Behind the Scenes of Founder Institute with Ferdinand Mühlhäuser, Part I: COVID

I met with Ferdinand Mühlhäuser, the Lead Director Germany at Founder Institute Berlin (FI Berlin) in the end of November 2020. Online. Via our laptop screens. We spoke about the unusual year 2020 and the impact the new normality has had on the FI Berlin, value-added of the accelerators and the landscape of startup support organisations.

FI Berlin is an accelerator for pre-seed and idea-stage startups. These joining the FI Berlin programs can be future founders with or without an existing team and first product prototype, however normally without a sizeable seed funding. There are no geographical or sector restrictions – the founders can apply from all over the world and with no specific sector focus. However, FI Berlin has launched one specialised stream for climate startups, who attend the same core program, as well as a series of climate specific sessions and are allocated a sizeable number of mentors from the field.


FI Berlin has run two programs in 2020, the first one being well underway, when the lockdown and the other COVID measures were first introduced in Germany. How did those measures affect FI Berlin operations and which interesting solutions have been implemented?

„FI Berlin had recruited the first spring class when the pandemic hit and actually ran 2 sessions physically in March. We conducted a poll among the program participants on how to continue  – whether physically or semi-physically,“ replies Ferdinand (FM). „News then overran that poll as Germany went into lockdown the week after, but we were able to switch everything from physical to virtual without losing a session.“

The new virtual way of working required restructuring the program as well as inventive ways to encourage networking. Suddenly, it was not anymore possible to go to the bar after the session to network with the mentors, as was the case pre-COVID. Instead now, there were Zoom breakout rooms for mentor networking. However, the content of the program and the assignment topics did not have to change much. FM: „What did change was our team’s engagement. We needed to allocate more time for keeping the founders committed, for reviewing their work, giving feedback and ensuring their interaction with relevant stakeholders.“ For encouraging teamwork, the founders were divided into working groups and they met twice virtually every week instead of once as was the case pre-COVID.  

FM: „We can now say that it all worked extremely well.“ From 43 founders that where admitted to the program, 15 founders graduated, building 13 startups and everyone was committed to get their business running. According to feedback from some of the founders, the change to virtual setup enabled them dedicate more time.

The autumn 2020 class was managed fully virtually – from recruitment to the graduation event. Though the program was largely run similarly as the one in spring, the commitment was slightly less – from 55 founders only 11 graduated.

FI is using its own tailor-made software. How has that supported FI Berlin during the transition to virtual way of working?

FM: „Software covered most of the functionality needed to go virtual“. The main changes made were to ease virtual session setup. Virtual sessions were conducted via Zoom and Wonder, communications thorugh Slack and Whatsapp and also Excel for tracking the progress and recording insights.

A lot of startups have pivoted their products because of the pandemic. Have you had this happen in your portfolio? When is it sensible to pivot and what should be taken into account?

There were some cases in FI Berlin as well where some founders needed to give up on or postpone their venture, like several in the travel industry. FM adds: „However, there have been more initiatives that were not affected by the pandemic or even those whose solutions are a good fit to current problems. Like the meditation app, Silatha; a tool for virtual non-synchronous meetings, Timz; the digital corporate learning platform Workademy or the solution helping to received packages, Paketconcierge.“

Do you foresee any overall implications of the current situation that will change the incubator/ accelerator landscape more permanently?

FM smiles: „I like physical locations and personal meetings. However, I expect that to a large extent the virtual way of working will continue also after pandemic. I am not sure, if we will ever fully go back to the physical classes. I could however envision hybrid setups where certain sessions are held physically and others stay purely online. In the first program mentioned before, by coincidence we were able to practice this with the first 2 sessions being before the lockdown and with the last session being the demo day being executed as a hybrid event ran in a courtyard with all the founders with the pitches recorded in a physical room and then streamed to the courtyard and over the web to audience.“ Virtual operations have proved to have a positive effect in FI Berlin due to even more focus of the program and structured pressure on founders. Networking is the only aspect that has suffered to some extent as the relationships created are not as deep and personal as with physical meetings.

(To be continued)