An interview with Munya Chivasa, Head of the Merck Accelerator

September 17, 2018
by Charlotte Danielsson
Munya Chivasa has been Head of the Merck Accelerator Program since it was founded by Merck in 2015. The program invites international startups to the Merck Innovation Center, at the company’s headquarters in Darmstadt, and supports them in the development of their businesses with the clear objective of partnering up with Merck.
Hi Munya, Silicon Vikings is very excited about partnering with Merck to make your accelerator more accessible to Nordic and Baltic startups! To start with, we’d love to hear about why Merck launched the Accelerator?
Hi, thanks for having me! The Merck Accelerator was founded with the aim of partnering up with startups and breathing some new entrepreneurial life into the 350 year-old Merck corporation. From the very beginning, the plan has been to promote sustainable partnerships with startups, which is why we offer guidance every step of the way - even after the program’s three-month duration has ended. Once startups have graduated from the Accelerator, we continue to look out for points where they can connect with Merck and the Accelerator: whether this involves Merck becoming one of the startup’s clients, or as a technology development partner or even sharing a stage at leading industry events, we at Merck are always keen to keep in touch.
We hear the Merck Accelerator is specifically looking for startups in the Nordic-Baltic area. Why is that?
Yes, we are. With such a dynamic startup scene in the Nordic-Baltic area, we know that Nordic-Baltic startups have a lot to bring to the table. Just take a look at what’s going on in places like Finland - with huge startup events like Slush - or Estonia, which is producing more startups per capital than any other country in Europe. It’s this kind of innovative spirit that makes Nordic-Baltic startups so exciting.
What kind of startups are you looking for?
We are looking for startups in the fields of Healthcare, Performance Materials, Life Science and other related fields like Clean Meat, Liquid Biopsy and Bio-Sensing & Interfaces with full-time dedication to their project. This is important to build successful collaboration and allow startups to find in Merck a partner with which they can make their first deals from the very first moment.
And what was it that attracted you to work at the Innovation Center?
Ever since its founding in 1668, Merck has been a world leader in Healthcare, Life Science and Performance Materials. I loved the idea of working for a company that is both 350 years old and on the cutting edge of innovation. When I saw the role at the Innovation Center advertised, I thought: “great, here’s an opportunity for me to get my hands dirty in an industry that’s innovative and forward-looking.” And I wasn’t wrong. I’ve learned a lot at a fast pace - no two days at work are the same.
You’ve mentioned Merck’s experts - what exactly does the Merck Accelerator expert-network look like?
We’re one big, happy family. But seriously, we kind of are! Merck’s network stretches across the globe, with over 50,000 experts in 66 countries. At the core of the Accelerator is a series of ideational mentoring sessions, so our network is tied in very closely with this aspect of the program. It might sound cliché, but the Merck network really does foster exchange and mutual support. We host regular events series such as the Innovators’ Club where attendees can hear keynote speeches on the latest news and trends in the innovation world, network, and swap business ideas. The location of the impressive and brand-new Innovation Center on-site at the Merck Headquarters in Darmstadt means that it has become a hub for Merck experts, Accelerator startups and alumni.
Apart from this network, could you tell us what kind of benefits you give to businesses that come into the Merck Accelerator?
As I’ve already mentioned, startups participating in our three-month program benefit from tailored mentoring sessions from our international network of experts. They can also make use of the Innovation Center’s high tech and rapid prototyping labs facilities such as the Makerspace and receive funding of up to €50,000. For the first time, we’ll also be offering next year’s intake of startups the opportunity to extend their stay in Merck’s China Innovation Hub in Shanghai. I truly believe this kind of support is vital in today’s business environment. Money-only based, short-term support from investors is no longer an option for startups looking to stay around long-term in a world full of competition and challenges.
How are startups from your previous intakes doing now?
We are proud to say that our Alumni of over 40 teams over the last 3years have continued to grow and gain traction within their respective markets. We are especially proud that at least 5 teams still have projects in development with Merck and we even decided to take equity in one of the teams
What kind of entrepreneurial experience do the Merck Accelerator mentors have?
We have a diverse group of Mentors from both within the company and outside. Our external mentors are entrepreneurs in their own right having founded a startup from various industries from IoT to biotechnology. From within the company some of the mentors are business unit heads with P & L responsibilities and some of the expert mentors have or are going through an Intrapreneurial journey of their own within the Merck Innovation Ecosystem
What’s your role within the Innovation Center, in a nutshell?
I head the Accelerator Program and along with the rest of my team am responsible for search and recruitment of promising startups to connect the innovation ecosystem within Merck.
If someone was reading this and thinking they’d like to apply for the startup accelerator, what advice would you give them?
Apply! It’s a brilliant program and applications for the upcoming program in 2019 are open until the 30th of September, so we can say we are already in the final stretch.