The day of his publisher’s launch of his autobiography, Frank Thelen was not interested in talking to the assembled journalists about his life. No, he wanted to talk about the future, Germany’s future. And the tech entrepreneur wanted to do it now, on this day in late August, because the country was running out of time.
“The next decade will be the biggest challenge in humankind’s history,” he said. What about the two world wars? somebody in the crowd asked. Child’s play, compared to what is coming, Thelen replied.
Last year, the self-confident billionaire declared that he was on a mission to be the savior of the German economy. The revelation that this was to be his destiny came to him, he says, while he was writing his autobiography. He realized that Germany was going to need rescuing in the next 10 years and that it was time for him to get serious.
Since 2014, after he joined the jury on the TV show, Lion’s Den, a contest for inventors and entrepreneurs to compete for startup capital, Thelen has been something of a rock star among tech founders. His 288-page tome about himself, which came out last August, is a bestseller.
Last month, he appeared on the talk show, Tough But Fair, where he spoke with German Economics Minister Peter Altmaier and summed up the meeting by saying he thought Altmaier had learned a couple of things. The statement was apparently not a joke.
If you hang around with Thelen a little bit, you will soon discover that he enjoys the trappings of fame. He likes the talk shows, the big stages and the fans asking to take selfies with him. But despite his celebrity, he is also a real tech entrepreneur, having earned millions when he sold his photo platform, ip.labs, to Fujifilm. He funded an incubator with the proceeds of that and has since successfully sold a task management system, Wunderlist, to Microsoft as well as the Uber clone, MyTaxi, to Daimler.
Thelen’s new mission is prompted by his realization that Germany has missed the digital boat and is stuck with past glories such as those perpetrated by Siemens, Bosch and Porsche. Meanwhile the future has been co-opted by others, and mostly American others: Amazon in online retail, Microsoft in software, Google in search engines, Facebook and Twitter in social media and Tesla in e-mobility.
At least €100 billion
But technologies such as artificial intelligence, or AI, new energy sources and quantum computing are still up for grabs. And Thelen’s self-proclaimed mission is to find that platform and build it up to be a global leader worth at least €100 billion ($115 billion), if not more. It’s not about the money though, he adds. He already has so much that he “doesn’t give a s**t” about the money.
His vision of a platform is one that grows with customer input to the point that it becomes indispensable to users. Does he really believe he can find such a thing in Germany? “No idea,” he says, “but it’s now my life goal.”
First step: Go to Berlin and get the politicians on board. In the Factory, a startup campus in the capital, he is chatting with visitors before an appearance with Dorothee Bär, the junior minister for digital innovation. He refers to “Doro” and talks about how they are in constant contact so that he can act as an intermediary between the government and the entrepreneurs. “We’re trying to get things going,” he says of the collaboration. “This is about the future of Germany.”
One of the things Thelen wants “Doro” to do is help get rid of Europe’s new data protection law, which is poison for the economy because personal data is the raw material of the internet age. Another priority is extending Germany’s broadband network, which is behind that of many other countries. That is a prerequisite for the entry of venture capital for AI.
In the ensuing conversation, Bär flatters Thelen that many readers are calling his book as inspirational as Sheryl Sandberg’s title, Lean In. That seems to make him very happy. Thelen then leads a discussion on innovation during which Bär seems more like his than like a federal minister.
However, just two months later when we meet again in Bonn, Thelen is frustrated. He’s invested a lot in his friendship with Bär but there’s been a lack of progress in government policy. “The grand coalition is preoccupied with itself,” he complains. He knows Bär is working hard, but as a junior minister from Bavaria without much of a staff or a budget, she's not in a position to really make things happen. Thelen wishes she had more power and more of a ministry.
A diamond in the rough
In the meantime, Thelen’s focus has shifted away from politics to a new startup, Nebuma. “Hopefully we have discovered a pearl,” he says. Nebuma was invented by a couple from Saarbrücken: It involves a device that can store energy and deal with temperatures of up to 1,300 degrees Centigrade, which is more than double the 600-degree maximum of conventional devices. The core is a new composite material that the couple developed and that is made out of mostly recycled materials.
Thelen won’t say how much he paid for shares in the company, but believes he will eventually be able sell Nebuma for €10 million. It could become a partner for utilities, energy producers, and raw materials suppliers and reap a billion in revenue. “In a year, this company will look completely different,” he says. “Or it will be bankrupt,” he adds. To help things along, he changed the name to Kraftblock. “It just sounds better,” he explains.
Just over a month later, we meet again at a technical institute in Aachen, where Thelen is the guest star at a student conference speaking on the subject he knows best: himself. It’s hard out there for an entrepreneur, he says and talks about his own near-failures and the hard times he had before he sold his photo platform. “My life was broken, my body was broken,” he complains. Later successes came from the risky bets everyone urged him to avoid, like electric plane builder, Lilium. The company’s prototype looked like a badly built drone, but it has done well. His concluding message to the students: “There’s no better time to found a company.”
He says this, even though he confesses that the first half-year of his mission to save Germany has left him somewhat dissatisfied. The four firms he has invested in after their Lion’s Den appearances – they produce hair clippers, dog leashes, chips and liquid food – make money but are hardly world-beaters. Then again, he still has nine-and-a-half years to go.
Before leaving, he confers with the school’s deputy rector and concludes another educational partnership, to go with those he has with technical schools in Karlsruhe and Munich. He will be a regular visitor and review their projects for possible investment.
Before he leaves, Thelen places copies of his autobiography in the foyer for sale. Each copy costs €22. Sales proceed too slowly so the rector announces that now they will give away the books for free. It is only at that stage, the students storm the pile of books, requesting autographs and more selfies.
Volker ter Haseborg is a special correspondent for WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication to Handelsblatt, where this article first appeared. Darrell Delamaide, a Washington, DC-based editor for Handelsblatt Today, adapted it into English.