International Entrepreneurship as driver of the start-up culture at the Upper Rhine

Professor Dr Harald F.O. von Korflesch heads the Zentral Institute for Scientific Entrepreneurship & International Transfer (ZIFET) at the University of Koblenz-Landau. In international projects and research, ZIFET deals with various aspects of international entrepreneurship and the opportunities that the concept offers. We spoke with the professor of information management, innovation, entrepreneurship and organizational design about how international entrepreneurship can fuel innovation and start-up culture in the Upper Rhine region.



Professor Dr Harald F.O. von Korflesch, founder and director of the Zentral Institute for Scientific Entrepreneurship & International Transfer (ZIFET) at the University of Koblenz-Landau.

Professor von Korflesch, the concept of international entrepreneurship is perhaps not familiar to everyone: what does it mean?

International Entrepreneurship deals with all the common facets of setting up a business from the additional perspective of internationalization. This can concern the search for investors on the international market as well as the question of whether to set up one’s team internationally. Internationalization therefore does not only mean that a company becomes active in a foreign market. Often internationalization takes place within the company without it having to internationalize in the classical sense. For example, companies adopt behavioral patterns that originated in Silicon Valley, the founders’ Mecca worldwide, and are now practiced in the start-up scene all over the globe. Or they use methods such as the design thinking method initiated at Stanford University to develop new and innovative ideas. In these cases, one could also speak of “International Entrepreneurship@Home”.


In KTUR, we want to better position and intensify knowledge and technology transfer (KTT) in the Upper Rhine region across national borders. What can international entrepreneurship contribute to this?

The trinational region has an advantage in KTT when a trust-based relationship has been established between the actors, i.e. people know each other and start to move things forward together. This is exactly the understanding of KTUR. Start-ups play a strong role in the context of KTUR. In order to make good use of the potential of this cross-border region, the concept of international entrepreneurship should be firmly anchored in KTUR and the region; in the sense that every start-up in the Upper Rhine region has the other two countries in the region directly in mind. In order for it to become natural for a start-up company in the Upper Rhine region to think trinationally, hurdles must be kept as low as possible, which is also a goal of KTUR. Also, company founders from the region should ideally always have mixed teams from all three countries in mind or, in the case of competences that are lacking, always look beyond the national borders. The goal should be to take advantage of the internationality that the region and the concept of international entrepreneurship offer. It would be super exciting if we could have something like “natural international startups”, simply because a culture of thinking trinationally in the context of knowledge and technology transfer has developed in the Upper Rhine region.


Is international entrepreneurship a young topic because there is perhaps a new founder mentality that is more globally oriented?

The topic itself is certainly not an entirely new one. There have always been start-ups that have positioned themselves internationally at some point. However, international entrepreneurship has gained a boost through digitalization, as we now have the basic understanding that the world is accessible everywhere. The components of the international or global in start-ups are indeed very topical.


When is the right time to internationalize?

This is usual in a growth phase. Before that, a company founder is usually busy with enough other things. If you start your own business with a promising idea, you first try to gain a foothold in the local, regional and then national market. Coordinating resources from other countries at the same time is quite challenging. However, it could also be exciting at an earlier stage of the start-up to consciously focus on markets abroad, for example, if one is developing concrete ideas for the needs there. This could be an environmental technology that is not needed in one’s own country because the problem that the technology is supposed to solve does not exist there but does in another country.


For whom is International Entrepreneurship suitable? Start-ups, small or medium-sized enterprises, self-employed people?

If we consider the life cycle of start-ups and realize that on average it makes sense to enter an international market perhaps after five to seven years, then the start-up has usually already developed into a small or medium-sized enterprise (SME). For SMEs as well as bigger companies, internationalization has always been an interesting strategy. For the self-employed, it certainly depends on the service they offer to what extent entering a foreign market makes sense and is attractive. While a consultant can certainly operate internationally without any problems, foreign markets mean quite different hurdles for a craftsman. In general, there are always bureaucratic aspects that one is not familiar with or a new legal system that becomes relevant. Entering a new market and positioning oneself accordingly is quite expensive at the end of the day and thus always a question of resources.


In a border region like the Upper Rhine, an entrepreneur has the export market virtually on his doorstep, which is actually a great opportunity to open up new markets?

A border region is indeed a great advantage. In order to break down barriers to entrepreneurship across borders, you need political backbone and good networks like the one we are building in the KTUR project. By closely networking the actors in the field of knowledge and technology transfer, one can also orient one’s own services with a view to the two other countries in the Upper Rhine region and can advise those interested in setting up a business in such a way that they are always allowed to think about the entire region in their business plan. An important precondition for this is that a cross-border region, such as the Upper Rhine region, actually thinks as a region and not in terms of country categories. Of course, the respective country is interested in a start-up being founded precisely in that country, because that is where the taxes are paid. Developing sovereignty and a relaxed attitude here, as well as the necessary trust and acceptance, is definitely a challenge, both for KTUR and the Upper Rhine region itself.


What aspects of international entrepreneurship are being researched at ZIFET?

We are particularly interested in team diversity, diaspora entrepreneurship and returnee entrepreneurship. Specifically, in our team research we are concerned with diversity, of which internationality is one aspect. By diaspora we mean our foreign students who come from other countries and often from a different cultural background, and who implement start-up ideas here in Germany, i.e. from the diaspora, in their home countries. We are interested in their motivations and the way they implement their start-up project. If the students return to their home countries and set up a business there, we are interested in how they deal with intercultural overlap situations in their own person. The returnees got to know our culture through their studies in Germany and still carry the culture of their home country within them. It is then exciting how they deal with these cultural overlaps in their daily work.


The ZIFET team is currently working on international entrepreneurship in two international projects in Morocco and Rwanda: What exactly is it about?

The MUnIE (Maroccan Entrepreneurial University Initiative) project aims to adapt the structures and offers of two reputable universities in Fez and Rabat to the needs of the labor market and to accompany them on their way to becoming an entrepreneurial university. In other words, to become a university that lives the topic of entrepreneurship internally, creates a start-up culture, sharpens its course offerings accordingly and promotes start-ups. As part of the pilot project StArfrica (Startup Germany-Africa), we are working with our partner, the University of Rwanda, to create a start-up-related bridge between Germany and Africa. In concrete terms, this means that we want to position Germany attractively for Rwandan start-ups and at the same time sensitize German start-ups for market entry in Africa, i.e. facilitate “market entry by entrepreneurship”.


Are these projects also exciting for companies from the Upper Rhine region?

Absolutely! For companies from the Upper Rhine region that are interested in business cooperation in Morocco or want to set up there themselves, we are happy to serve as an information hub. We have very good contacts through our two partner universities, the Université Euro-Mediterannée de Fès (UEMF) and the Institut Agronomique et Vétérinaire Hassan II (IAV) in Rabat, and maintain good relations with the Chamber of Commerce in Casablanca. Due to its focus, StArfrica is particularly exciting for German companies in the Upper Rhine region. But of course, companies from the French and Swiss parts of the region can benefit from the knowledge generated by the project.


Professor von Korflesch, thank you very much for the interview!


Author: Kerstin Theilmann, Copyright Picture: Henriette Kriese.