"I'm just going to do this without really knowing what I'm in for"
Ten years have passed since Mynaric was founded as a spin-off from the German Aerospace Center (DLR). In the meantime, the manufacturer of laser communication terminals has become a public company and remains on a growth trajectory. Co-founder Markus Knapek recalls the early days and tells us what has happened since then.
What were the key factors that made you and your colleague Joachim Horwath decide to set up ViaLight Communications GmbH (now Mynaric) as a spin-off from the DLR?
Markus Knapek: At that time, we had already tested lots of applications in the field of laser communication. The DLR Institute of Communications and Navigation, where we come from, is very application-oriented and maps the whole of the technology right up to demonstration. That made the step towards founding a new company easier.
It was also helpful that our colleagues from the technology marketing department actively supported us. First and foremost, scientists are not businessmen and do not know offhand how to set up a company. Our counterparts encouraged our entrepreneurial spirit and motivated us. They also put us in touch with an important adviser, Dr. Wolfram Peschko. We benefited immensely from our collaboration with this physicist and manager. Having initially been financed by Helmholtz Enterprise, he later joined the company too.
We’re delighted that you successfully expanded the team through Helmholtz Enterprise. Long-term collaboration doesn’t always work in such instances.
Markus Knapek: It’s important that founders are open to expanding the team and realize that factors other than the technology can be decisive for the success of a company. In the beginning, of course, our focus was on the basics and on our research. Nowadays, we have high-performance products and large sales targets, which means we have to constantly expand our team.
The road to success has certainly not been easy. What were the biggest difficulties with your first contract?
Markus Knapek: In the first couple of years, we did a lot of preparatory work, but thanks to the support from Helmholtz Enterprise we were able to approach customers proactively. This gave me the opportunity to spend a lot of my time at the DLR on the new company. It made the decision to join Mynaric outright easier for me. Our initial situation at the DLR was another advantage. We were not starting from a “greenfield” site, but had already established a good network, which included our first customers. Our first project was a study for a stratosphere platform and through this we were able to get our own team up and running – our first employee is still with us today.
In 2016, you managed to achieve a turnover of more than a million euros and increase the number of staff you employ, and finally, in 2017, you went public. What did going public mean for you?
Markus Knapek: Going public led to a professionalization of the company. Our public image has become much more professional and the company more transparent, which is also important for investors and potential customers. Throughout all of the financing rounds, it was fascinating to see that investors not only invest in the technology but also in the world of the customers, in the market. They want to see that the end result will be a scalable model. Scientists are perhaps not so good at this in the beginning. But when a great vision and the right team come together, this too becomes possible.
That is certainly an important message for our future entrepreneurs too.
Markus Knapek: The key question for the investors is: Where is the scalable business? But a start-up doesn’t always have to lead to investment. A small, family-style company financed from cash flow is also a good form of enterprise. That would also have been an option.
That also depends on the vision of the individuals involved.
Markus Knapek: Exactly. When founding a company,you need to ask yourself: Do we want to bring in investors who would, of course, have a say and play a part in making decisions? This was a particular advantage when going public because a large number of strong personalities were brought in.
You recently signed a major contract worth more than 1.7 million euros. What do you need to ensure that a deal like this is successful?
Markus Knapek: Most of all you need perseverance. We are operating in a completely new market. Perseverance means advising your customer base and also being there for your customers. You cannot overlook the fact that contracts like this are preceded by years of work. In this case, at least two or three years went into it. Customers look very closely to see whether the idea really works, especially if it involves a new technology.
How do you see your development from scientist to company founder, perhaps personally as well?
Markus Knapek: When founding the company, I worked with extremely talented individuals. That involves personal growth as well as recognizing your own limitations. It’s okay to admit that you are not able to do something as well as others. If that is the case, the task must simply be given to someone else. This is how team success evolves.
At the beginning, you need to take a slightly rose-tinted view of the situation along the lines of “Okay, I’ll just do that now, without really knowing what will happen next.” It is not uncommon for the product you want to put on the market not to sell. Even after ten years, I think our timing was fairly good, but there was also an element of luck involved. You can’t be too early, or you’ll starve along the way because you can’t sell your product. But you can’t be too late either.
And finally: What advice do you have for any scientist who is considering setting up a spin-off?
Markus Knapek: The question is whether someone wants to be the founder of a company or not – along with all the risks involved. Do I want to continue working as a scientist or do I want to build something as an entrepreneur? Personally, I was happy working at the DLR. It was a good period of my life, but for me founding a company was the natural consequence. I wanted to really make a contribution to the world. As a scientist, of course, you develop prototypes and publish scientific articles, but for me producing something has a more sustainable and greater impact. We are fundamentally changing the global communications infrastructure. Our laser communication products enable fast wireless data transmission over vast distances in space, in the air, and on the ground. Our vision is simple: a world with constant access to the internet from anywhere on earth. I find that fascinating. Founding a company has its ups and downs, as the past ten years have shown, but in exchange you certainly learn and see an incredible amount.
Thank you for talking to us.
The interview was conducted by Lin Wang and Christopher Kerth from the Helmholtz Association’s Innovation and Transfer Department.
Mynaric manufactures laser communication technology for operating communication and observation applications in the air and in space. Its data transfer products include ground stations and laser terminals which allow for the secure wireless transmission of large volumes of data over vast distances.