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Insights for young entrepreneurs from Dr. Johannes Schmidt-Tophoff

Insights for young entrepreneurs from Dr. Johannes Schmidt-Tophoff Startup BW

Dr. Johannes Schmidt-Tophoff, former PhD-student at the Chair of Organization and Innovation of Uni Mannheim, founded in 1999 the Curagita AG, a successful provider of medical technology. Today the company is well established and has over 100 employees. Interviewed by Startup BW he gives useful insights for successfully founding a startup. From politics he would like to see improved framework conditions.

The Curagita AG based in Heidelberg was founded as a service provider for radiologists. Today the company itself acquires radiologist centers and runs them in cooperation with the Deutsche Radiologienetz AG. With their services and the concept of outsourcing the company initiated a concentration movement in radiological patient care that is imitated more and more. Last year the medical division of Siemens bought 30 % of the company, which could be seen as a mayor proof of concept and success.

Dr. Johannes Schmidt-Tophoff studied business administration, business informatics and chemical technology. He wrote his PhD thesis at the Chair of Organization and Innovation at the University of Mannheim under the direction of Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Kieser on project management for the privatization of the East German chemical industry. Professionally, he initially worked as a management consultant for various companies in the chemical industry, then as an executive at the US company General Electric in the Medical Systems division in Paris. During this time, he gained useful experience for his venture, both in terms of the technical as well as the economic feasibility of his business ideas.

In an interview with Startup BW, he gives important insights and tips from his experience as a successful founder.

What was your path with your company like? Where did you start and what is the situation like today?

I founded Curagita in 1999 during my PhD. In 2006 we won the award “top 10 young companies”. Back then the company had 36 employees and a profitable, self-financed turnover of 12 million euros. Today, in the 20th anniversary year, we have multiplied these values. Siemens took over 30 percent last year and is funding our growth. In the first years we used to be simple service providers for radiologists, but today we buy and operate radiology practices also on our own in cooperation with Deutsche Radiologienetz AG, in which we hold a 49% stake. Its 300 employees (including 62 doctors) maintain 23 locations and generate (additional) sales of over 35 million euros. This buy & build strategy in the consolidating German radiology sector will continue to gain in importance, taking into account the fee pressure from health insurances. Key to our success is our focus on the doctor whom we support in taking over administrative tasks. Despite "industrialization", everything in our field of business depends on the doctor providing the service; and our care model supports this. Because the doctor has to manage less and not be liable, so can bring his core competence in ever higher quality and quantity without relinquishing control and value enhancement. Then as now, true to our motto "cura et agita" (doctor and manager), we work closely with our doctors, almost "cooperatively".

What kind of (public) support did you receive? What was decisive for you?

We did not receive any state support, except perhaps a participation of the L-Bank at usual market conditions and an EU teleradiology project. The most important support came from family and friends, from business angels, but above all from my customer partners and recently from Siemens (Project Venture) with their growth financing. Nevertheless, the state award has helped me a little in convincing the many unbelievers who accompanied me as a founder, what I need to mention at this point.

What would you have wished for?

As a (sole) founder, I would have had three wishes:

1. First of all, I would wish for less government funding as it is inefficiently distributed by politicians who are not really aware of what is actually needed. On the contrary, I would like to see a reduction in bureaucracy and deregulation of the framework conditions for founders: This includes situation-appropriate taxes, barrier-free co-determination, lower IHK fees, faster commercial registers, simpler administrative or building permission procedures or founder-friendly insolvency, inheritance and divorce law to prevent forced sales. And above all, I would like a full privatization of my industry, the healthcare system.

2. If the state supports the startup sector, then this should not only apply solely to technical-oriented companies, especially large companies, but to everyone. In my time, the subsidized Heidelberg Technology Park was full of BASF, ABB and others. I couldn't afford the high rents.

3. Last but not least I would like banks to learn about start-up financing and not leave the field mainly to equity providers who are often aiming at quickly taking over control. Driven by Basel 3 etc., banks only think about collateral while collecting interest for the risk and negative interest for investments. Apple, Google or Amazon would never have been financed by German banks. One of my wishes has already been fulfilled: Founding is taught at many universities and a culture of self-determined risk-taking is being promoted everywhere. In that respect the TV show “Höhle der Löwen” also helps.

What recommendations do you have for young founders?

I have four recommendations:

1. Focus on your customers: My company was built up closely with customers (more like "members" and "partners"). And as a serial founder - first in services, then in the pharmaceutical sector, and finally with the operator model - we have always acted according to the maxim: Identify needs, implement solutions and involve customers as partners. When it comes to innovation, it is more useful to listen to customers than to squint at competitors, so you stay ahead.

2. Attract people who can do what you are less good at. Promote and involve them as co-entrepreneurs and create a culture of values that is honest and where everyone can learn from mistakes. This also means that the founder, who is initially alone in control and used to success, stays on the ground, is mentally ready to share and also prepares his succession at an early stage.

3. Do not fall in love with your own ideas, especially in the early stage. Stay realistic despite your necessary vision. Calculate and test, compete with others. Trust only what you are capable of doing. Do not listen to random strangers, but to advisors close to the company and your clients of course.

4. Mistrust financial institutions and their small print general business terms in participation and loan agreements.

How do you see the current situation with regard to startups?

Founding is everywhere - be it corporate or university spin-offs, outsourcing, project work or successions. Taking over responsibility against entrepreneurial wages will continue to prevail and differentiate in the future world of work, e.g. in part-time or interim engagements, although I believe, as a representative of Generation X, that companies that add value in the long term can only be created when the founder contributes everything, including his health and family time. I believe that the best way to promote business startups is to reduce bureaucracy and deregulation, because founders will always find their supporters and comsumers if they are given space and freedom.

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