg and northern Germany and we often prefer to wait and see. This somewhat, slower approach is a clearly different from to San Francisco and the entire Bay Area. And, of course, we must not forget Silicon Valley’s economic clout. If California were an independent country, it would be the world’s fifth economically strongest country.

Hamburg News: How are Hamburg and the north German business perceived here?

Tim Ole Jöhnk: Silicon Valley and the United States do not think in categories like north Germany, west Germany, south Germany etc. Germany is about the same size as Montana and is therefore quite small from an American point of view. Many people are surprised that northern Germany is independently represented in Silicon Valley and by the lack of one, single representation for the whole of Germany. But the region’s presence as a potential partner is met enthusiastically here. After all, Silicon Valley is “all about open innovation and partnership”. This commitment is seen and recognized and helps us to open doors that would remain closed otherwise. If you talk to people in the maritime industry or retail sector and who are familiar with Europe, brands like Tchibo, Montblanc, Beiersdorf or Olympus are mentioned. We are building on this visibility by networking start-ups with Hamburg-based companies.

Hamburg News: What are your plans for 2020?

Tim Ole Jöhnk: I’d like to expand the office. We receive so many requests from companies, universities and start-ups that I wish the day had more than 24 hours. The work in Silicon Valley is akin to “contact sport”. The more I show and offer, the more I receive in return. Our success in the first year shows that our concept is working.

Interview by Karolin Köcher

Tim Ole Jöhnk

Tim Ole Jöhnk grew up in Kiel and has been living in the United States since 2014. While in Oregon, he graduated with a Master Of Business Administration (MBA) and the mover to Silicon Valley two years later. “Curiosity, willingness to take risks, megalomania, collaboration and hard work” are the cardinal virtues of his work in Silicon Valley, said Jöhnk. He will focus mainly on linking up companies from Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg with local, California-based companies.

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