In January this year, the Munich-based startup, Franka Emika, entered the German Accelerator program in Silicon Valley. Munich Startup interviewed founder and CEO Philipp Zimmermann on his expectations about the German Accelerator program, the company’s first steps in the U.S., and the biggest challenges they are facing as a robotics business.
Hi Philipp! To start with – what does Franka Emika do, when was the company founded, and where is it today?
Philipp Zimmermann: At Franka Emika, we specialize in the development, design, and marketing of sensitive, high-performance, and unprecedentedly cost-effective industrial robots. We are guided by the vision of turning robots into a universally accessible multifunctional tool while keeping humans central in the development process. Meaning, unlike typical factory robots that are so dangerous that they must be caged, our robot, Panda, is primarily designed for use in human environments. Panda can assist humans with tasks without being a hazard to others. This makes it possible, for the first time, to completely rethink automation and provide a safe and versatile tool – Panda. The democratization of such a key technology implies that the underlying technology is not only powerful, but also affordable, flexible, and globally available. For this purpose, we founded Franka Emika in 2016 and have been delivering robots to our customers worldwide since the summer of 2017.
Are you currently active abroad?
Philipp Zimmermann: Yes, we deliver Panda to many countries outside of and within the EU. In addition, we are currently participating with a team at the German Accelerator program in Silicon Valley to build sales channels in the United States.
How did you decide that it’s the right time for U.S. expansion?
Philipp Zimmermann: In terms of annual robot installations, the U.S. is the third largest market in the world. As inquiries and orders from America became more and more frequent, we decided it was about time to build a distribution channel in the U.S. and serve our customers there. For us, the help of German Accelerator came at the perfect moment, we decided to go to the U.S. for the Q1 2018 program. In addition, Silicon Valley is a center for new technologies and we certainly wanted to be there with our robot, Panda.
How did you hear about the German Accelerator program and what was the decisive factor to apply?
Philipp Zimmermann: We heard about the German Accelerator program many times before as it’s well-known and regarded in Germany. Having in mind our possible U.S. expansion, we realized it was an amazing opportunity as Silicon Valley is the primary tech hub with incredible networking opportunities. The business scene has many nuances that are important to consider and are hard to know unless you are an insider. For this reason, the support and mentorship that colleagues from the German Accelerator provide is truly priceless.
Tell us about the application process
Philipp Zimmermann: The process was well organized and hassle-free on both ends, even though our application was quite spontaneous. After being selected for the program, we also had a very useful 2-day workshop with members of the German Accelerator team who gave us a lot of valuable information about visas, settling and other initial steps.
You are not the first company from Munich to participate in the German Accelerator program. Did you have an exchange with other participants in advance and if so, what did they tell you?
Philipp Zimmermann: Yes, we talked to several participants and that was very helpful. Not only did we get good impressions and advice on the program, but we also received useful tips regarding accommodation, transport, etc. I would recommend one or two of these conversations to any future participant!
How did you prepare for your stay in the U.S.?
Philipp Zimmermann: In addition to the conversations with former program participants and the preparation workshop, we have had some talks with our mentor before the start of the program and contacted existing customers in the U.S. Of course, we also adapted our marketing material to make the best use of our time in the Valley.
What are your goals for your time in the U.S.?
Philipp Zimmermann: Our main objective is to set up a sales channel to supply robots to our U.S. customers and to develop a go-to-market strategy.
What is the biggest challenge for Franka Emika in the U.S.?
Philipp Zimmermann: The biggest challenge is to learn how to play by the market rules, adjust and, settle. Also, finding a way to import our robot and a trusted partner who will support sales in the U.S. appears to be trickier than we initially expected.
What do you expect from the German Accelerator program?
Philipp Zimmermann: Networking, building connections, setting up the business, and getting legal advice on various matters are the most important things for us. We are also very keen on and excited to share experiences our and the journey with other startups participating in the Silicon Valley / San Francisco and New York City program.
Where do you see Franka Emika a year from now?
Philipp Zimmermann: Ideally, we would want to open a local office in the U.S. due to the fact that the market is growing at an incredible speed. We strive to continue developing our products and offering customers the most advanced collaborative robot solution on the market. In addition, we’d like to grow as a company, onboarding new employees, and continuing to diversify our talented team.
German Accelerator Class of Spring 2018 (Silicon Valley) successfully graduated from the program on March 28, 2018. Franka Emika received an extension from German Accelerator and will stay in the U.S. for at least 6 additional months.