The right environment for change: Impact Hub Berlin is transforming impact entrepreneurship, one ecosystem at a time

8 min read
28 Jul 2022

reatures thrive when they are part of a healthy ecosystem, and the same goes for startups. Here’s how Impact Hub Berlin is creating ecosystems to support the next generation of impact-driven entrepreneurs.

Everywhere you look in Impact Hub Berlin’s new coworking space, you’ll see ecosystems. Signs direct you to offices and common areas bearing the names of various environmental habitats, from Arctic Moss to Frozen Pond to Coral Reef. Some rooms are named after the keystone species without whom their ecosystems would collapse. The podcast studio, for instance, is named Gorilla. “I never would have guessed the gorilla would be such a keystone,” muses Impact Hub Berlin cofounder Leon Reiner. “But without them? Lots of problems.”

Since 2021, he and the rest of the Impact Hub Berlin team have had ecosystems on their minds. It’s not only animals that thrive in the right surroundings; it’s people and ideas too. That’s why, after almost a decade supporting Berlin’s impact-driven entrepreneurs, Impact Hub Berlin has zeroed in on four target areas within which its members can connect, cooperate and grow stronger together.

Impact Hub Locations Map

The Impact Hub mission

Founded in 2013, Impact Hub Berlin is connected with the larger Impact Hub network, an international community of coworking spaces, incubation and acceleration programs, and organizations. While the individual hubs’ methods and offerings differ, their overarching goal is the same: to develop and encourage innovations that support people and the planet and to prove, in Leon’s words, that “there is no direct trade-off between positive impact and making a profit.”

With the help of the German government as well as corporations such as Miele, Rentenbank, and Bethmann Bank, Impact Hub Berlin provides local sustainability-oriented startups with the funding, connections, office space and mentorship they need to get off the ground, while at the same time convincing potential investors that “you can balance people, planet and profit in a sensible way, versus thinking of it as a zero-sum game.” Previously based in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood, Impact Hub Berlin leveled up at the beginning of 2022, moving into the 3,500 m2 CRCLR building in a former brewery complex in the southern part of the city.

You can balance people, planet and profit in a sensible way, versus thinking of it as a zero-sum game.

Impact Hub Berlin. Photo: ©Impact Hub Berlin

Far from your standard office, Impact Hub Berlin’s current headquarters is the largest sustainable coworking space in Europe. It was constructed using upcycled materials, powered by renewable energy, cleaned with ionized water instead of chemicals, and its soon-to-be-opened restaurant will serve zero-waste vegetarian meals.

To match this ambitious new space, Leon and the rest of the team established ambitious new goals. Rather than a general focus on impact-driven ventures, they created four “ecosystems” loosely based on the UN’s 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, each with its own community, targets and specialized programs.

Impact Hub Berlin. Photo: ©Impact Hub Berlin

Impact Hub Ecosystems. Images by: ©Open Funk, ©The Good Run, ©Orora Tech and ©Roots Radicals

What are ecosystems?

“When we thought about how to support people who innovate, be it as part of a startup or in a larger context, we felt that one of the things they need most is a supportive ecosystem around them,” says Leon. Among other things, this means bringing together startups that operate in similar fields, connecting them with like-minded investors and corporations, and hosting events and conferences through which new ideas and partnerships can develop. “We think of it as a whole set of activities with this one topic at the core.”

The four ecosystems – circular economy, sustainable food, diversity and inclusion, and green tech – are populated with members of Impact Hub Berlin’s four-hundred-strong (and growing) community, as well as newcomers scouted out by Leon and his team. 

Since the inception of the concept, Impact Hub Berlin has been building up one ecosystem at a time, with the ultimate goal of running incubator and accelerator programs in all four areas.

Ecosystem 1: circular economy

It’s no coincidence that the first ecosystem Impact Hub Berlin chose to focus on was the circular economy. The very building it’s operating out of is proof of the team’s devotion to renewable resources and zero-waste principles, and many of its members work within this field; for example, the sustainable electronics startup Open Funk, which is currently developing an easily repairable kitchen mixer that is made from recyclable materials and works with glass jars people already have in their households; or the software company Concular, which uses data to reduce the CO2 impact of the construction industry.

March 2022 marked the launch of Circular Together, a six-month incubator program specifically for startups that are developing “convenient and affordable consumer products” or methods of “sustainable and profitable production” within the circular economy realm. Funded by the EU’s European Social Fund and the Berlin City government, it provides founders with a financial stipend as well as individualized coaching, mentoring and master classes, and access to Impact Hub Berlin’s facilities and larger network.

Circular Together by Impact Hub Berlin

The ideal end result, Leon says, is a partnership with a larger corporation or investor that can help these innovations reach the mass market. One of the companies Impact Hub Berlin already has on tap, for example, is the German appliance maker Miele. “The company is already very evolved in its sustainability efforts, with Circular Economy being one of the core focus areas of the company's sustainability strategy. In order to keep improving, they need exchanges with external innovators, startups and partners, and that's where we come in! It's a perfect match.”

With a budget of up to €800,000 (US$875,000), a four-person team running the program and an expert advisory committee helping select participating ventures, the circular economy ecosystem is “the one that’s most alive” right now, says Leon. It is a model for the other three to follow.

Ecosystem 2: sustainable food

Impact Hub Berlin’s next area of focus is sustainable food: supporting startups that aim to bring positive change to a destructive global food system. Members working in this area include Benoo, which sources, assembles and delivers vegetarian meal kits; Roots Radicals, a zero-waste initiative that upcycles food discarded from supermarkets into homemade preserves and hot sauces; and Material Guide, a startup dedicated to promoting “radical transparency” in food production.

A vital part of this ecosystem is Feeding the City, a German satellite of a food-centric incubator originally launched in London in 2018. Now in its third edition, the six-month program pairs founders with pilot partners who will help bring their innovations to market.

Ecosystems 3 and 4: diversity and inclusion, and green tech

Though the final two ecosystems have yet to be fully developed, Leon says that diversity and inclusion will likely be next on the docket. “It’s really interesting, actually, because the others are more classically techie topics. With this one, we have to be very critical about what kind of subtopics we tackle, because there are many that can’t be solved with a startup approach.”

Impact Hub Berlin has already seen one success story in this arena, in the form of a startup that developed out of one of their female empowerment programs. “They created HR software that automatically analyzes the gender pay gap in your company and gives you automated recommendations for what you could be doing about it. We matched them with Vodafone, who became the first large corporate client to roll it out, and now they’ve been bought by one of the world’s top HR consulting companies.” Other issues that this ecosystem would be well equipped to take on include internet hate-speech prevention and disability-inclusive technology, says Leon.

He expects that by the end of 2022, all four ecosystems will be up and running, in the sense that each will have basic funding and a dedicated team of at least two people. “The rest really depends on what kind of partners we can find and how much money we’re able to acquire.”

Impact or greenwashing?

When it comes to choosing corporate partners for Impact Hub Berlin’s ecosystems, Leon says his team is careful to select only those who are truly committed to sustainability rather than those who are simply paying lip service to it. “We’ve actually invested half a year of work in creating a tool to help us make these decisions, but the more we work on it, the more we see how hard it is. Usually it comes down to looking at the company in detail, weighing the potential impact and the potential risk of greenwashing or of them using us for publicity, and having a team discussion.”

There was much internal debate, for example, when a representative from a brand owned by one of the largest global food producers approached Impact Hub Berlin about a cooperation. “He wanted to know about the possibility of exchanging all the animal-based ingredients for plant-based ones – he said he’d be happy to do it, but he didn’t know how. I thought, ‘Wow, there’s someone with that much power – all we need to do is match him with the right people.’ Whereas others said, ‘Hell, no. The corporation he works for is not even part of the problem; it is the problem.’”

In the end, Impact Hub Berlin turned the brand down, but Leon maintains that partnerships with large corporations are key to achieving the most positive impact within the shortest timespan. “Whether we like them or not, if we realistically want to get anything done in the next ten years – which we have to – there’s just no way around it.”

Whether we like them or not, if we realistically want to get anything done in the next ten years – which we have to – there’s just no way around it.

Impact Hub Berlin Leadership. Photo ©Impact Hub Berlin

An impactful future

Leon won’t rule out the creation of other ecosystems beyond the four his team has chosen. “We get a lot of people applying in the area of well-being and health. Currently we’re looking at that as a cross-cutting thing, because well-being is important in all of these areas, but if there’s a lot more traction in our community around it, that might change.”

For now, Impact Hub Berlin’s coworking space accepts new members according to a quota: 80 percent must work in fields related to one of the four ecosystems, while an additional 20 percent is reserved for “other cool impact stuff”.

Will narrowing its focus allow Impact Hub Berlin to widen its impact? With the implementation of its ecosystems’ programs, it seems the team is on the right track. If you work in the field of circular economy, sustainable food, diversity and inclusion, or green technology, Impact Hub Berlin just might be your ideal natural habitat.