Sarah Hintermayer


Six months after having started at Evonik, Sarah was selected to be the intrapreneur for an idea she liked but had not conceived herself. In the past three years, the project has matured to such an extent that the receiving business line of the company will continue its work independently.

What is your journey into Intrapreneurship?

I had only been working at Evonik for six months when I joined an idea team of the Global Ideation Jam at Evonik, whose idea I liked. The idea focuses on the problem of concrete constructions cracking, which causes expensive and troublesome maintenance and solves the issue by introducing self-healing concrete that sustainably increases the durability and service life of it. When we entered the Bootcamp, I did not know what to expect. I volunteered to be the intrapreneur pitching the idea and potentially taking it into further development. We ended up winning. Ever since then, I have been working on it. I have now handed over the idea to a commercial department. 

I did not know a lot about the company, the idea or innovation in general, which was scary at the beginning. But it also enabled me to do things differently because I had no limitations. I have developed immensely through this journey; at the start, I was very shy. But because I had to go out and talk to people, I have gained a lot of confidence. Some people get lost in technical details, but I learned to keep a focus on the overall problem that I was helping to solve. This skill is something I can use in my future work, and I hope that I will also be able to maintain an openness towards trying new things and doing things differently. 


Some people get lost in technical details, but I learned to keep a focus on the overall problem that I was helping to solve.


What happened after your idea was selected and where are you up to, today?

To begin with, I got one year to work on the idea. The goal was to prove that the idea works and that there was a demand for it. We quickly had an MVP(minimum viable product), and I spent the rest of the time talking to people in the field, pitching the idea and getting their feedback. I started talking to various industry associations that could point me to the right people. The next step was to speak with actual, potential customers. I created a short video that explained the problem to be solved and outlined the solution, which I showed to them, e.g. at conferences. This way, I got a lot of valuable input.

I prepared a lot for the first evaluation meeting, preparing stakeholders for what we would present to them. At the meeting, people then knew what my requests were, and they permitted me to continue. It was important for me to get full permission and to have a budget to operate freely. I much prefer having a budget to spend, rather than having a team allocated with only a bit of their time. This way, I can draw in the resources I need, e.g. help from an expert.

After year one, I got the Go for the next year. The ambition was to scale out MVP from the lab to larger volumes so we could test externally and refine our business case. We spent the year building miniature models and making our first field tests. We generated a lot of scientific data, which was needed for internal approvals and also for us to increase our understanding.

Having entered year 3, the focus is on commercialization. I have passed on the responsibility of the project to a business unit here in Evonik. Of course, there are still hurdles that we need to overcome, but we are optimistic. I enjoy the early stage of shaping ideas and the freedom that comes with being an intrapreneur, deciding for your own time and budget. Now, the idea is developed and ready to be commercialized, so I have decided to pursue this in another part of the organization. It feels a bit like I am the mother passing over my child to someone else, and I still check in on it occasionally.

What does a typical day look like as an intrapreneur?

There are no typical days as an intrapreneur. In the beginning, I travelled a lot, so I would not be at my desk, but out speaking to different people in face-to-face meetings. I prefer this, as I get their full attention, get more information, and they see that I value them by taking out time to see them. Now with COVID-19 changing so much, I have learned that I can do a lot virtually as well. I have done many presentations, read and wrote patents, designed experiments for the lab, visited construction sites, did cost calculations, answered my emails and arranged meetings. It was more about me asking questions and going out to discover, rather than waiting for others to bring me something.

It is important to have people on the team that feel ownership of the product, and that feeling of ownership builds up through time.


What have been your biggest challenges?

A big challenge that I had not expected was the onboarding of new team members. It is a great team, but it took more time than I thought to get everyone on board. It was something that I could not force – it needs time and continuous effort to make sure everyone is motivated and works at their best. It is important to have people on the team that feel ownership of the product, and that feeling of ownership builds up through time. For me, it was always important to make everyone see the team behind the project and to make clear that it is not me moving the project forward. My focus was to make their work as easy as possible, clearing roadblocks and making sure they can use their skills in the best way.

I have found that it is not necessary to be the expert at everything, but you must be able to manage expectations, externally as well as internally. Within the team, within Evonik, and with the customers.


Can you share a success story?

The far biggest success story is the one about the idea itself – that it will now make it to the market. Other than that, a personal success story for me is that I was able to be part of a cultural change towards a more intrapreneurial culture. I have pushed some boundaries, especially by being very open and honest about my project. I have been communicating a lot, also internally, sharing mistakes and failures. I think I managed to install some enthusiasm in others. If I managed to convince two people to do things differently, I consider my work a success. I feel it is my responsibility to try to change the culture towards entrepreneurship.


What is one thing about intrapreneurship that you think is important to succeed?

A few things are worth mentioning:

1. The team behind makes the difference. Being able to select and draw upon different team members for input is the key to success as an intrapreneur.

2. Do things, rather than thinking and assuming. We tend to draw our conclusions from the hypothesis and then test them later. I found that it is much more valuable to test a hypothesis right away and then draw conclusions from what I learned.

3. Find leaders that empower you and put trust in you. In the beginning, I was asking "Am I allowed" a lot. It was crucial for me that I had someone that backed me in doing things differently.

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