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Cologne has many start-up stories to tell | Photo: Thomas Schäkel
Cologne has many start-up stories to tell | Photo: Thomas Schäkel

Start-ups in Cologne – a co-working story

created by Thomas Riedel | |   digital cologne

Almost unnoticed, Cologne has evolved into a start-up city – due, in no small part, to its dynamic co-working scene

Until now, Cologne has been a small, easily overlooked dot on the world map of start-ups. But with translation service DeepL – which is hot on the heels of Google Translate – and the Eyeo team behind AdBlock Plus, there’s no denying that Cologne can hold its own with the best of them. And with the pioneering construction of The Ship, the city has been promoted to the premier league.

Anyone looking to locate the Ehrenspace in Cologne’s Ehrenfeld district will really need to know what they’re looking for. There’s no big sign announcing what lies behind this nondescript door tucked away in the entrance of the building on the bustling Venloer Strasse. On entering, you’ll find a small, brightly lit co-working space in the rear courtyard of a former artist’s studio, where ten creatives and developers work from.

“The initial goal was to have an attractive workspace with nice, creative people, who I enjoy spending time with”, explained Felix Schürholz to me shortly after the opening in 2016. Back then the developer was looking for a space where he could work in peace and quiet and, after visiting other co-working spaces, decided to take the plunge and open one of his own. And he well and truly struck gold with the location. His dream of having his own workspace became the springboard for his SoSafe start-up, which set up shop at the Ehrenspace for a short while before relocating to the University of Cologne’s start-up incubator Gateway. But after passing the 60-employee mark, they outgrew the space and had to move into their own premises. SoSafe runs an awareness platform offering employees engaging, fun training on IT security topics. An idea that also impressed Acton Capital, which recently invested a seven-digit figure in the young company.

Cologne has many start-up stories like this to tell and co-working spaces play an important role in most of them – which makes a lot of sense because they are usually hotbeds for creative ideas, business models and communities.

Apparently the first attempt at shared working spaces in Cologne was made by local start-up founders Ibrahim Evsan and Thomas Bachem, who established Sevenload, the German equivalent to YouTube. After leaving there in 2009, they founded United Prototype, which was known mainly for its social game Fliplife. As well as running their own company from their offices at Friesenplatz, they rented out free spaces to local freelancers and start-ups. Today, ten years later, you will find the first branch of WeWork in North Rhine-Westphalia just one door down from there.  

And it was surrounding this start-up hype that the first co-working space, ­Co­working Cologne, was also created. The former gas engine factory on the other side of the Rhine in Deutz mainly attracted developers, but also paved the way for numerous start-ups. And just under a decade later, Railslove, the agency resulting from that, is still a very active part of the scene. With Veedelsretter, they established a start-up to support local retailers during the coronavirus crisis. And with the Recover app, they digitalised the whole track and trace system for cafés and restaurants. They are also actively involved with the co-working space Kalkspace, one of the few to be found on the other side of the Rhine.

Once Coworking Cologne had opened the floodgates, co-working spaces started popping up all over the city. Some, such as Desksurfing and the Coworking WG, weren’t around for very long, while Betahaus and others were instrumental in driving the start-up momentum in Cologne. It was Anu Beck who established the Cologne branch of Betahaus in 2011. After visiting the Berlin space, which had been in the German capital since 2009, she was so impressed that she decided to put together a team to help her. But she eventually ended up opening the space on her own, opposite the new central mosque in Ehrenfeld. And following talks with potential partners, she also set up Solution Space, which started out very small and, until 2018, enjoyed a prime location over seven floors near the cathedral.

Betahaus provided another boost to Cologne’s start-up scene. It was here that a hobby project was taken to the next level. Since 2006, Wladimir Palant had been working on the browser extension AdBlock Plus, now one of the most used ad blockers in the world. After bringing investors on board, he set up a company and rented a Betahaus workspace. But once things there became too cramped, he relocated to Clusterhaus, a start-up hub over seven floors, right next to Friesenplatz.

These days, 220 people work for the company – now established and operating under the name Eyeo – from their own office space. “Our office is the beating heart of the company,” explains COO ­Jutta Horstman, while describing it as remote-friendly. And the beauty of this set-up is that 40 percent of Eyeo’s employees work in places where it doesn’t have an office. But they can move to Malmö, Berlin or Cologne if they want to – an option chosen by over 30 percent of all new recruits, which has the effect of bringing new, international blood to Cologne’s start-up scene.

Since starting life at Betahaus, the company has become an important part of Cologne’s digital scene. As the host of numerous events like the Agile QR or the R Meetup, Eyeo is cultivating the developer scene and sending out an important signal with its Girls’ Day. With women accounting for 50 percent of the company’s managerial positions, they are demonstrating that things can be done differently – provided, of course, that the will is there.

So if you want to immerse yourself in Cologne’s start-up scene you’d be well advised to set up shop in one of the city’s co-working spaces and take advantage of the myriad events on offer. And who knows, maybe it could be the start of your very own success story?   

(by Thomas Riedel)