Innovation in motion

What are your enduring memories of childhood? Playing in the forest? Hanging out in the shopping centre? Nervously avoiding the school bully? The children of Dortmund have such memories too, but they might also answer ‘learning to build a robot,’ ‘having 3D battles with friends in augmented reality,’ or ‘designing and coding my first video game.’

“It’s a circle really,” answers Angela Märtin, Science Officer of the City of Dortmund, when asked about her city’s secret to scooping the prestigious European Capital of Innovation, or iCapital, award.

The city starts early, with a Technology Centre that runs programmes to get children interested in emerging technologies like virtual reality ( and programmes by the university for children and teenagers. “We really start early, raising the curiosity of the young generation, fostering talent and thinking about how to motivate people to start their own business,” Märtin explains.

At the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Transfer at TU Dortmund University (CET), for example, they work on ways to encourage students and staff from all faculties to bring their ideas into the world as start-ups.

Founders from 10 or 20 years ago can become mentors
— Angela Märtin
Angela Märtin profile image
Angela Märtin, Science Officer of the City of Dortmund. Photo Credit: Julia Werner

The city’s start2grow programme awards cash to people with great business ideas introduces founders to investors and gives training on topics like marketing and business management. Once the businesses are going, the Dortmund Accelerate project (DoAccelerate) matches them with international start-ups so that they can network and get a new perspective.

“Then these founders from 10 or 20 years ago can become mentors in our programmes for coaching new start-ups, that’s the circle!” Märtin exclaims.

How cities can, like Dortmund, use innovation to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic and plan for long-term resilience will be central to Eurocities Economic Development Forum, launching this Wednesday. Find out more and watch live here.

Backroom pitch

Sascha Feldhorst, one of Dortmund’s success stories, remembers closing himself into the storage area behind a booth at the convention centre. This young entrepreneur went from a student with a bright idea to the founder of a successful company, but the journey wasn’t always an easy one. At that moment, he had a meeting scheduled with their first potential investor, at the same time as he was manning a stand to market his brand to other companies.

Just moments before the call, he ducked behind the booth into the storage area and closed it behind him. “I put my laptop up on a rack and then pitched for our very first money,” recalls Feldhorst. Then he rushed back out and tried to disguise his anxiety as he courted potential clients, not yet knowing that he had managed to convince the investor in the cupboard. “It was a good image of the flexibility of being an entrepreneur,” he laughs.

Solid support

When he was still a computer science student, Feldhorst had started to form the idea for the business that would later become Motion Miners, “but I had no clue about marketing topics, sales topics, also financial topics,” he confesses. He followed some free courses to develop his business acumen, “We didn’t only have one course and it was done, but really a structured programme we were guided through.”

I had no clue about marketing topics, sales topics, also financial topics
— Sascha Feldhorst

Märtin points to Motion Miners as a great example of Dortmund’s start-up ecosystem. “They’ve used some of our support infrastructures and they’ve had a very dynamic development so far,” she beams. She remembers that Feldhorst was “studying at TU Dortmund University, which has this special support structure called the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Transfer. Later, Motion Miners applied for a grant and became part of this start-up programme.”

“We received a lot of support when we finally had the idea to found Motion Miners,” Feldhorst agrees, “and we also get advantages from being embedded in this ecosystem.” Cultivating that ecosystem, for Märtin, is key. “There are the universities, there is the technology centre, our Economic Development Agency, the Chambers of Industry, Commerce and Crafts…” she lists off, “also many small local initiatives.”

Many little puzzle pieces that are being put together to make this big picture
— Angela Märtin

She compares it to “many little puzzle pieces that are being put together to make this big picture.” All this happens under the slogan ‘Innovation next door,’ she says, meaning that “it’s just people sticking their brains together, having a joint vision and making this common goal happen.”

Mining motion

So what is Motion Miners? Imagine a man standing over your shoulder watching you while you work, observing your every task and movement, and writing it down. Would that affect the way you work, making you nervous so that you perform more poorly, or putting pressure on you so that you create unrealistically high expectations of how you can perform long-term?

Well, now imagine that that man is invisible, has enough stamina to watch you for weeks, and has the power to watch all your colleagues at the same time too. With tools like electronic bracelets and sensors, that’s what Motion Miners achieves.

They really use the people like human robots inside their system
— Sascha Feldhorst

Still doesn’t sound too pleasant? Feldhorst is quick to emphasise that his company’s work is far from the dystopic mini-surveillance state of which companies like Amazon have famously given us an alarming preview. For one thing, Motion Miners don’t install their surveillance hardware permanently, only for a couple of weeks.

“Amazon usually has really strict control of the process, so they really use the people like human robots inside their system. So in our analysis, we put the human focus, and say ‘okay, how can we design the processes and automation we have to incorporate the human in the best possible way.” Crucially, all the data they gather is anonymised, so that it doesn’t point back to the performance of individual identifiable employees.

Tech for humans

When the process is complete, all their recommendations are ‘human-centric,’ focusing on how employers can help people perform in a more efficient way. Examples range from recommending extra breaks, to having employees switch between more and less strenuous tasks throughout the day, or even updating employee hardware by providing exoskeletons to protect people’s backs or trucks that let them carry two pallets at a time instead of one.

“We can show the effect of waste which is hidden in the process, especially due to bad digitalisation, bad tools, and bad placement,” Feldhorst explains, “How often do people have to wait for machinery? What is the impact on the process? What are the effects of fatigue?” Because of the amount of data Motion Miners collects, their analysis can be very detailed and save employers hundreds of thousands of euros, often with fairly simple and inexpensive changes.

A good start

What are the effects of fatigue?
— Sascha Feldhorst

It’s no surprise, then, that Dortmund’s start2grow entrepreneur competition saw potential in the company. “Almost 6000 Teams have participated in start2grow during the last 20 Years,” boasts Heike Marzen, Managing Director of Economic Development Agency of the City of Dortmund. “More than 1,500 businesses were founded, more than a third of them in Dortmund.”

Start2grow offers, coaching for free, and prizes worth overall €84,000, as well as contact with investors and venture capitalists. “The idea behind start2grow is to connect founders from all over Germany to the city of Dortmund and its start-up ecosystem,” Marzen explains. Crucial to this is that the competition does not limit itself to locals, says Marzen, “It supports founders from all over Germany who have a technological or digital business idea for an innovative product or service.” This helps the city lure innovative companies to its territory.

“We were supported with founders’ coaching and also supported with applications we wrote, also financial support from the public authorities.” Feldhorst recalls, “Yeah, I would say, it is really a great environment here in Dortmund for being a young start-up, especially in the digital sector. Because you get a lot of support here.”

Fail better

It is really a great environment here in Dortmund for being a young start-up
— Sascha Feldhorst

Interestingly, start2grow does not just measure success by the number of companies that are launched after the competition. “Not every start-up idea can become a success story,” Marzen confides, “but the competition is there to learn and to get feedback from experts. We also define it as a success when potential founders admit to themselves through the competition that the proposed start-up is not a good idea because it is not ready to market.”

Dortmund maker space
Dortmund Innovation Workshop

For Märtin, one of the most impressive and valuable facets of start2grow is simply its longevity. “I think often what people do is say, ‘oh, yeah, here’s a new trend, let’s hop on this and do something.’ And then two years later they say ‘oh, it’s not so sexy anymore, let’s start a new idea.’”

Contrary to this, start2grow came in early and gradually evolved from its initial model. “They have not jumped on the next horse, we would say in Germany,” as Märtin puts it, “They’ve built up this network of over 600 mentors over the years and been continuously building this support structure.”

Something from nothing

Like Feldhorst getting his first investment from a back-room storage space, Dortmund has achieved greatness from humble beginnings. “There was nothing,” emphasises Märtin, “From being a coal and beer industry city, we are transforming into this city of science and technology, but we didn’t even have a university before 1968, no technology park, nothing. The technology centre TZDO was founded in 1985 and is now one of the leading high-tech locations in Europe, with more than 300 companies.”

Not every start-up idea can become a success story
— Heike Marzen

Initiatives like start2grow, according to Marzen, were part of a wider project “to counteract the structural change in Dortmund and to compensate for the loss of the traditional manufacturing sector by strengthening the tertiary sector.”

Like the approach of Motion Miners, Dortmund’s approach is what you might call ‘human-centric.’ That doesn’t mean that the city is planning to start asking people to wear electronic wristbands. Rather, it means that local policy is designed to create opportunities for local people and increase their wellbeing, especially when it comes to those who have lost out most from the transition away from a primarily industrial and extractive economy.

Struggle for transformation

“We are a city that has struggled with this whole transformation process,” Märtin confesses. “There are areas that have profited more from this transformation than others, so we are trying to deliberately use the struggling city districts as a testbed for innovation.”

Within the local administration, departments for lower-income quarters of the city, for economic development, for building construction and renewal, among others, team up for a coherent approach, “so that these quarters can really profit from the whole innovation developed in Dortmund.”

There was nothing
— Angela Märtin

Dortmund Harbour is one such place, says Märtin, “it’s a creative and vibrant environment but it’s also one that has been socially and economically challenged.” From software institutes to innovative theatre projects (like the Academy for Theatre and Digitality) to academia, (including the Fraunhofer Institute for Software and Systems Engineering) the city is luring organisations to set up their new headquarters in the district.

This effort, according to Märtin, is totally transforming the district, “When you drive through there now you see all of these construction sites for buildings and start-ups and companies. It’s really amazing what has grown from there.”

Giving places a new meaning is a phenomenon that can be witnessed all over the city. The fermentation and storage tower of the former Union Brewery – the ‘Dortmunder U’ – has now become a centre for digital, arts, creativity and education, holding the University of Applied Science and Arts 360o storytelling facility ‘kiU;’ the local fire brigade is working with a centre for rescue robotics (DRZ) to test out robots in the area that could help them avert disaster at lower personal risk; and a new artificial lake, ‘Lake Phoenix,’ has taken the place of a former steel mill.


All in it together

It’s really amazing what has grown from there
— Angela Märtin

Märtin is convinced that the city has only been able to succeed in its struggle because so many groups have joined the cause. “If you have a start-up, what do they need?” She asks. “They need an office, a business plan, a mentor, maybe special infrastructure. All these are not provided by one player. For example, the Technology Centre provides the space, and the Economic Development Centre, they have a network of mentors. Do they need knowledge? Who’s the best knowledge provider? Maybe the University.”

Two young creators engage with a piece of technlology
Maker Space in Dortmund

These players are all united through vehicles like the Smart City Alliance, or the Science Masterplan organised and coordinated across the departments of the local administration, “People dealing with the development of new areas for example,” lists Märtin, “but also people developing kindergarten places, but also people developing mobility concepts,” as well as many actors from other institutions. The point, she says, is “not just focusing on your own plate that is in front of you but being open-minded and taking everyone else into consideration.”

An open ear

Märtin believes that it is this holistic approach that helped them win the iCapital award. As well as the fact, she is keen to stress that technology is not the only area where the principle of innovation is applied: “It also includes cultural innovation, it includes social innovation and innovative processes in the administration as well. Many projects bring together people from various backgrounds.” This is made possible with one essential ingredient: communication. “It happens through networks we have developed where we really focus on communicating with each other at eye level.”

Cooperation is the engine for development
— Angela Märtin

Marzen concurs, for her, it’s all about “strong networking and strong networks. Actors from business, science, administration and civil society work together in ecosystems that strengthen innovation through cooperation. Cooperation,” she says, “is the engine for development.”

Feldhorst, too, can attest to this, “Dortmund,” he says, “has a very open ear for expertise.” And the diversity of the players involved means that businesses can always find the expertise they need on hand. From a company with three founders, two with a computer-science background and one with a logistics background, Motion Miners could easily source the talent they needed locally, whether “programmers, process engineers, sales and marketing, business design.”

Vaccination innovation

Having this dense net of connections through the city also means that you have good people you can rely on in times of crisis. When Dortmund was struggling to distribute vaccinations during the pandemic’s early vaccination drives, they were able to reach out to Motion Miners to bring the number of people who could be vaccinated in a single centre up from just 1,800 to a staggering 4,500 people each day.

Vaccination being injected into arm
Vaccination drive
They optimised the process in the vaccination centre
— Heike Marzen

“They optimised the process in the vaccination centre,” Marzen recalls. Making the centre more visible from the outside and positioning the reception desk immediately opposite the entrance were two quick tricks to get more people through faster. And how much time do you think it takes people just to sit down and stand up again? By replacing the reception tables with standing airport-style check-in desks, far greater numbers could be processed in a shorter time.

As many readers will recall, the vaccinated are asked to wait 15 minutes before leaving, in case of any issues. By checking people out during this time span rather than after it had elapsed, they sped up this process so that a full checkout area didn’t hold up the whole centre. “Basically,” Feldhorst explains, “it was a lot of small accommodations, but everything together then achieved this increase.”

You couldn’t sum up Dortmund’s approach to innovation any more simply than that: the sum of countless small initiatives and connections equals an enormous transformation.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer