Last June, the first batch of German Entrepreneurship’s Master Accelerator program ended. Before the next batch starts, we checked in with some of our program alumni to follow their continued growth journey.
Maria-Liisa Bruckert and Martin Pentenrieder are the co-founders of SQIN. They shared their personal startup story, their experience with other startup accelerators, new plans for their business, and what they learned along the way.
You founded SQIN in 2021, how did the idea come about?
Martin: We both come from the mobility and energy sector. I was already involved with new technologies in my previous startup, while Maria looked at the topic from the perspective of digitization strategy.
Maria: In the years leading up to the founding of the company, it was precisely this interest that led us to focus increasingly on markets that hadn’t progressed very far in terms of digitization. We realized relatively quickly that beauty and health are two markets that still have a lot of potential and yet don’t have a holistic approach.
My mom is a beautician, so it’s fair to say I’m familiar with the beauty field from growing up. I know how little of the professional beauty industry is digital and, above all, how much more could actually be created if the processes were more efficient.
Martin: As a result, we interviewed the relevant players in both markets, beauty and health, and based on the results — together with the stakeholders — we developed the business model behind SQIN.
You have participated in several funding programs, including Master Accelerator and German Accelerator. What should a good startup accelerator do and what did you appreciate most about the programs you were a part of?
Maria: That’s right, we’ve now participated in more than 10 startup accelerator programs in different countries and with different focuses. Overall, we’ve taken something away from each one!
But your success in any of the programs is mainly dependent on how involved the teams behind them are and how intensively you work on the program — rethinking your own concepts, asking for feedback, etc.
Martin: Unfortunately, many of the startup accelerator programs we were a part of took place during the pandemic. Most of it took place online, which meant that a lot of “chance encounters” or more intensive conversations between program points were lost. Especially in other countries and cultures, you can’t really make progress without this personal contact, especially in a business context.
We appreciate all the more that the Master Accelerator and German Accelerator programs quickly tried to make a lot of things hybrid as soon as it became possible. This allowed us to make many connections and take advantage of opportunities that came up along the way — from partnerships to funding.
Maria: For a good program, it’s also important that the participating companies are in a similar stage. Only in this way is it possible to exchange ideas in a good, goal-oriented way, and above all to support each other. This worked particularly well in the Master Accelerator program because we were close together — both in terms of location and business stages.
Martin: A good startup accelerator should also be tailored to a certain extent to the needs of the individual startups or shape itself with them. Going through a fixed program no matter if it’s a good fit doesn’t help. In addition, I think it’s important that the startup accelerator brings a strong and resilient network and fosters intense relationships between mentors and startups, especially through real meetings in person.
Programs like German Accelerator help startups with internationalization. Why should a founder deal with internationalization at an early stage?
Maria: The topic of scalability in products or solutions is basically an initial decision. Is the product you want to build more locally addressed or actually widely scalable? If you want to answer that question, you have to approach it through informed inquiry.
One way to do this is to talk to people who already have experience with this. That way, you can also avoid common mistakes.
When you get to the point as a startup where you’re talking about new markets in funding rounds or with partners, you also have to know these things. For example, in the German Accelerator program test cases are built in the relevant markets, and you get to know the cultures, as well as the local needs.
Martin: Having and interpreting this knowledge is necessary to be able to develop an internationalization strategy at some point.
With my previous startup, I have already successfully taken this step in various markets and have made the experience that in this field (we dealt with fuel cells) other markets were already much further along. The German market, on the other hand, was not ready for the topic at that time. That’s why we initially developed our company in the American market in order to grow from there.
This is precisely why other startups should also address this issue. It’s not just a question of finding the right growth markets, but also the right entry market. A successful startup requires a good product, the right team, and perfect timing. Maybe the perfect timing isn’t there yet in your home market, but maybe it’s in another market.
Has anything changed for you and SQIN as a result of participating in the programs?
Maria: Definitely! First and foremost, we’ve grown as founders and have built strong networks, especially in German-speaking countries, but also in the U.S., for example.
These networks are also really resilient. People look beyond their own horizons and everyone helps us to move forward.
Martin: Most recently, we were able to actively close investments and partnerships through the Master Accelerator program. By looking at the right questions, we went into the next phase of our business stronger. For example, we didn’t have the business model 100% set up at the beginning of the Accelerator, but now we are very clear about it.
Value the experiences that people around you share.
Your app uses artificial intelligence. How do you think AI technology is doing in Germany? What is going right and where is there potential for improvement?
Martin: Unfortunately, there are many areas that still have a lot of potential for improvement. Starting with the fact that “artificial intelligence” is often simply used as a buzzword, even when there are only statistics behind the solution. There is a lack of clear definition here.
Maria: Another point is the ethical question: up to what point is tech good and when does human begin? How do we manage to advance and improve issues through technology instead of merely replacing humans? Many don’t even consider this aspect. For example, in our own solution, it’s not “How can we use our technology to do what a doctor does?” but “How can I use technology to make doctors better and make their knowledge available to more people?”
Martin: In addition, many EU regulations regarding artificial intelligence are hardly clarified or at least offer very little leeway. For example, certifications are very static and hardly allow the technology to change further — which is difficult to implement for a technology that thrives on constantly learning and evolving.
Finally, the field is a young one, so many funding guidelines aren’t even designed for the topic or for early-stage startups. It might be time not to keep expanding or specifying the funding system, but rather to adapt it to new developments including not only artificial intelligence, but also the area of remote working.
Maria: However, the strong startup culture around AI is doing very well. In Germany, for example, there are countless funding programs and many corporations that are actively looking for innovation and are involved in accelerator programs.
Your app relieves doctors but doesn’t replace them. Do you see this kind of technology collaboration as what a startup can uniquely offer? Is this supplement also perceived and accepted as such?
Martin: We firmly believe that we need such solutions!
Technology should be seen first and foremost as a booster of efficiency. Let’s take a look at the medical industry alone: According to a study by PwC, there will be a shortage of around 165,000 doctors in Germany alone by 2030. That’s why it’s even more important that these doctors have quick and easy tools to support them.
Nevertheless, one should not make the mistake of developing only for doctors — technology stands between doctor and patient and should ensure that both sides feel comfortable. For that reason alone, processes should be looked at from different perspectives.
Maria: On the part of the doctors, unfortunately, there is often initial fear of contact: Will technology take my job away? Is this the doctor of the future? However, with the right communication, which as always is key, SQIN is very well received. Physicians are demonstrably more efficient and the platform was developed together with physicians for physicians — we are very proud of that.
Martin: It’s a challenge to communicate all this in the same way. Unfortunately, many people see these issues differently. But that’s exactly why we’re active: to bring about change in this area.
New in the sense of daring to break new ground, but not without the experience and insights of experts and the tried and true?
Maria: This is exactly our approach and the reason why we have participated in so many Accelerator programs!
Why do you think women are still a minority among startup founders? What would have to change for more women to become entrepreneurs?
Maria: In short, we need more female role models!
There is definitely no lack of good ideas and skills, but it is a question of courage. That’s why we’re also on the road ourselves in many ecosystems, to lead the way as role models. For example, I am part of TiE Women and have already been a guest at createF. But platforms that are not purely women-centric are also particularly important for creating visibility.
Of course, it’s a big challenge to balance the different issues in life — career, relationship, family, friends — and especially as a startup founder or CEO, you really do have a lot of responsibility that you have to learn to deal with. In our society, men are shown in many places that they can take on this responsibility. Women, on the other hand, often lack someone to tell them that they too can do this very well.
Last but not least, our German legal system disadvantages founders in many areas, but especially female founders. Recently, for example, there was a petition calling for equal maternity protection rights for self-employed women.
What do you think about the news in recent weeks that startups should prepare for hard times? Do you share the fears of other founders?
Maria: If we’re all honest, it was foreseeable in the last few years that things can’t always just go up. We’re seeing more of a market correction. It is becoming apparent which approaches can also prove their worth in the long term, especially in industries where very similar solutions are represented several times.
Specifically related to HealthTech, we have more of a bullish mood because the topic has just really taken off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Martin: Also, it’s very crisis-proof because health is just always an issue and so there’s hope among HealthTech investors. Fundraising rounds continue to close, and as far as growth, companies are still reporting positive numbers.
What are your next goals or projects for SQIN?
Martin: We are currently in the next round of financing, primarily to drive further growth and technology development.
In addition, new locations are on our agenda. We just spent six weeks in the United States, supported by the German Accelerator. We now also want to develop a concrete strategy from the knowledge we have gained about the various markets.
Of course, we want to expand our ecosystem in the coming weeks and continue to drive forward the coverage of the value chain.
What advice would you give other entrepreneurs and startup founders?
Maria: Of course it’s important to have a good product, but your network is at least as important! Listen to what others have to say, especially your target audience, and learn to value the experiences that people around you share. Reflect on them and make the most of them for you and your business.
Skin health is important. However, a shortage of dermatologists stands in the way of necessary treatments. To bridge this gap, the SQIN app provides a learning/AI-based 360° platform to help users with personalized care for their skin health and personal well-being. In collaboration with dermatologists, the app can be used to clarify minor diagnoses or preventive measures in telemedicine consultations, while intensive cases are treated in the doctor’s office. The app has more than 150,000 users and continues to grow.
In June 2022, founding couple Maria-Liisa Bruckert and Martin Pentenrieder closed a US$1 million pre-seed funding round during their participation in the Master Accelerator and are preparing to expand SQIN into the U.S. with the help of German Accelerator.
Ready to scale your startup to unicorn levels? Apply today for the Master Accelerator program by German Entrepreneurship and learn from master entrepreneurs on how to grow your startup like never before.