Munich, Dusseldorf Monja Mühling is the only woman to be on stage. The 30-year-old was self-confidently dancing across the screen during the pitch at the VentureCon investor conference in Munich in May, taking photos of trucks and information about her company Smartlane. Twice she came to the audience: in the morning to win customers, in the afternoon to lure investors.
The effort was worth it: after the presentation, more than 20 investors came to the team, she recalls.
But the Munich-based entrepreneur opted for Bonn-based founder and investor Frank Thelen and his venture capital fund Freigeist Capital, which is now investing a high single-digit million euros in the company founded in 2015, as Handelsblatt exclusively learned.
Thelen has not invested in any other company so far, thanks to the TV duel "Cave of the Lions". For a good reason, as he finds. "Smartlane has the potential to become a European tech champion," he says.
In fact, the Munich start-up could help revolutionize a market that is still largely dominated by telephones, fax machines and Excel spreadsheets: logistics. "When I started to work on the idea of Smartlane, I could hardly believe how analogous the business is in many areas," said Investor Thelen Handelsblatt. "We want to change that with the Smartlane technology now."
At the heart of the Munich start-up is a cloud-based software that helps logistics companies to control fleets more efficiently. The technology takes into account delivery windows, driver capacity, customer needs, and fleet size and type. On this basis, algorithms calculate the ideal tours in just a few minutes.
The system is constantly learning. It uses self-developed Artificial Intelligence, Here's map data, real-time traffic information and vehicle positions. The founders of Smartlane call the principle "transport mining".
Important for investors like Thelen: With its technology, Smartlane has already convinced large customers of the technology, including Deutsche Bahn, Br. Meyer's Sohn and Metro. Smartlane expects a lot from the new investor. "Frank Thelen and Free Spirit offered much more than what financial investors bring with them," said Mühling.
So the free spirit team will support the founder with know-how and contacts. Specifically, this means: Thelen not only brings in money, he and his team coach the founder and her colleagues – and also take on operative tasks. "That's our philosophy," says Thelen. "Money is the smallest part we bring in."
Thelens Freigeist colleague Alex Koch helps the young companies with the technological advancement, Marc Sieberger with the commercialization as well as in the organization of the organization.
Thelen supports the strategy – and opens doors to potential customers and partners. After Freigeist had invested in the air taxi company Lilium, Sieberger was there at times even interim finance chief. The Freigeist team now wants to use this experience in building up young companies at Smartlane as well.
Smartlane attracted investors early on with a mix of the future topics Artificial Intelligence and Logistics. The Family Office Ideenschaft Invest, the Hamburg Mobility Fund and the Next Logistics Accelerator, in which the start-up also went through an accelerator program, rose in the early stages.
The seed investors stay on board. In addition, the company took part in the start-up program Kickstart of the TU Munich. When networking, the investor network helped BayStartup.
Bonners invest their own money
An important difference between Thelens Freigeist funds and other venture capitalists is that they only invest their own money, which they have earned through the sale of companies such as ip.labs, Wunderlist, Mytaxi and others. "We are a founding team, which has already built up several times," says Thelen Freigeist. "That's why we not only see ourselves as investors, but also as entrepreneurs."
So far, Freigeist has invested in a variety of fields – including through investments in the start-up show "Cave of the Lions". Sometimes in food companies, sometimes in fashion start-ups. There was no clear focus so far. But that should change, according to Thelen: "We want to concentrate much more on deep tech in the future," he says. Highly complex technologies, for example, that can simplify processes in the industry.
Such a company is Smartlane. The native of Odenwald, Mühling, founded the company in 2015 together with the computer scientists Florian Schimandl and Mathias Baur. Mühling studied business administration with a focus on technology and computer science in undergraduate studies. An interview as part of her master's thesis brought them together with the two, which they then – even during the existing Exist Founder Scholarship – brought into the team.
The potential market for Smartlane is huge. For example, retail chains could use the technology to organize delivery to their stores or end customers. Thelen believes that Smartlane has the potential to become a counterforce to Amazon's sophisticated logistics technology. "So far, retailers outside of Amazon have little access to such technology," he says. "Smartlane will change that."
In any case, the demand is there: Especially with topics such as the flexibilization of delivery time and location, automated real-time notifications and same-day deliveries, companies are increasingly looking to digitize. Currently, 54 percent of companies use big data analytics, according to a Fraunhofer study. In five years, 83 percent want to do that. However, artificial intelligence has so far only four percent of companies in use – in five years, but want to change 25 percent of respondents.
With the proceeds from the round of financing, the start-up wants to accelerate growth. "We want to build a strong brand," says Mühling. "The goal is that anyone who wants to automate and optimize their transport logistics and the underlying processes, first think of Smartlane."
More: Listen to Frank Thelen in a podcast interview: "We are missing founder heroes"
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