Interview Of The Week

Interview Of The Week: Thomas Zeller

Thomas Zeller is Managing Director and Chief Digital Officer at UnternehmerTUM , an independent spin-off of Germany’s Technical University of Munich, which was founded and is financially supported by German entrepreneur and heiress Susanne Klatten. Zeller recently spoke to The Innovator about how established companies can leverage UnternehmerTUM’s resources to accelerate their digital transformation.

Q : What is UnternehmerTUM and how do you work with established companies ?

TZ: UnternehmerTUM helps established companies, students, academics, founders and start-ups develop new products and services in order to build up successful businesses. It is Europe’s leading and biggest center for innovation and business creation with a unique offer. A team of 240 experienced entrepreneurs, scientists and investors helps support startups with business creation, market entry and financing. We have our own venture fund which has backed well-known scale-ups such as Flixbus and we have a startup incubator to help with very young startups. We also have a Digital Product School, which I co-founded, which helps teams from established companies emulate an environment of fast learning similar to that of young tech companies. UnternehmerTUM also serves as a platform for cooperation between young companies and industry partners, which number more than 50 and include companies as Allianz, BMW, Facebook, Google, Intel and SAP.

Q : What types of cooperation are you fostering for industry partners?

TZ : There are different possibilities.We can help build digital prototypes, do a lot of user research, work on the main idea with software engineers and then, after a lot of validated hypothesis, launch a company’s internal incubation process. The other stream of what we do is matchmaking of relevant startups with established companies. We are also matching startups and industry partners with cities to work on urban mobility challenges. Our accelerator Techfounders paves the way for joint ventures between high-tech star-ups and established companies.

Q : What were some of the challenges that you had to overcome in your career, particularly when it comes to culture and organizational structure ?

TZ : Challenges included silos ; political thinking ;wrong drivers of motivation ( goals based on individual success vs team success) ; lack of know-how (both technical as well as on agile and modern leadership methodologies) and lack of understanding of customer experience.

Q : How do you recommend companies overcome these digital transformation challenges ?

TZ: To overcome these challenges you need to create diverse and autonomous product teams, move from a project-based view to a product-based view, create eye-openers for employees to understand new methodologies (e.g. importance of getting out of the building and doing user research because the best way to understand is to do it yourself and learn new insights) ; insist on permanent coaching of teams — best with a professional agile coach; move from a ‘meeting-culture’ to a ‘workshop-culture’; try to get more informal communication in place by adding tools and physical rooms for informal exchange and finally ensure that the C-level is behind digital transformation.

About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.