Pretzels on MARS

Outside, chauffeurs in black suits are polishing invisible streaks on the shiny shuttle limousines. Inside, young entrepreneurs in business suits are sitting around, wheat beer in hand, and listening to Richard Branson explain what it takes to be a good entrepreneur.

Pretzels on MARS

Outside, chauffeurs in black suits are polishing invisible streaks on the shiny shuttle limousines. Inside, young entrepreneurs in business suits are sitting around, wheat beer in hand, and listening to Richard Branson explain what it takes to be a good entrepreneur.

And sometimes entrepreneurs look like this: Sir Richard Branson in leather trousers, red gingham shirt, dark red vest and traditional Bavarian shoes and leg warmers (Photo: Bits & Pretzels).

“You have to have the desire to improve the lives of other people,” says the tanned interviewee in his mid-60’s, who has taken his place on the sofa wearing full Oktoberfest attire, “good entrepreneurs surround themselves with people that are better than they are. And they do not bother themselves with too many details.” Another wheat beer to that!

What was started in the late 90’s by former German President, Roman Herzog, under the witty name of “Laptop and Lederhose”, has now taken mature form in Bits & Pretzels. The conference for founders originated from the start-up scene two years ago and has enjoyed great popularity since then. At the premiere in the Löwenbräukeller in Munich in September 2014, the organisers were happy to have more than 1400 guests - at the third Bits & Pretzels on the trade fair grounds in Riem there were already 5000 guests, with an upward trend.

Keynote speaker at the Bits & Pretzels 2016: Actor and investor Kevin Spacey (Photo: Bits & Pretzels).

This time the keynote was held be a genuine Hollywood star: Kevin Spacey. He joined the Swiss IT company Wisekey in 2015 and also supports the video platform Frame.io as well as innovative entrepreneurship in general. “Those who take risks are those who are rewarded.” Encouraging words for the nearly one hundred exhibitors. Over 400 journalists reported about the success stories of Xing, Tinder, Shazam and many others. Also present: the CEOs from Uber, Mozilla, Adidas, Freeletics, as well as Ilse Aigner, Jörg Kachelmann, Carsten Maschmeyer and the band “Sportfreunde Stiller”. Well, OK, the latter gave a concert, but still: It couldn’t have been more colourful, right?

Image gallery: Impressions from the Bits & Pretzels 2016 (Photos: Bits & Pretzels)

Dr Benno Pichlmaier gives a talk on "A new era of robotics".

Concurrent with the Branson interview in an overfilled Hall 14, a few metres further north in Hall 13b, the focus is on “A new era of robotics”. And yes: English is the language spoken here, at least as long as the microphones are on. The first speaker: Dr Benno Pichlmaier, Head of Research and Advanced Engineering at Fendt. An agricultural equipment company at a start-up fair? Absolutely!

Fendt, the high-tech brand of the US agricultural equipment company AGCO, presented a research project funded by the European Union. It has been running for 18 months and goes by the name of MARS: Mobile Agricultural Robot Swarms. These are basically small, autonomous field robots, which are controlled as a swarm using a cloud-based solution. Farmers can use the MARS app, for example, to plan and monitor sowing operations on a tablet, from anywhere and at any time. The placement of each individual seed is documented and saved in the cloud. This allows subsequent cultivation work to be executed precisely and using less resources. A concept that works for owners of small areas of arable land, but is also conceivable for use on the vast fields of the USA or for mechanisation on the African continent. At the end of Pichlmaier’s presentation one of these small robots rolled through the hall and supplied the audience with some crunchy pretzels. That’s the way Agriculture 4.0 may look.

For Pichlmaier, the colourful activities at the start-up fair make it “something quite different than the usual engineering conference,” as he says, “for us as a company, it is an opportunity to show that farming can no longer be reduced to manure forks and rubber boots, but has become a modern high-tech world. Here you find creative young people, who are not bound by familiar pathways and are therefore open to new ones.” He works in a traditional industry, farmers are considered conservative. “However, there is hardly any greater challenge than to provide food, energy and raw materials, both economically and sustainably, for a growing world population. Farmers are interested in innovations that help them do this job. We will shift some borders and put traditional concepts in question. That is why we are also taking new pathways; we therefore feel quite at home here with the creative hustle and bustle of the Bits & pretzels.”

When he and his team discussed the MARS concept with farmers, there was some scepticism at first: “If it says robotics on it, it sounds like rocket science, a bit lofty, academic fantasies,” laughs Pichlmaier, “but when you start talking with people, and explain the principle, it comes over very positive, and is convincing – because MARS is basically a radically simple and robust system. Farmers see many advantages for themselves: for example, they can go out into the fields earlier in the spring to sow seeds, larger machines would just sink into the wet soil. The use of many identical individual units means that the system is very fail-proof. It also has obvious advantages for cultivation, such as flexible seeding patterns for the optimal use of nutrients, water and light.”

Just when MARS will arrive on the Earth’s fields is still written in the stars, and now we’ve come back around to our space friend Richard Branson. In contrast to Benno Pichlmaier, he’s gone way over his allotted time and is talking about his recent cycling accident, which, however, doesn’t deter him from a one-thousand kilometre cycling trip through Italy. Today he’s taking a break, tomorrow he will continue – in his swimming trunks: Branson will be swimming from Sicily to the mainland. He probably just needs a few hours to clear his head; then he will calmly figure out his next business model.