For eight years, Cyber Valley has been linking German AI and robotics researchers and spinouts with corporate partners, but a partnership with UTokyo IPC is the first step to it going global.

Alina Benze with arms crossed
Photo of Alina Benze courtesy of Cyber Valley

If Silicon Valley is the heart of AI research in the US, its European equivalent is arguably Germany’s Cyber Valley, where a number of universities and research institutes have developed a collaboration model with leading tech companies such as Amazon, Bosch, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche.

Where Silicon Valley heavyweights and the likes of OpenAI have poured billions into private AI research, Cyber Valley funds research in a way that is more publicly and socially accountable – and now it wants to expand that model and its network worldwide, beginning with a recent tie-up with Japan’s University of Tokyo.

“We don’t want to only have activities and engagement with this region. We actually want to partner up with global partners and similar ecosystems to Cyber Valley to have a global reach,” says Alina Benze, business development manager at Cyber Valley.”

Launched in 2016 with €165m from the German state of Baden-Württemberg, research association the Max Planck Society, the Universities of Stuttgart and Tübingen and several corporate partners, Cyber Valley is a hub that oversees a collection of research groups based at the universities and the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems that focus on AI and modern robotics.

The organisation funds research and connects university and institute researchers to each other and external partners through a mechanism called Start-up Network. The idea is to facilitate innovative research in a way that is both publicly accountable – including having an independent committee to evaluate the ethical and social implications of projects – and capable of moving forward commercially.

A partnership formed with University of Tokyo’s investment arm, UTokyo IPC, in April, means German startups can now explore the Japanese market with local assistance while it provides guidance for similar projects from the UTokyo IPC ecosystem. And it is already looking for more partnerships further afield.

“We see many different regions, within Asia but also Europe and maybe North America, where there are similar hubs for artificial intelligence and robotics. We want to explore who would be beneficial partners for us but also where we can add value for those partners in future,” Benze says.

While the US and China may have a big head start in AI technology, different areas produce different ways of looking at it that could help everyone grow.

That value partly comes from where Cyber Valley is based, in a region of Germany it claims is the most advanced region in Europe for machine learning research. But the notion of expanding internationally doesn’t just mean its community can reach into new markets. There’s a realisation that while the US and China may have a big head start in AI technology, different areas produce different ways of looking at it that could help everyone grow.

“It is possible to create similar community ecosystems with other universities that may have a different focus to ours but which have the same values as us and still aim to drive artificial intelligence,” Benze says. “That’s why we are open to partnerships across the globe – not everyone has to follow our approach, but others can do good things from a different background and maybe a different angle as well.

The corporate link – and why it may be about to get closer

Cyber Valley encourages a startup culture for its scientists and in addition to funding research, and it runs an eight-week incubator where researchers can work on turning their ideas into a business model. Even if they don’t come out with a startup, university students still get academic credits. And since 2019, more advanced startups have been able to apply to join Cyber Valley’s Start-up Network, where they can get access to other researchers as well as its corporate partners.

Aleph Alpha, which has raised more than $600m in the past year from investors including Bosch, came from the Cyber Valley initiative.

The initiative may be just five years old but it already has some success stories, most notably Aleph Alpha, a Start-up Network member that has raised over $600m in the past year from investors including Bosch Ventures. Newer members such as road management software developer Vialytics and robotic assistant startup Neura Robotics had already closed eight-figure funding deals before joining but could use the network to find the corporate investors in their next rounds.

Cyber Valley has strict rules preventing the corporates from having a say in what research is done or taking control of the resulting intellectual property. But both Amazon and Bosch sponsor research facilities at Tübingen, and in theory this could give them an entry point to the next generation of European talent.

“The whole idea of the Cyber Valley Community is to give access to people,” Benze says. “So for example, a corporate can meet someone from a startup that doesn’t have the money to do a lot of marketing and aren’t out there in the market. They can use our platform to connect with each other.

“That also applies to the scientific field as well. Corporates are always interested in finding new talent and our scientific institutions are a really big pool of talented people. So, there is always value in making that connection and meeting active members of the community because they are potentially talent that could be hired in the future.”

What Cyber Valley is considering right now is exploring a corporate version of its incubator, which would be funded by a partner and where participants could work on solutions to specific problems that may be transferred over to the corporate, though that’s an idea that is still at the speculative stage. And one area it is seeing a lot of AI and robotics work is in the medical industry.

“Maybe it’s because of our location and the industry around us, what we really see is a lot of health-related startups,” Benze says. “Young or new teams that use technology around artificial intelligence and robotics to solve key issues within the medical or overall health sector.

“There are many different challenges within that sector, lack of personnel for example, and there are still unsolved sicknesses and diseases where artificial intelligence and robotics have very strong potential. We see a lot of researchers from our institutions picking up on that topic and these key challenges and trying to find solutions. I think that’s great to see because it shows the positive impact of the AI revolution in our society.”

This article was amended on June 7, 2024 to clarify the source of Cyber Valley’s funding

Robert Lavine

Robert Lavine is special features editor for Global Venturing.