Innovations occur at the interfaces of diverse networks
An interview with RWTH alumna Deepa Gautam-Nigge, Senior Director of Corporate Development, M&A at SAP
Deepa Gautam-Nigge still enjoys recalling her student days in Aachen in the 1990s, even if her civil engineering studies at Aachen University of Applied Sciences didn’t quite live up to expectations. Eventually, she switched to business administration studies at RWTH, specializing in technology and innovation management (TIM), operations research, and industrial logistics. Back then, the TIM lectures were attended by just ten other people taking it as their main course. A particularly strong impression for her was her time as an undergraduate assistant at the Institute for Industrial Management (FIR): ‘That was the start of what became my entire professional career,’ says Gautam-Nigge. This followed on directly from her studies and was her first job in a startup, Trovarit AG, which was a spin-off from FIR.
But Deepa Gautam-Nigge had also developed a particular interest during her student years in the Aachen cultural scene. During her initial business administration studies she worked in the ticket office of the former Diana cinema. She was thus attracted to film in particular, but she also liked to attend operas at the Stadttheater and techno parties in the Frankenberg district. ‘I got to know all kinds of interesting people and thus made live contacts – and still do today – in the arts and cultural scene in Aachen. And I enjoyed all this to the maximum.’
A position at SAP followed in 2006, then another at Microsoft, before she returned to SAP in 2017 and set up the SAP Next- Gen Innovation Network in Munich. The purpose of this network of universities, startups, corporations, and investors is to create ideas and to develop innovative technologies and business models, but it is also about the next generation of entrepreneurs. Currently, she works for SAP as Senior Director of M&A in corporate development, where she continues to strategically develop the network concept at a higher level. As a ‘Rheinlander from Nepal’, as she put it herself, Deepa Gautam-Nigge feels very much at home in Munich. Meanwhile she maintains many links with Aachen, in particular with FIR and RWTH, and as a result she is often present at the ERP Days in Aachen as an expert. And when time permits, she can sometimes be seen at the FIR alumni Christmas party. Currently she is also publishing a book, co-authored by RWTH professors Günter Schuh and Malte Brettel. In her interview, she talks particularly about innovation – something that she has been studying for 25 years ‘from the bottom up’ since her course at RWTH.
Ms. Gautam-Nigge, in the last few years you have been setting up the SAP Next-Gen Innovation Network. Can you tell us a little about what this is?
In general terms, the Next Gen Innovation Network started as an initiative. It is concerned, on the one hand, with the next generation of users and decision-makers whom we reach through SAP offerings in education, but it’s also about the next generation of business leaders, who are reached and trained by the associated business incubators, and the next generation of employees as well, of course. And in this way, we work together on the next generation of innovations, for and with clients. Meanwhile, the whole initiative has to be reliably financed. That was the basic idea.
‘Wherever there is engineering, or manufacturing-based b2b or highly complex processes, we’ve got the know-how for that and we’re global leaders.’
What is the significance of universities in the three-way configuration of this initiative, along with startups and corporations?
Universities play an important role in this arrangement in two aspects: firstly in respect of training for the new digital skills, but also with regard to entrepreneurship education. I would add that this is not insignificant for the matter of innovation and for the ongoing development of our society. Everything that can be commercialized from applied research is important in order that Germany can assert and go on building its leading position as a driver of innovation in particular sectors. We are running into danger, however, of losing this pioneering role. The challenge that we face in Germany is that of bringing fresh training to our own DNA. What I mean is, wherever there is engineering, or manufacturing-based B2B or highly complex processes, we’ve got the know-how for that and we’re global leaders. But what we need to do is to move this into the digital era, to get involved at the forefront of innovations in the B2B context and to make our mark on the standards.
So what is still missing in Germany as regards this digital transformation?
Essentially, we’ve got everything in Germany that we need. In my view there are various factors to consider here. We need to become more integrated and to look beyond our own noses, as can be seen for example in the industry clusters at Campus Melaten. I examine an industry from various different sides and see not just a factory but the entire ecosystem around it. But how do I manage to bring the players together in such a way as to make 1+1=3? And as far as "by looking beyond the end of our noses" is concerned, we need to improve on that.
The second point is to strengthen the bridge between science and business. We are brilliant at discovering innovations from applied research and at developing them and being creative. As regards bringing them to market, though, we tend to stand in our own way. We don’t seem able to commercialize good innovations.
And the third aspect: there is a lack of systematic financing. Here it is the bureaucratic hurdles that in particular need to be dismantled. We need to find a way of making it easier to create spin-off companies from the universities and to commercialize innovations gained from the applied research environment. We already have the first seedlings and are trying to nurture them more intensively, such as the UNI-X venture capital fund and the initiatives deliberately established by Professor Brettel and Professor Schuh at these interfaces. It can be clearly seen that these have taken root at the #neuland and ATEC conferences over the last few years and elsewhere.
A fourth factor for me, finally, is cooperation between established industry and the young founders. We need to improve here as well and bring these together systematically and at an early stage. Many innovations happen in the startup crowd, after all.
The keyword is innovation. That was, if you like, how your career began – in an RWTH startup. What was that?
I was working at FIR more than 20 years ago and the startup was a spin-off from FIR. We have a product – a service – for which FIR has been well-known for many years, and that is software selection. Ever since Professor Hackstein defined the Aachen production and planning control (PPC) model in 1989, this has become the domain expertise of FIR. Back then, with the arrival of the internet, we digitalized this process using a cloud platform. Those words trip easily off the tongue today, but in those days, the terms ‘cloud platform’ and ‘digitalization’ were not part of our vocabulary. Trovarit AG, which is still based on the campus today, has maintained its good reputation with large company groups and medium-sized businesses for 22 years in the field of software selection. It was an exciting experience to be involved with setting up a company from scratch.
Are there particular criteria or conditions that must be in met in order for innovations to arise?
If you are trying to create innovations, you need certain spaces. You need a cultural space that allows mistakes – in other words, a space for trying things out – a space for openness, that encourages thinking out of the box, or beyond our own noses. I am often working at interfaces between the corporate world, the startup world, and financing ecosystems. And we need the legal space. When I engage with others in ‘cocreation’, or, in other words, when we work together to develop new things, I need to come up with a legal framework first, so that I’m not always having to think: can I talk about this with them or not? We work out in good time how we will deal with an outcome that is not yet defined.
And then, ideally, you need a physical space where people can meet to exchange ideas, such as the Collective Incubator at the Jahrhunderthalle in Aachen. I create this space, where people can come together from their different perspectives precisely because innovation needs different perspectives! Innovations always arise under a pressure of change or from recognition of the possibilities at interfaces. Innovations are always readily found at the interfaces of diverse networks.
‘What we need to do is to internalize the mindset, just to be courageous, not to be afraid of mistakes.’
Many people are afraid of anything new, of innovations, particularly when they relate to highly complex matters such as the new COVID vaccines. How, in your view, can people face up to these anxieties?
With plenty of communication. We are of course technology-sceptical. We are known to have the tendency toward being cautious, perhaps overcautious. Only once we have got something 120% right do we accept it. In my view, a bit more courage to go on in the face of unknowns would be a good thing. And I always say: education starts with examples. We need to simply put our idea into practice, we need to just try it out. If it doesn’t work, I change the approach or I do something else. The digitalization and force of innovation that is currently happening in the market thanks to democratization through technology is giving young people in particular all the opportunities they need to try things out. Of course, I could gladly go to Siemens, Daimler, or BMW and get a secure job. But why don’t we think in a more focused way about trying out an idea for a startup first? When you’re young, the world is your oyster. And if things don’t work out, well, it’s not a problem. In a time when there is a shortage of qualified people, I’ll find a permanent position a year later. What we need to do is to internalize the mindset, just to be courageous, not to be afraid of mistakes. After all, you learn something whatever happens. And if you go on later to a career with Siemens, SAP, or BMW, you bring all this experience with you and are thus better qualified. I can only encourage this approach. For myself, I’ve never regretted jumping straight from university into cold water, into a startup. Or, later on, feeling at ease in the corporate world in a completely different way, thanks to the experience I gained.
You are no longer in charge of the Information Network but now have a new role in Corporate Development at SAP.
Because I had the pleasure of learning about the financing aspect of innovations from a startup perspective, and because I could bring all the different levels together in the network concept, I am now doing this at a higher level for the Corporate Development division at SAP. I look closely at how people can use new innovations or new technologies for further strategic development with the aid of innovative financing instruments. I work very closely alongside the venture capitalists and – this is something I took in a sense from my previous activities with the Innovation Network – also very closely with the startups. We look at how the matter of innovations can be further developed at the interface between the corporate and the startups. I’m also on the advisory council for digitization at Schmitz Cargobull, a medium-sized enterprise with ‘Hidden Champion’ status, where I’m simply trying to build a bridge between the old economy and the new.
So: how can I help the established German industries with digitalization and with deAlumni in person | keep in touch | 17 veloping digital business models? Interestingly, I learnt right back with Trovarit how to support businesses on their digitalization journey, which in those days focused on ERP solutions.
Your credo is: ‘Driving innovation in the era of ecosystems’. So does the ‘eco’ stand for ecology or for economy – or for both? How do you define ‘ecosystems’?
In essence it stands for both. I don’t think that we will be able to solve the major ecological problems and social challenges of our time without the aid of technology. I think that we can take that as a basic hypothesis. But what I also mean by ‘ecosystem’ is the notion that, given the incredible rate of innovation that we are witnessing, we have absolutely no other option but to think together in strategic networks and ecosystems, because no individual can develop the innovations that are required any more. The boundaries between sectors are blurring, digitalization is an integral element in every area of life and in every industry. We, therefore, need to regard the idea of the ecosystem much more comprehensively; if we make the link with ecology, we could say: Ecosystem, as a new living space, is formed of collaboration, symbiosis, and competition. Regarding symbiosis precisely as ‘coopetition’ and co-creation ensures that we are competitive. The power to draw on the collective and cognitive intelligence of a diverse ecosystem will help us to continue to develop our key industries.
You just mentioned the word ‘diverse’. What role does ‘diversity’ play here?
There are of course various ways of looking at the notion of diversity. First is the diversity of viewpoints and experience. The notion extends from gender diversity out to questions of education, generations, experience, and place of origin. The more diverse the view of the subject of innovation, the better. You can only achieve better results through interaction, which has also been proved in studies, and again we’re back with the keyword: the merging together of different sectors.
‘Our education starts with examples. It is very important that the women who are available as role models are made as visible as possible.’
Last December you participated in an online talk for our female graduates and students that was held by the Career Center as part of our digital Alumni Day. How can we succeed in further promoting women in businesses and institutions?
I mentioned this earlier: our education starts with examples. It is very important that the women who are available as role models are made as visible as possible. I was a student in Aachen in the nineties at a university of applied sciences, and I can tell you that there weren’t many role models in those days. ‘If you can see it, you can be it.’ This is an important point and we need to pay attention to it. Women, people with a different skin color – and that includes me again, young people who are starting out – need to be encouraged to talk to role models and to go up to people actively. So, here’s a little tip: Never have lunch alone. You should make a deliberate point, at least once per week, of having a conversation with somebody who is perhaps already where you would like to be. Or take a look in another discipline or sector, just try to learn from one another. We shouldn’t be shy about talking to people. That’s really important.
Earlier on, you mentioned digitalization as a major challenge for our society. In fact, the pandemic has acted as a major driving force in this respect. How do you see this?
It was perhaps the best catalyst for driving digitalization in Germany. Almost everyone is now used to working digitally, working from anywhere. The idea of a face-to-face culture is now talked about quite differently in German business circles. I was interested in what people can do digitally with online tools, for example half-day workshops at the whiteboard, although we weren’t in the same room. But I do miss the white heat of creativity when we’re in the room together. That can’t always be simulated, although we can come close. We have to once again look beyond our noses and see what is possible under new considerations. And all manner of exciting new formats, contacts, and platforms have been developed that make me hopeful about continued digitalization in Germany.
Thank you Ms. Gautam-Nigge for talking to us.
– Dietrich Hunold