Leipzig is Germany’s boomtown. The population is up by 12,000 a year, big industry is returning en masse and an exciting creative scene has granted it, in some quarters, the moniker of ‘The New Berlin’. Others, reeling, prefer to call it ‘Hypezig’.
But beneath the shabby-chic cafes, rebuilt city centre and factories-cum-art-galleries, Leipzig is building itself as an entrepreneurial hotbed. A generation of digital startups have sprouted among the art crowds, and calls are growing for the city’s authorities to pump more cash into an already-promising scene.
Michal Jirasek, a Slovakian who set up shop in the city ten years ago, runs FounderScope, an incubator for local tech firms. He’s ebullient about Leipzig’s prospects, as low rents and an increasing cool draw more from Germany’s bigger cities; mainly from the west. His own office, a sprawling, exposed-brick loft in a disused cotton factory, would cost millions in Manhattan. In Leipzig it sets him and his crew back €400 ($500) a month, all-in.
Jirasek points to the breakthrough successes of local SMEs like e-commerce company TowerByte Leipzig, and text miners TextTech, as proof the city is pulling itself from a past wedged between Allied bombs and socialist poverty. City Hall agrees: Mayor Burkhard Jung, credited with bringing boom times back to Leipzig, stresses the importance of innovation: “The most important thing is to get the companies, entrepreneurs, to strengthen startups, the jobs.”
But infrastructure is still evolving in Leipzig. Transport and web networks often founder, 25 years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall. When Jirasek hosted a recent Startup Weekend he had to move sites because the Internet failed. Another recent hackathon attracted just €400 ($500) of investment from the local authorities. “It’s not a lot,” he says. “But for us it was still important.”
One area Jirasek is excited about, is education. Leipzig University, which was founded in 1409 and was where Goethe, Tyco Brahe and current German chancellor Angela Merkel once studied, has seen a modern renaissance: 47,000 students are now enrolled from 12,000 in 1989, when Leipzig was still a part of the German Democratic Republic (DDR).
At the heart of the university’s progress are its biotechnology courses, which have spawned a number of exciting startups. Last month ImaginAb, a leading-edge antibody imaging firm, signed a deal with Leipzig’s Novotectid to research imaging together in Germany and California.
Leipzig University rector Beata Schücking sees biotech as the core in its development over the next few years. “As a member of German U15 – the large research universities – we want to become European top-level university,” she says. “Therefore we have built up strategic alliances with partner universities.
“A first success of these efforts was to establish the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity at Leipzig, a research centre funded by the German Research Foundation with three universities involved,” adds Schücking. Leipzig University’s efforts have been matched by HTWK – Leipzig University of Applied Sciences – which since German reunification has risen to become one of the country’s largest and best-such institutions.
“It really is the best of its kind for a long way,” says Jirasek, beside the table football set at his office. “Let’s hope we can stop everyone going to Berlin.” Leipzig may have one of the world’s startup capitals just a two-hour drive northwest. But the former industrial city is proving to be a worthy neighbour in the digital field – and looks set to continue that way.