Interviews with start-up founders


Hello Jan and Christian. Why do you think tool hire is a viable model for the future?

Jan Gerlach: As a society, our consumer behaviour is a lot different to what is was even just a few years ago: we now hire cars, bicycles and e-scooters by the hour. We do not buy DVDs or CDs any more. Instead, we stream films and music online. People want continued access to products, but they don’t necessarily want to own them. This is especially true of products that are only used every now and then. Tools are a typical example of this.

DIY stores have been hiring out tools for years now – what is different about toolbot?

Christian Lehmann: We want to make the whole process of hiring tools cheaper and easier. DIY stores are often located out of town and customers have to make a total of four journeys in order to hire something and return it. Standing in queues, paying a deposit, keeping to the store’s opening hours – all of this is unnecessary with our collection points. They can be located anywhere, are open 24/7 and are very easy to operate via a smartphone. Our service is also cheaper, as our automated processes mean we save on staff costs.

How did you come up with the idea?

Jan Gerlach: When I had finished my industrial design degree in 2013, I rented a small office in Berlin. To fix up the office I needed a jigsaw, which I wanted to hire from a DIY store. When I got there, I had to wait 45 minutes only to discover that I didn’t have enough money in my student bank account to pay the deposit. All this time, friends who were going to help me redecorate were waiting outside my office. So – very much against my ecological principles – I simply bought a cheap jigsaw, which actually cost even less to buy than hiring one would have. This experience stuck with me and I was determined to find a better solution. As lecturer at the University of Potsdam, I occasionally worked on the idea with students for several years. We set up the company with the current team in 2018.

So sustainability has always been a major factor for you?

Jan Gerlach: Yes. Sustainability was always the driving force behind the project. Instead of buying cheap tools and perhaps throwing them away after one use, toolbot allows large groups of people, say 100, to share the same high-quality equipment. This means we save up to 99 percent on emissions and waste. The same principle could be applied to other products such as sporting goods or cleaning appliances.

There are currently three beta versions of toolbot in Berlin. What has been your experience so far?

Christian Lehmann: Our experience in Berlin makes us very optimistic. In total, we have hired out tools more than 1,000 times and only once did one come back broken – an amazing outcome that shows just how careful people are with hired tools. Another thing we discovered concerns the rechargeable batteries. We racked our brains for quite some time as to how we could charge these at our collection points to ensure that every customer would always find two fully charged batteries in the toolbox. Thanks to customer feedback, we have now discovered that users don’t attach as much importance to this as we originally thought. And most of them usually return an appliance with at least one fully charged battery anyway.

What is next for toolbot?

Christian Lehmann: We want to go into serial production of toolbot. We are currently working on a new model, the first of which will go operational at Cottbus main railway station in March. One crucial factor is the automated cataloguing of items: our toolboxes should be able to recognise whether all items that are needed are actually there. Unfortunately, we were not yet able to integrate this feature in the field trials. We aim to make the toolboxes more intelligent overall and able to interact with users via their smartphones.

Jan Gerlach: We are also working on ways to ensure optimal safety and to inspire users in their DIY efforts through manuals, video tutorials and even a community platform. After all, most of our users are not experts at using tools. Many of them are beginners. We want to work together with tool manufacturers and DIY stores, who can then tap into new target groups through toolbot.

What support do you get from ERGO and Munich Re?

The mentoring and workshops associated with the start-up initiative and the dialogue with the other teams are of tremendous help to us. With ERGO and Munich Re we work on entirely practical issues: how do you insure a collection point full of valuable tools? What are the risks and how do we minimise them? It is fantastic to have such competent and dedicated partners to tackle these questions.

An aerial photograph of the Green Garage with solar panels on the roof – the venue for the Climate-KIC accelerator’s pitch day in June 2017.
These start-ups are already on their way to success

Their creative solutions are as different as the start-ups themselves. But there is one thing they all have in common: Their applications for support have been selected in the Side Call of Climate-KIC and Munich Re/ERGO.