The Steinbeis Foundation

Written by Professor Dr. rer. nat. Dr.-Ing. E.h. Max Syrbe, Chairman of the Steinbeis Foundation Board of Trustees

In the 50s and 60s the German nation was reconstructed during the Wiederaufbau, almost without competition. This phase of reconstruction relied mostly on new types of technology. The Max Planck Society and the German Research Foundation (DFG) returned to their previous activities; the “Fraunhofer Gesellschaft” was founded in 1949. The aim of the huge institutes newly founded between 1956 and 1960 was to make core technologies of the time – nuclear, aerospace and computer technology – available to all Germans. For a certain time after the war in Germany these subjects had been forbidden. The first repeat of a recession in 1967, followed by others every five to ten years, raised competition which increasingly centered on technology. Society recognized the significance of scientific insight, technology transfer and, ultimately, innovation – with all the phases this entails. The scientific community soon became even more important to business, as business gained in importance to the quality of living. And it was during this time that the Steinbeis Foundation, or StW, was refounded as an organization in 1971 [1].

Ministerial director Herbert Hochstetter from the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Economic Affairs was seeking further support for the regional economy, especially skewed toward medium-sized enterprise with its diversity of individual – if not daily – challenges. Further, until then the State Engineering Schools had had practically no involvement in the knowledge and technology transfer infrastructure already in place. So Hochstetter set about putting support in place himself – by founding Technology Consulting Services at engineering colleges, one of four remits sponsored and pursued by the Steinbeis Foundation. These services became its most important activity. Indeed they flourished, even if they never gained the magnitude needed to match current and future infrastructure changes in Baden- Württemberg’s economy.

Lothar Späth, who became the Minister- President of Baden-Württemberg in August 1978, was keen to provide industry with the full scope of support it inevitably needed. He brought in Johann Löhn as Government Commissioner for Technology Transfer and directly linked his department to the Steinbeis Foundation, becoming chairman and its only full-time board member. Both bodies started implementing the Steinbeis model of knowledge and technology transfer formally captured by Löhn. This is based on skilled, knowledgeable experts working part-time as entrepreneurs in decentralized transfer centers (STCs). The model taps into otherwise unexploited knowledge and experience, especially knowledge at universities.

The move by Späth resulted in the authorities treating applications for part-time work positively and foundation capital being raised to 28 million deutschmarks. Löhn started expanding on the Steinbeis Model. The model

  • aimed [2] to help companies, especially medium-sized companies, to become more competitive across the board, through knowledge and technology transfer in the fields of technology, management and employee development
  • based its values [3] on the underlying principles of trust, tolerance, sustainability and consistency
  • caters for a one-level organization with many (currently more than 750) skilled experts covering a broad area with respect to geography and specialty, operating as selfemployed entrepreneurs (their profit, their loss) at their own STCs (now called SEs) backed up by centralized support adhering to rules that apply to all (comparable with franchising).

Späth decided that the StW should not depend on institutional support and could thus operate and enjoy success without the restraints of public administration. This is important when it comes to the often forgotten aspect of motivating the people carrying out the work. Motivation dictates performance, which is correlated to the product of “Ability multiplied by motivation”. The StW was set up so well, its performance and significance as an organization improved rapidly (Diagram 1).

Prompted by a change in laws regarding the taxation of project-related and contract research, in 1997 there were changes in the format of the StW to a business corporation. From then on it was spearheaded by a non-profit foundation, under this a GmbH & Co. KG for commercial activities (StCs) complemented by a GmbH (StG) [4]. StC participation in newly founded centers at the end of the innovation process strengthens the standing of this company.

In 1998 Löhn seizes an opportunity to expand on the StW’s training and employee development services in Berlin by founding Steinbeis University Berlin, which is self-funding and based on the project-skills concept. In 2003 the university gains the right to offer PhD programs. Today the company structure looks like Diagram 2, with six columns representing the transfer centers, the university in Berlin, R&D centers, consulting centers, the departments responsible for shareholdings and real estate. With the lattermost, Löhn succeeded in doubling foundation capital to more than 30 million euros, primarily through property used by the organization itself.

In 2004, Löhn, then aged 67, resigned as chairman of the board to carry on working as an honorary trustee. He was succeeded by three , later two full-time board members, all with many years’ experience in the Steinbeis network: Heinz Trasch (chair), Sylvia Rohr (until September 2006) and Michael Auer [5]. Both rise to the challenge of pushing Steinbeis much further forward in an expanding R&D market (see below). They agree to split responsibilities with Trasch taking on outside activities including the business strategy and Auer managing internal issues including financial accounts and IT and management systems. They also develop new strategies to “make up lost ground”:

  • Openness (all information is available to staff), clarity (adhering to guidelines), delegated, spread responsibility for decisionmaking (to authorized representatives with central departments and managers within the columns described above)
  • A widespread PR offensive outside Steinbeis (through congresses, Transfer magazine, the Steinbeis-Edition) and inside the organization (introductory and mentoring seminars)
  • Strengthening of internal (through regional meetings) and external networks (involvement with chambers of commerce/ universities)
  • Reintroduction of the preliminary advice program (paid by StW)

Preliminary results can be seen in Diagram 1: in four years turnover is up almost 50 per cent, achieving a respectable position in the R&D market (Diagram 3).

StW fills an important niche in the R&D sector hardly touched on by other research institutes (except, in part, AIF). The others are either focused on insight- or applicationbased basic research, or are involved in applied research into completely innovative technologies [6], which medium-sized enterprises are rarely able to carry out in sufficient scope within their markets. As mentioned above, what medium-sized companies need more than anything is help with individual – if not daily – problems pertaining to technology use, commercial issues or management. To provide this help across the board requires large numbers of highly motivated, knowledgeable experts. The Steinbeis model encourages people to take the initiative and reap the rewards, including material benefits – and this attracts skilled experts. This approach is unique as no other research institute is able to work in this manner due to formal internal restraints.

So it only remains to wish Steinbeis management every further success, and the same to everyone working at Steinbeis.


Professor Dr.rer.nat. Dr.-Ing.E.h. Max Syrbe

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