How Start for Future is uniting students, academics and start-ups




We talk to the Head of Internationalisation at the Strascheg Center for Entrepreneurship, Pavlina Vujovic, about the creation of Start for Future (SFF), a cooperative from the EIT HEI Initiative, founded in collaboration with the EUAccel and TANDEM+ projects. Read on to discover how SFF began, its goals and biggest achievements and what SFF plans to do next.

Could you please tell us about yourself and your involvement with the EIT HEI Initiative?

Yes, gladly. My name is Pavlina Vujovic, and I work as the Head of Internationalisation at the Strascheg Center for Entrepreneurship, which is an entrepreneurial institute of Hochschule München. Since July 2023, I have been a member of the Management Board of a newly founded entity of the Start for Future Initiative called the SFF Cooperative (European Cooperative Society). I have been involved with the EIT HEI Initiative since 2021 (Cohort 1), during which time two granted proposals were founded: EUAcceL and TANDEM+. The extended consortium from Cohort 1, which had a total of 13 new entities onboarded and a redefined framework focused on deep tech, also applied for Cohort 3 and both were granted proposals. All these and other international projects and trainings pertain to a wider entrepreneurial alliance: SFF.

How did the EIT HEI Initiative projects, EUAcceL and TANDEM+, come to work together on this idea and launch Start for Future?

Both projects, which were granted under the EIT HEI Initiative call, Cohort 1, involved consortia with a history of collaboration in previous entrepreneurial and innovation projects at the EU level. One such initiative, which kicked off SFF, was eBridge, supported by the German Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection. eBridge gathered around 40 % of current SFF partners and was the base for further development of EUAcceL and TANDEM+ formats which are to become programmes in SFF pillars.

In 2021, when the projects were approved, the consortia recognised the opportunity to use synergies effectively and build a stronger programme. Given the shared mission of the consortia on fostering an entrepreneurial mindset within institutions, promoting student start-up entrepreneurship, and facilitating B2B co-creation, we found a solid foundation to develop the SFF and design its core products and programmes based on these synergies and our experience. It is worth mentioning that partners from both consortia already had cross-institutional ties, such as incubators and start-up mobility programmes. However, with increased interest, these ties became even more significant and served as a signal to strengthen collaboration and scale across our joint network and bring it under one unified brand: SFF.

The collaboration with EIT Urban Mobility played a crucial role in the establishment of SFF. Drawing inspiration from its model, the initial programmes of SFF were designed in a way that allowed core programmes and target groups to find follow-up or complementary programmes and resources within EIT Urban Mobility. Subsequently, the collaboration expanded to include EIT Manufacturing, realising that SFF could also find synergies with other Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs). This collaboration allowed SFF to combine the strengths of universities, university-linked incubators and the resources, expertise, and structures of the two EIT KICs without re-inventing the wheel by using what is already there. We wish to proceed in such a way; working to close the gap more effectively between Academy and Business Creation across Europe, allowing our universities, incubators and EIT KICs to do what they do best.

What are some of the SFF Initiative’s major achievements that you can share with us?

Since the end of 2021, SFF has achieved significant milestones in its mission to foster entrepreneurship and innovation. We have successfully trained over 200 academic and non-academic staff, mentored more than 3 000 students, and played a vital role in the creation of over 150 start-ups. Of these start-ups, 20% already operate in the market, while others are in various stages of incubation and acceleration programmes, both within and outside SFF.

Manager of SFF Cooperative

SFF has managed to rapidly engage various innovation actors, with a particular focus on universities and incubators. We have established partnerships with 27 universities and 22 incubators. The growing interest from universities shows the potential for further expansion, with plans to onboard 20 new universities and the same number of incubators by the end of 2024.

At SFF we also focus on creating new programmes that centre on co-creation, particularly targeting start-ups, cities and companies. As a result of collaboration within SFF, seven entrepreneurial ecosystems involving partner universities have strengthened their ties and are on the path to being recognised as regional innovation valleys.

SFF is developing into a platform that connects resources from various ecosystems and fosters collaboration between corporates, SMEs, cities and other actors across Europe. The SFF Summit held in November 2022, inaugurated by former EU Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, emphasised the significance of uniting European ecosystems to drive innovation. Subsequently, during the second SFF Summit in Varna, the Bulgarian Minister for Innovation, Milena Stoycheva, expressed full support for the initiative. She underlined the value such platforms bring to entrepreneurial students, start-ups and ecosystems, particularly those we term as hidden champions.

To encourage further collaboration and interaction between innovation actors, SFF introduced a matching community platform in 2022 – This digital platform allows other actors from Europe to present their offerings and requirements in a convenient online setting, improving connections and partnerships. We see the creation of this platform as a great achievement but also as a great necessity at the same time.

What were the main challenges that you have come across in setting up Start for Future and how did you overcome them?

SFF began its journey as a start-up and faced typical challenges such as product validation, governance, and financing. Despite these hurdles, we kept an entrepreneurial mindset, which has enabled us to successfully overcome various obstacles. I believe all our partners can identify with this, and maintaining the start-up spirit in this network is still very important.

One challenge we found was how to establish a structured yet dynamic governance system and ensure that administrative aspects do not take priority over programme content and value generation to our key target groups. Learning how to effectively utilise available resources, such as incubators, labs, coaches, experts and funding opportunities from local and EU sources, was also crucial.

A challenge that lies ahead is securing financing for the long-term, beyond our current in-house and EU funding resources. To address this concern, we launched the SFF Cooperative, which offers a holistic business model capable of supporting the dynamic nature of SFF and its ambitious scalability agenda.

SFF has recently become a legal entity as a European Cooperative Society. Why was this decision made, and how do you hope this will help you in the future?

Since the very beginning of SFF, we engaged in discussions about the most suitable cooperation model for our further development and sustainability. It was a thorough and time-consuming process, exploring different company options like Ltd and associations. Ultimately, we concluded that forming a cooperative would align best with our objectives, allowing various actors to become members with or without shares. It is a well-known legal form across the regions of our partner organisations, and we all agreed to make it a European Cooperative Society.

From January onwards, we worked diligently on our plan, discussing business models, and holding several meetings with top university management. The decision to officially launch the cooperative during the Varna Summit felt like the perfect conclusion to the two-day event and a meaningful starting point for our continued mission.

As we move forward with SFF as a cooperative, we anticipate that it will support the management of new programmes and foster collaborations with external actors and sponsors. Our goal is to drive systemic innovation in Europe, where academia, industry, start-ups and cities work closely together not only to tackle current challenges of ecosystem and industry but also to envision and co-create a desirable and sustainable continent for the future. SFF Cooperative places a big focus on that and is also piloting new programmes for ecosystems and companies that rely heavily on the utilisation of disruptive technologies to support new innovations, particularly in the fields of healthcare, mobility, manufacturing, energy, food and circular economy. In the end, we wish to drive the advancement and commercialisation of revolutionary concepts and cutting-edge technologies but by the many and not the few. Only by doing so can we democratise the innovation landscape and fuel economic growth in Europe.

What are the next steps for SFF and what are your long-term goals?

Our next steps include the realisation of new programmes where we will closely work with industry, particularly in fostering deep tech solutions as well as programmes that can support QH co-creation across regions. These will be piloted in Munich at the end of November during the SFF Summit. Besides this, we are preparing to expand the network with new universities, cities and companies from Europe. Our ambition is still the same – we wish to create forward-thinking, systemic solutions in Europe and become the leading European, university-driven initiative. Now, although the SFF Cooperative focuses on universities as the drivers, the models in place at SFF Cooperative ensure the participation of other innovation actors (corporates, SMEs, R&D institutes and cities). More and more, entire ecosystems are expressing interest in working within SFF, and not just single entities. Our core principles and programmes derived much from the EU policies and strategies for the upcoming period. As such, the future lies in programmes that can effectively bring cross-regional actors and resources at both regional and EU levels into real projects to generate new products and dynamic business models. Europe’s regions need to work with and learn from each other, and SFF Cooperative – with its existing and new programmes – just might be a platform to make that possible.

Are there any specific highlights or good memories from your involvement with SFF that you would like to share?

I remember very well the first seven partners that came to a meeting organised by Prof Klaus Sailer, executive manager of SCE, in 2019 to co-create a programme that can support European Innovation potential. Then and there we were ‘poisoned’ by Prof Sailer’s idea, and we made the decision to start for the future with the resources at hand, pun intended.

There are many great memories and successes we at SFF shared with each other. Being a very hands-on initiative with multiple educational, spin-off, and start-up creation and co-creation programmes, the partners of SFF see each other weekly. We tend to joke that we see each other more often than our family members, and I like to think that we at SFF are an entrepreneurial family. However, one of the most rewarding moments was during the final day of the Varna Summit when we came together to launch the cooperative. It was a very special day which would never have been possible without the commitment and passion that every partner in SFF has brought with them. The ‘Walk the talk’ attitude of organisations and people at SFF is what made things happen and I am sure there are many great things ahead of us in years to come.

Special thanks to entrepreneurial universities, incubators, organisations and fire starters within, for making Start for Future a reality:

Strascheg Center for Entrepreneurship and Hochschule Muenchen University of Applied Sciences: Klaus Sailer, Andreas Hammerl, Giorgi Japaridze, Julia Dorsch, Maximilian Appel, Haifeng Ling, Leo De Avila, Audrey Stolze, Bettina Maisch, Andres Rueda, Camila Londono, and Thomas Stumpp University of Aveiro: Barbara Gabriel, Robertt Valente and Cludia Figureido, University of Pisa: Alessio Cavicchi, Sabrina Tomas, Ghent University: Andreas Wauters, Jolien Conreats, Tom Van Damme and Alexander Spriet, Edge: Milena Stoycheva and Malvina Illeva, Athens University of Economics and business: Katarina Pramatari, Stratos Baloutsos and Mara Doukidi, Hochschule Esslingen: Omar Garcia Urdiales, VIA College: Erik Maass Lovgren, Napier University: Nicholas Fannin and Christopher Cramphorn, Queens University Belfast: Paul Donachy and Margot Bucaille, JJ. Strossmayer University of Osijek: Slavica Singer and Ana Marija Delic, German Center for Robotics: Muamer Babajic, International Burch University: Malcolm Duerod and Mersid Poturak, University of Information Technology and Management in Rzeszow: Tomasz Skica, Tecnocampus Spain: Ester Bernado Mansilla, Cluster for Education Cluj– Oana Buzatu, Danish Foundation for Entrepreneurship: Kare Moberg, Dundalk Institute of Technology: Colette Henry, FH Campus Wien University of Applied Sciences Vienna: Heimo Sandtner, Katharina Zimmermann, Petra Pendl, Queen Margaret University: Pentland Duncan, University of Macedonia: Konstantinos Fouskas, The Ventury: Valentin Aschermann, Martin Luther University of Halle Wiittenberg: Kartsen Schwarz, Artevelde University of Applied Sciences Ghent: Margot Vanden Bossche, Free University of Bolzano: Chistoph Stoeckmann, Toronto Metropolitan University: Steven Gedeon, Cal Poly: Thomas Katona, Kings College Nepal: Udgum Khadka, La Trobe University: Eddie Custovic and Daniel Hook, EURA AG: Gabriele Seitz, Ricardo Greenfield,  EIT Urban Mobility: Martin Vendel, Antoine Bewart, Fredrik Hannel and Gerard Dominguez, EIT Manufacturing: Paola Fantini, Wolfgang Kniejski, Silvia Gretz,  German ministry of Economic Affiars and Climate Protection and PTJ and to all SFF start-ups, talents, coaches, experts and supporters across Europe and wider.

Share your experience with the EIT HEI Initiative and inspire higher education institutions across Europe to boost their innovation and entrepreneurship capacity.

Publication: 11 September 2023