Interview with Stephen-Wolf Müller: “The Bridge Builders” program & the importance of startups

Meet Stephen: this MB.ioneer has quite a range of tasks around here. From his core role as a Product Designer, to customer journey tracking, to being a Communicator in cross-product relations, actions and developments.

Today we want to focus on the fact that on top of that, he also participated in The Bridge Builders program far from home with startups from all over the world. What is that all about and what were his key takeaways? Keep reading to find out more about the innovative program The Bridge Builders and why we need startups.

Question: Let’s dive right in why don’t we! You have attended The Bridge Builder program twice already, could you tell us more about the program?

Answer: The Bridge Builders is a commercialization program for startups to get in touch with global companies, located in Israel. The major companies that are part of the program are Daimler, Coca-Cola, and Warner Media with Walmart joining in 2019. Initially the program was kicked-off by Coca-Cola in 2014 and in 2017 Mercedes-Benz joined. I attended two fixed events out of this whole seven month program.

Israel is one of the major countries for startups with a high-tech ecosystem and innovations and finds itself among the first places in the world in Research & Development and in venture capital investments as a percentage of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Since the “quality” of Israeli Startups is extremely high, global companies such as Cola-Cola and Mercedes-Benz searched for a way to establish an exclusive connection with these startups. 

To do so, Coca-Cola started this commercialization program in Tel Aviv, where on the one hand the startups not only benefit by doing POC’s (proof of concept) and projects within several business units of those major companies, but also receiving in-depth marketing training, access to experienced mentors and connections to business sponsors. On the other hand, we also benefit from learning more about their inspiring technologies, ideas and solutions.

Question: So, it is not to be confused with a recruiting event or such?

Answer: Not really, the Program has what is called a “Bridge Class,” which consists of a selected 11-20 startups and they are in the program for seven months. The class then goes to Atlanta to visit interested business partners from Warner Media, Coca-Cola as well as Mercedes-Benz USA. And they also come to Stuttgart, to visit us.  

In the “Launch Event,” which I attended in 2019, it was all about identifying relevant business units and projects. Within those seven months the startups collaborate with the companies and their business units to do multiple pilots together. 

Question: Is there is a pre-selection of all startups depending on the quality of the startup itself?

Answer: Yes exactly! All the startups are curated. The Builders in Tel Aviv are a corporate accelerator that use their innovation platform to foster partnerships with Fortune 100 companies. In 2019 I went to the “Interview week” of the Bridge Builders Program, where around 90 startups (initially over 200 startups that were reviewed and curated) introduced themselves. Each major company then scored those startups within the review platform upfront. 

That year, after rating about 90 startups, they then were invited to an interview week and had slots of 20 mins each to pitch their solutions to the company’s representatives. 

Within those 5 days of the interview week, we heard over 15 pitches a day and at the end of each day, there was a joint evaluation slot for all of the global companies to discuss the pitches. At the end of the week the most outstanding startups were selected (by all of the participating global companies) and made it into the program. 

Question: And so, the selected startups were then in the program for seven months and were able to work with us and Coca-Cola and Walmart…

Answer: Yes, and the goal was to do as many POCs and projects as possible with these companies. In 2019, for example, we had two projects together with KonnecTo.

KonnecTo is a startup that does research and benchmarking—from a data analytics point of view it is like customer intelligence platform. They build data communities in several countries and analyze the user’s behaviors on multiple devices and touchpoints. KonnecTo enables you to know your consumers with an unprecedented level of intimacy and confidence that enables new disruptions or interventions in their purchase journeys, unparalleled competitive analytics, as well as identifying previously hidden new product and market opportunities. With their help we were able to explore and get to know our customers better, by for example doing research on “Who’s the benchmark for an online booking process?”. 

So, with this way we were able to match several digital functionalities and user tasks by comparing us not only to close competitors or other OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) but also to other industries. 

Question: KonnecTo was a startup that had already come up with this idea and program and was therefore able to work with us on a solution for our questions, right? 

Answer: Yes, most of the startups are already in a mature state and have already received major funding by investors. Most of them have already been working on projects with other global companies as well—so the quality of the startups is really, really high.

Question: Wow, all of this happened in 2019 and you went back in 2020! Can you tell us about what happened then?

Answer: In 2020 I went to the “Launch Event” week. This happens after the “Interview Week,” so after the selection of the startups that made it into the class of 2020. In this week it is more about sitting together with the selected startups, getting to know each other better, learning about their solutions, as well as preparing them for their visits to Atlanta and Stuttgart. It is all about identifying relevant business units together with Daimler, who could be potentially interested in their solutions.

So, it was more about the hands-on work on identifying “leads” within our company. This means we took deep dives into their technology to then be able to identify where they could fit to our business units. The goal was to identify possible projects, use cases, and prepare them for their (now remote) visit to Stuttgart.

Question: So, are they coming to as well?

Answer: Well originally, yes. They would have come here and given a short pitch, however, now everything will be held remotely. Nonetheless, they will present themselves, give us a rough overview of their solution and you can book one-on-one sessions with the startups if you, e.g. as a product owner or as a business unit owner are interested in doing a project together.

Question: I can imagine it then being quite a challenge for you to decide what is really needed in our company and what is maybe not so fitting for our line of work, am I right?

Answer: Well, there are a lot of startups coming from different areas focusing on solutions which widely spread. 

We were there as an automotive company in the midst of so many global companies from different areas. A big beverage company like Coca Cola, as well as Warner Media and Walmart as multinational retail corporation were all participating, and at first, I wasn’t sure if they were facing the same problems we are facing and if it beneficial to sit together with them, scoring on startups. But after the first joint interview sessions together with the representatives from the other companies I had an “eye-opening moment,” seeing that it doesn’t matter from which area you are because all of us were facing the same kind of problems. For example, last mile or plant-optimization, as well as data/ cybersecurity topics is something that each of us tackle. 

Question: Can you tell us your personal highlights from your Bridge Builder experience?

Answer: Well the first year I attended, we had breakfast and lunch all together and then I was in the office from 8 am till 8pm. So yes, each day was very busy but worthwhile because otherwise I would have never gotten the chance to connect with those brilliant founders and entrepreneurs in such a short period of time. It was so inspiring to hear the 15-20 minute startup pitches offering their solutions on different topics.

The year thereafter, in 2020, it was more about focusing in detail on the selected startups and about getting to know the startup scene in Israel. So, we went to Start-Up Nation Central, which is the biggest NGO in Israel supporting the local startups. I got a lot of interesting background information, like what are the key ingredients for the “secret sauce” of the Israeli startups.

Question: What was it like to be surrounded by those big global players?

Answer: It was very inspiring and interesting because the exchange we had was like receiving a type of consulting from the top management of other companies. Normally you would never be able to get such advice from any kind of consulting agency. All in all, meeting these people was a fruitful experience.  

Speaking to Stephen about his time in Tel Aviv and the experiences he had, has truly illuminated the importance of inspiration, innovation, and teamwork in every part of our daily work. Stephen found value and inspiration in every aspect of the program—from the collaboration with large Fortune 100 companies and startups.

Thank you, Stephen, for an insightful interview and letting us be part of the Bridge Builders experience!