Andreas Zeller

Andreas Zeller (high resolution photo)

Andreas Zeller is faculty at the CISPA Helmholtz Center for Information Security and professor for Software Engineering at Saarland University. His research on automated debugging, mining software archives, specification mining, and security testing has proven highly influential. Zeller is one of the few researchers to have received two ERC Advanced Grants, most recently for his S3 project. Zeller is an ACM Fellow and holds an ACM SIGSOFT Outstanding Research Award.

Phone:  +49 681 87083-1001
Twitter:  @AndreasZeller
GitHub:  andreas-zeller

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The Founder's Project in Entrepreneurial Cybersecurity

by Andreas Zeller

This page collects information about the founder’s project in the Entrepreneurial Cybersecurity Course of Study at Saarland University.

The key facts in brief:

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Your Team

Your team should consist of 2-4 students. Your team will need to encompass several qualities, both from an organizational and technical perspective. Hence, diversity is key. As a single person, you are less likely to realize all these qualities in a single individual, so you are well advised to team up with others.

Your team members should plan to finish their studies at the same time. Over time, your project will need more and more devotion from you, so try to minimize interference with studies. At the end of the project, all of you should be ready to create a business without having a conflict with getting your degree first.

Your team members should come from Entrepreneurial Cybersecurity, ideally in the same cohort as you. A good way to find additional team members is the lecture series “Perspectives on Cybersecurity”, which is mandatory for all students of Entrepreneurial Cybersecurity.

Your Idea

Getting a good idea is hard. Your idea must be good enough to eventually sustain you and your business economically - and hopefully go beyond mere sustaining :-) Hence, you need to think about unique selling points:

These two questions will follow you throughout the project.

A great source for ideas is the lecture series “Perspectives on Cybersecurity”, which specifically focuses on open and promising issues, as well as examples from successful founders.

Another great source is your lecturers. Ask them for specific challenges, opportunities, or open questions in their field – often, researchers have some technology recently developed which one may make money from, but the researchers themselves focus on academic goals.

If you develop your idea all alone, you own the rights to it. If you adopt the idea from another researcher, they or they employer may own its rights. Consult early within your team as with potentially involved third parties as it comes to intellectual property.

Starting the Founder’s Project

Starting the Founder’s Project is similar to a thesis – you need to find a topic (that is, your idea), a team, and an academic advisor (called a mentor).

Your mentor, however, will only devote time on teams whose ideas have reached some initial level of maturity – that is, they are not dismissed with the first argument.

Your Idea

To refine your ideas, the course spokespersons (Andreas Zeller and Bernd Finkbeiner) offer appointments in which you can present initial ideas (however immature they may be) and get feedback.

The Very Initial Proposal

To express your idea, you have to draft a Very Initial Proposal. This is a two-page document consisting of two parts:

This Very Initial Proposal will be first be approved by one of the course spokespersons. Their feedback may lead you to go back to the drawing board, likely in several rounds.

The Mentor

Once the Very Initial Proposal is approved, the spokespersons will help you finding a mentor. (You can also use it to search for a mentor yourself). Once you are accepted by a mentor, the project will officially start.

Your Prototype

During the project semesters, you will systematically develop your idea, both from a technological as well as from a business standpoint; your mentor will assist you with that. This typically means to implement a prototype that demonstrates the feasibility and value of your idea. This prototype may well become the base of your later business, so make sure it is developed to high standards from the very beginning.

As students, you own the rights to all your work in the prototype. The university may claim usage rights for scientific purposes. Using third-party code may require specific arrangements.

The Jury Sessions

At the end of each semester, there is a Jury session in which a Jury of scientists and business experts will evaluate your progress.

A typical Jury session format is as follows:

Both the pitch and the Q&A session are deliberately short – focus on the essentials. A typical pitch shows

  1. the problem and market you are addressing,
  2. what is new and promising about your idea,
  3. why you are the ones who can do it,
  4. that your prototypical solution may work, and
  5. that your business proposal is sound.

The Jury members will be provided with handouts of your presentation as well as your business proposal (see below). The Q&A session will focus on the pitch and the proposal.

This Jury session is crucial for your passing the respective project semester; if the Jury is not convinced, you will not pass.

Your Business Proposal

To make the Jury meeting efficient, you have to provide a business proposal that details your idea. Together with the prototype, this proposal documents your achievements in the respective semester of the founder’s project.

Your proposal should be organized along a number of questions (which actually are typical for evaluating business proposals). With each semester, you will have to answer more questions and to provide more details; your business proposal will thus grow in time.

CISPA and Saarland University provide counseling on business ideas. They will be happy to provide feedback on your proposals, especially at the late stages.

While the full list of questions may feel intimidating at first, keep in mind that at the beginning, you only need few answers – and these can still be vague. Only at the end of the third semester do things get serious, and that is when you should have all answers ready for potential investors.

Title Page

State the title of your project, your names, your student IDs, and how to reach you.

Your Idea

Start your proposal with giving the reader your idea.

First Semester

  1. What is the objective of the company/project?
  2. What is the innovative character of the service and product portfolio?
  3. Which characteristics give the product or service a unique position?

Be sure to detail some typical usage scenario, possibly using your prototype.

Second Semester

All the questions as above, plus

  1. Are partnerships or additional services necessary to place the product and service in the market?
  2. Which legal regulations, norms or standards have to be fulfilled?

Third Semester

All the questions as above, plus

  1. What is the warranty and service policy?
  2. Have any intellectual property rights already been registered?
  3. At what stage of development are the products and services?
  4. What further development steps are planned?
  5. What resources are available for further development?
  6. Which areas may carry development risks and how are these met?

Your Team

Now that the idea is set, tell the reader about yourselves, and why you are the ones to do it.

First Semester

  1. How is the project team composed?
  2. What complementary skills does the founding team have?

Second Semester

All the questions as above, plus

  1. Which positions still need to be filled?

Third Semester

All the questions as above, plus

  1. What are the key positions in the project?
  2. What qualifications and experiences do the employees in key positions bring?
  3. Which business partners are involved in the service creation process?
  4. Can capacities be adjusted at short notice?
  5. Are quality assurance measures in place?
  6. What is the planned organizational structure of the company/ project?
  7. Is there a need to optimize the current organizational structure? How?

Market and Competition

Let the reader know about the market – and how you want to make money.

First Semester

  1. Is the addressed market big enough?
  2. What are the success factors in the market?
  3. What role do innovation and technical progress play?
  4. Which companies are competitors within the market?

Provide specific names and numbers here, quoting your sources.

Second Semester

All the questions as above, plus

  1. What goals/strategies are competitors pursuing?
  2. Which expertise do competitors have?
  3. How big are the financial resources of the competitors?
  4. What are the reasons for successes and failures of competitors?
  5. How will the competitors react to the market entry?

Third Semester

All the questions as above, plus

  1. To what extent is the intended company dependent on individual suppliers and customers?
  2. How big are the current and expected returns within market segments?
  3. How has the industry developed in the past and what are the forecasts?
  4. What market potential and volume is estimated for the individual market segments?

Business Model

First Semester

  1. How is your service new and useful?

Be sure to detail the difference your service makes – in particular compared to the state of practice, or the state of the art.

Second Semester

All the questions as above, plus

  1. What is the company‘s vision, goals and strategy?
  2. What is the customer‘s need?
  3. What is the core competence of the company?

Third Semester

All the questions as above, plus

  1. How is the core competence protected?
  2. Can the planned success be achieved with the proposed business model?
  3. Can the business model be easily adapted to changes in the economic environment?
  4. Which services are provided by the company itself, what is outsourced?

Marketing and Sales

First Semester

  1. What sales (volume) and turnover (value) is the planned company aiming for?

In the first semester, only a rough estimate is required here; in later semesters, you will have to refine these estimates, detailing how they came to be.

Second Semester

All the questions as above, plus

  1. What prices should be achieved?
  2. According to which criteria are the prices formed?
  3. How high should the profit margin be?
  4. Which target groups are best reached through which sales channels?
  5. How is the attention of target group customers drawn to the product?
  6. What kind of marketing channels should be used?

Third Semester

All the questions as above, plus

  1. Which sales/promotion measures will be used?
  2. How high is the cost to permanently retain a customer?
  3. How high are the customer acquisition costs?
  4. Which requirements (number, qualification and equipment of the employees) have to be fulfilled by the sales department in order to successfully implement the marketing strategy? What expenses are planned for this?
  5. How will sales and earnings be distributed among the individual sales channels?
  6. What market share per channel can be achieved?
  7. What expenses will be incurred when introducing the products and services?

Starting your Business

At a later stage during the founder’s project, you may actually be founding your company. This is again where the project teams at CISPA and Saarland University can help you. They will also be happy to get you in contact with investors, both nationally, and internationally; and also help with getting more team members into your company.

Your Thesis

In the last semester of the project, you will also write your Master’s Thesis. Your thesis would typically be rooted in your joint project, and document and evaluate an individual technical aspect of your solution. Your thesis thus can also serve as reference for current and future co-workers in your company.

Each team member writes her/his thesis individually; this is thus an opportunity for each team member to highlight her/his individual contributions. As the thesis requirements are more lightweight than in other CS courses of study, you can still focus on your joint project.

And Then…

After your thesis is done and your founder’s project is completed with the third semester, you will have

At this point at the latest, your studies are over. Congratulations! However, CISPA and Saarland University will be more than happy to talk to you about further funding of your business and your entrepreneurial career. See you!