The 2019 SZ Economic Summit

The 2019 SZ Economic Summit from November 11th-13th at Hotel Adlon in Berlin brought together politicians, investors, entrepreneurs, corporates and journalists under one roof.

Some interesting discussions were had, though I must say I’ve been to many more exciting conferences in my lifetime. Nevertheless, here’s a recap of the talks I listened in on.

Day 1 | 11 November | #Digital

In the summit’s introductory talk, SZ editors spoke about the German economy needing reliability and that there’s never been a better time to invest, however when it comes to investing, clarity is needed in terms of frameworks. As a newspaper, the SZ says it’s striving to remain optimistic.

As such, the SZ invited two well-known politicians, Markus Söder (Minister President of Bavaria) and Stephan Weil (Minister President of Lower Saxony), to talk about the country’s political and economic situation.

The points which stand out from the two politicians tend to be quotes from Söder:

  • The strategic debate shouldn’t be about eliminating the AfD somehow, but dealing with them!
  • (On the question of why VW can get away with a scandal but this can’t fly in politics) Management generally has a different responsibility, also they need a better marketing and comms/tech strategy, etc.
  • We’d have fundamental change in Germany if the Greens won.

Strong Together? Radical Change in the World

In a panel discussion entitled “Strong Together? Radical Change in the World” the thoughts shared by Serbian Prime Minister, Ana Brnabic, stand out. She spoke about global as well as local challenges in the Balkans, including hurdles when it comes to perceptions of her region as well as brain drain.

“Germany is a big cause for our brain drain,” said Brnabic. “I think it’ll for a long time be the leading economy in Europe. But Germany is also one of our key economic partners.”

Brnabic said they’re far ahead of Germany in that her region has introduced educational programs for young people in which they start learning how to code in the fifth grade.

Further thoughts shared among the panelists include the notion that Germany has had an economic boom over the past ten years, and is now reaching a digital transformation tipping point which has become difficult for companies to come to terms with.

“Companies must be able to innovate and invest; lower taxes can create a positive climate,” said Angelique Renkhoff-Muecke, Chair of the Board at WAREMA Renkhoff SE.

Industrial Germany and Digitalization

Another big-name politician present at the summit was Armin Laschet, Minister President of North-Rhine Westphalia.

In a speech about Germany’s industrial roots and digitalization, he highlighted the importance of infrastructure. “We as an export country need to defend our European single market,” said Laschet.

Laschet also spoke about North-Rhine Westphalia’s potential being held back by a lot of red tape. He ended his speech encouraging startups to come to his region.

Change in a Digital Germany

In another panel discussion titled “What needs to change in a digital Germany?” the majority of the panelists agreed that the country is indeed in a digital crisis mode. Since the speed of innovation is so fast, there now must be a sense of urgency.

Serial entrepreneur and investor, Frank Thelen, said: “My big worry is where Europe stands compared to China and the US in terms of digitalization. I don’t see we have the necessary ambition.”

“If we want to compete with the US and China, we need capital and capital for scale-ups,” said Chair, Gillian Tans. “We also need more talent and diversity; we don’t have enough female talent.”

But there’s room for optimism because there are already examples of companies doing really well, including Zalando and GetYourGuide, said VP of Central Europe at Google, Philipp Justus. “What we need is breadth,” said Justus. “For instance, two-thirds of companies say they lack digital skills. So we need to implement these skills in education but also in companies.”

Entrepreneurs should look at what big tech giants like Facebook and Amazon aren’t doing and should go for that, added Justus.

On the question of data and security within Europe, Thelen thinks we should view data as an opportunity. “I believe GDPR is a bad thing, because we need data,” said Thelen. “But there has to be one specific url…. so the default is open data. This would ultimately help smaller companies.”

On whether Germany can still catch up in terms of AI, Markus Haas, CEO of Telefonica Deutschland Holding AG, said: “Let’s be honest, we’re more prudent and cautious and this is part of our DNA in Europe.”

But we shouldn’t be afraid of innovation, said Tans. “In China I can already pay with my face. Here we’re still trying to regulate that.”

#DigitalHealth – Qunomedical

One of my favourite parts of the summit actually was when a break was taken from the panel discussions and a “Speed Dating” session took place, which meant that founders had seven minutes to answer a journalist’s questions about their startup. The startups interviewed were: Fifth Force GmbH/NEUFUND, Qunomedical, Celonis and wefox Germany GmbH.

Qunomedical stood out to me as its founder, Sophie Chung, has an interesting background as a doctor and a consultant. The startup is essentially a digital health platform that connects patients and doctors worldwide.

Chung said that Qunomedical’s customers are in 75 countries across the globe, but most are in Western Europe. She said that the company generates its own data sets and that its aim is to reach as many patients as possible, emphasizing that the human factor in the medical area shouldn’t be forgotten.

#DigitalHealth – The Medicine of Tomorrow

Key points raised during a panel discussion called ”Digital Health: The Medicine of Tomorrow.”

  • Ethics, AI, data security and personalized medicine were key themes raised
  • “We need to digitize medicine in order to personalize medicine.” -Michael Forsting, Radiologist and Institute Director of Universitaetsklinikum Essen
  • “There’s huge opportunity… we use the data to learn. We try to analyze it and use experts so that we can learn from the data,” said Cofounder and CEO of Ada Health, Daniel Nathrath. “Every day there’s a review in our app that says we’ve saved someone’s life. Another person told us our app told him in 20 minutes what a doctor couldn’t tell him in 20 years.”
  • On the question of the general willingness of patients to share their data, some panelists say it is a typical German issue to be unwilling to share data and to not focus on the opportunities.
  • “The big challenge with AI is gathering well founded data,” said Stefan Vilsmeier, Chairman of the Board at Brainlab AG, who adds that AI plays a big role in Brainlab’s products and they’re now developing processes further.
  • Should there be limits on AI in the medtech world? “If AI gives you a diagnosis of some sort, a person (e.g. a doctor) still has to check it,” said Christiane Woopen, Board Member at the University of Cologne.
  • Is AI better than a human being? Radiologist Michael Forsting: “In my institute, AI doesn’t err, but humans err. We need a scientific discussion about how good AI is. We also need to have brutal quality control.”

Day 2 | 12 November | #Change

Women in Advisory Boards

Here are the key takeaways from a panel discussion about women in advisory boards and leadership positions, which was moderated by the editor of PLAN W at SZ, Kathrin Werner.

  • There should be consideration and more encouragement for women aged 40+
  • Early support and coaching is super important
  • Instead of just asking why politicians aren’t acting, there’s also a lot of stuff we can do ourselves (e.g. fathers can teach their daughters technical things)
  • The research is quite clear: the more diverse a company is, the better. So it’s actually better to have women in an advisory board – this is better for stakeholders, etc.
  • We have to widen the breadth of what diversity means (e.g. diversity of languages, social backgrounds and nationalities). We need to see diversity as a great chance to design the world around us.
  • When the audience was polled on the question of whether there should be a quota for women in boards, 57% said that women can manage it without a quota.
  • It’s easier to guide a company from the top; companies should think about where they want to go
  • On the topic of role models, the panelists agree that it’s a good thing. One of them said: “I didn’t have a role model at home, so I chose one.” Another panelist said: “I have a critical daughter and also an 85-year-old role model… anyone can be a role model.” (this also highlights the point about diversity)

Family Business: A Father-Daughter Chat

This was one of the panel discussions I really enjoyed because the speakers, two entrepreneurs, were much more relaxed, cracked jokes and were more or less not as stiff as many of the other panelists at the summit.

Verena Pausder is a startup founder, and her father Rudolf Delius runs a family business that’s been around for about nine generations. “We’re not competing, we’re profiting from each other,” they said on stage. Pausder is a shareholder in her father’s business, a textile company in Bielefeld. Pausder is a serial entrepreneur, having set up a sushi shop when she was 19, then a salad bar, then eventually HABA Digital.

When asked how his daughter became interested in entrepreneurship, Delius said: “we didn’t do it deliberately. I always listened to the stock exchange news and my wife was an entrepreneur too; she talked more about her business than I did.”

“I wanted to start my own thing and not continue on with their businesses,” said Pausder, adding that she’s convinced that SMEs and startups should go hand in hand.

“I could say I’m sad my daughter is not in our company but at the same time, I’m glad she’s with startups… she’s part of the new economy,” said Delius. “I come from a different world, there was no venture capital back then.”

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