“Digitalisierung” Doesn’t Have to Be A Dead-end

Martin Boehm (Beiersdorf’s Chief Digital Officer) on the Stage at the SAP.iO Foundry, Powered by Techstars Accelerator Demo Day (2017) as the Greendeck presenter.

UPDATE: We are launching our 2nd Berlin Foundry initiative on 28 May 2018. The 6-week program will focus on Industry 4.0 innovations relevant to SAP’s leading manufacturing customers. We are looking for Startup solutions that leverage AI, Machine Learning and IoT in key segments like Digital Manufacturing and Supply Chain. If your start-up demonstrates a combination of deep domain expertise, strong technical capabilities, and a pioneering vision then you should apply.


An op-ed published earlier this week, criticizing Germany’s use of the word “Digitalisierung” (Digital Transformation) as the all-in-one encompassing term for innovation, has been making waves online. The author accuses German companies of taking a “late-mover advantage” approach to tech innovation. Falling behind their American counterparts due to “their focus on hardware, Germans (bosses) are oblivious to simpler (software) changes hiding in plain sight.”

But to every rule/statement there is almost always an exception/ counterstatement.

Here, at SAP.iO, we support and work with visionary startups that (wait for it…) don’t make hardware, but train machines to use data in intelligent ways to solve problems. Faster and novel approaches that augment human work and efficiency are being developed at the Foundries and perfected daily.

We’re also fortunate enough to be surrounded by a wealth of SAP customers who want the outcomes generated by these new approaches. Those customers and co-innovation partners work with the startups at our SAP.iO Foundries and ecosystems to realize SAP’s vision: to make the world “Run Better.”

How to: Digitalisierung?

Dirk Ploss is the newly appointed Head Technology Scout at Beiersdorf. Trying out new technologies that the skincare gaint can work with — like building a chatbot, a new skill for Amazon’s Alexa, or digital business models — are all in a day’s work for Dirk. As a very active partner at the SAP.iO Foundry in Berlin, Beiersdorf is a great example of how “Digitalisierung” can be done right, regardless of the “inadequacy” of the term and the backlash in some quarters of the German-speaking world.

Dirk was enthusiastic about sharing his thoughts on digital innovation at Beiersdorf with us. Despite fighting a week-long cold, he openly discussed how the manufacturer of the world’s most recognized blue round tin (containing “a cream with the smell of childhood”) is working on redefining their business’s future.

Q. Should we dive right in? Which innovation approach do you pursue in your role at Beiersdorf?

Dirk: At Beiersdorf we’re trying to build the future of “care”. We just started scouting for startups and technologies around this topic. What we’re trying to do is to leverage the core competencies of product innovation that we’ve perfected over the last 130 years and transplant them into the digital age. By starting with the consumer and ending with the consumer — we are sticking to a very consumer-centric approach.

Q. Are you concentrating on a certain geography?

Dirk: We’re taking a global approach. NIVEA (Beiersdorf hallmark brand) is available in more than 160 countries. We are used by more than 500 million consumers worldwide. We always keep in mind in whatever it is that we do.

Q. But what kind of innovations are you really looking for?

Dirk: We are especially looking into Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning innovations that uncover advantages and new opportunities — this can be along the lines of our internal processes to make us more efficient or something that can help us influence and optimize our consumer’s journey. Besides AI & ML we’re also looking at all emerging trends circulating the buzzword/hype-wagon.

We’re currently engaged with four startups that are very active in the ML & AI fields — all of them were part of the 2017 cohort from the SAP.iO Foundry, Powered by Techstars Accelerator. For instance, by working with Bewgle we’ve been able to find a new way to approach customer reviews online. We were able to get more consumer insights about what our consumers are talking about and how they’re talking about our products. We’re also running pilots with a pricing optimization solution that could give us a huge market advantage.

A sneaky picture of Dirk Ploss and the Beiersdorf team at their first visit to the SAP.iO Foundry.

Q. How would you describe the experience with SAP.iO?

Dirk: It was really cool to work with such a dedicated and highly professional team and to have the opportunity to get very early access to emerging technologies and startups. There was not a single moment where we felt overrun by something — it was always on eye-level. We’ve had a good feeling about the work, always.

Q. What are some of the outcomes of your interactions with the cohort at the SAP.iO Foundry in Berlin?

Dirk: One outcome for us was: it’s best to collaborate with accelerators rather than to run one ourselves- given the required effort, time and resources. It would take us such a long time and a lot of effort to build up something with the same quality as the SAP.iO and Techstars one.

Q. What made you decide to collaborate with the SAP.iO Foundry in Berlin?

Dirk: The portfolio! AI & ML are one search field that we pro-actively scouting, and we immediately saw some incredible opportunities. There aren’t that many accelerators in this area/ field of research or even startups. Besides, as we are SAP customers, the collaboration was even smoother.

Q. Would you recommend the program to other SAP customers? What is the real appeal or benefit?

Dirk: It gives you access to new and emerging technologies that you would otherwise not even notice, at least not for a couple of years! A lot of those startups are usually under the radar until they have gained a significant size. Teaming up with the accelerator gave us the feeling of being involved in the early stages of developing the product. Aside from providing us with early access to the products, it was also a big chance for us to influence the development –to get a more customized solution. I doubt that we would be able to have this level of customization had we teamed up at a later-stage or stumbled across them in the open market after they’ve finalized their product.

The integration focus that comes with the startups inside the SAP.iO Foundry is official. As SAP customers–it’s so much easier to integrate those innovative solutions into our existing IT systems because we can build on what’s already there.

Q. How do you plan to expand your involvement in the future?

Dirk: Right now, we’re talking about taking over some more mentorships, because we feel that we can provide even more to the accelerator program. So not only being a pilot customer but also mentoring and coaching the startups on how to work with corporates, how to get the right person in the corporation and how to build a proposal. Startups need to learn how to approach and work with corporations and we can help!

We’re planning on inviting the startups to come to our internal “Juice Up” sessions (just like we did last year with the startups from the 2017 cohort- Bewgle and Refineai).

Juice Up sessions are an event series we’re running at Beiersdorf’s HQ in Hamburg, where we invite startups and innovators to present their ideas and businesses to a broader audience. We then give feedback to the presenters in a supportive environment focused on getting the ideas out there.

Q. How do you feel that those new and emerging solutions are being received by other colleagues? You’re obviously part of the team that has their finger on the pulse, but what about the rest of the organization?

Dirk: The perception that we feel in the company is more focused on the opportunities and possibilities that the new solutions from those startups and technologies could provide rather than the potential pitfalls. But to further develop this risk-taking culture is one of the big challenges ahead.

Q. Do you think that’s something that you could also offer as part of the mentorship? To teach startups how to navigate the risk-averse waters?

Dirk: Yeah, definitely. When we talk and work with startups, they are so passionate and enthusiastic about their solutions, that they tend to be blind to the risks that we as a corporation see. We have to make them aware of the potential risks and how they can confront them as part of the process of talking with a corporation.

Q. How would you describe the experience overall? What are some of your key highlights/moments?

Dirk: A key moment for us was the 2017 Demo Day in Berlin! We felt the crowd’s energy rising as they watched the startups’ pitches. That theater was alive! The pitches were very professional and the passion was there. It was great to see our very own logo on the big screen in the legendary Babylon theater. It felt like we have arrived at the startup-scene. It was an iconic moment for us.

It really was…for all of us. It looks like I’m offically out of questions!


And that’s it — that’s how we, at SAP.iO and SAP, are making the future happen. Terms might be necessary to describe phenomena in academic contexts but at the end of the day: “what’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet?”

Language may limit our ability to describe what tech can do, but the reality is business-savviness, a future-oriented outlook and the right partner can defy language inadequacies.

If you’re an innovative startup, corporate, business, or spirit, then join us! Industry-changing, customer-centric innovation happens here @SAP.iO.

Applications for our Berlin Foundry are now open!