It isn’t just research departments at Germany’s blue-chip DAX corporations that are driving innovation. In fact, it is primarily the many small and mid-sized companies – many world leaders in their niche markets – that have shown enormous potential when it comes to digitization and the development of new business sectors. As the German Mittelstand continues to blaze trails, we share with you an insider’s perspective by introducing you to the individuals leading the charge, as Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII, Part IX and Part X of our series have shown.
Today, meet the last 10 innovators from the scientist who saves lives of diabetics to the man who wants to wrap Lufthansa planes in shark skin.
Solar expert Johannes Kneip is a rare fan of complexity. He works converting solar energy into electricity for SMA Solar using smart systems.
As long as SMA’s rivals only make more primitive oscillators, his job will be secure. Mr. Kneip’s systems connect solar facilities and windmills with air-conditioning systems or batteries.
The aim is to exercise fully-automated control over fluctuating energy flows, helping to relieve pressure on energy networks. It’s good news for consumers who will save money – and for SMA which would see profits rise.
Michael Mark has been fighting diabetes all his life.
At pharma company Boehringer Ingelheim, he heads cardio metabolic research, and his achievements include developing an active ingredient, Empagliflozin.
It is the first diabetes medication that reduces the risk of deadly heart attacks in diabetes patients.
It doesn’t always get much love here, but Armin Schnettler believes that one of the most exciting fields of experimentation is Germany’s energy transition.
He’s convinced it is a blueprint for the world. A Siemens researcher and an expert in energy management and storage, Mr. Schnettler is responsible for making sure the country’s switch to renewables works – also for Siemens.
Siemens is the most important company in Germany when it comes to the “Energiewende,” and Mr. Schnettler is the company’s most important researcher as head of its energy and electronics area.
The puzzle he grapples with: while there’s an ample supply of electricity from renewables, for example from photo-voltaic units on rooftops and windparks in the sea, what is trickier is making the electricity available at the right time in the right place, including in the dark and when there is no wind.
Mr. Schnettler said batteries are the answer and will prevail for short-term storage. Transforming electricity into hydrogen will be key and his researchers are developing electrolysis and simulation models.
There’s much at stake. As he puts it, “If we don’t achieve the energy transition, then the world has a problem.”
Wheat. That’s what Catherine Feuillet spends her days working on. But not just any wheat. Bayer is creating a kind of super wheat that’s more robust than it is today.
Ms. Feuillet’s role is to decode the wheat genome. That sounds easy – after all, the human gene has already been codified – but actually wheat is much more complex. Its genome is five times larger than the human genome and she has focused on this for the past 10 years.
She’s making headway on a job long considered impossible; the largest chromosome has already been sequenced and sketches made for the others.
If she succeeds, Ms. Feuillet could help to improve the world’s food supply. Demand for wheat is rising rapidly, but the plant is sensitive. Finding a super wheat is fast becoming agriculture’s Holy Grail.
Solmaz Altin is the one man charged with making Allianz, Europe’s largest insurer, more productive in the digital sphere. It’s a huge project and he is expected to generate more than €800 million in greater productivity through digital transformation.
He is working to combine new technologies with workers’ competencies in order to create good customer experiences simply and efficiently.
It’s a big job that won’t be done at a single key stroke, but he and his team are making headway fast.
Kai-Christoph Pfingsten is fixated by aerodynamics and his passion is shark skin.
The flagship airline Lufthansa’s innovation manager wants to see a surface structure that resembles the skin of sharks on airplanes to reduce friction.
The challenge is to fix so fine a structure on so large a surface as an airplane. His hopes rest upon a robot that can apply the structure of sharkskin with extreme precision during an additional enameling process.
It might reduce fuel consumption by 1 to 4 percent, which would benefit Lufthansa’s balance sheet and the environment.
He’s a jogger, biker and the brains of Trumpf, a mechanical engineering company. Frank Schmauder has developed all of its mechanical platforms and many of its innovations.
His proudest achievement is reinventing how lasers are cut. Experts see the machine, awkwardly known as TruLaser Center 7030, as a true sensation. It is the first fully-automated system among laser cutting machines and a prototype for the kinds of machines used in the latest digital industrial processes – what’s known here as Industry 4.0.
It’s a dry but unique piece of mechanical engineering, a typical example for Germany’s quiet, highly technical leadership in the area. And as Mr. Schmauder puts it, “in the field of automation, the possibilities are far from exhausted.”
Crude oil is the world’s most important raw material, used in everyday objects from plastics to smartphones, for heating and mobility. But in order to protect the environment, it’s beyond time to give up on the good stuff, says Christian Walter.
Mr. Walter is working to create synthetic fuels and combustibles at Sunfire, a startup from Dresden. And he has already started producing a “completely green diesel” one of the pilot plants. In theory, water and carbon dioxide could be turned into an environmentally-friendly fuel by using extremely high temperatures and electrolysers.
Audi and Lufthansa are already interested, though the process isn’t yet economically viable. And it’s all important for Germany to meet its emissions goals.
Loyalty cards are available for almost every store and most people have a handful of them, so many in fact that Björn Goss came up with the idea of replacing them with an app. Launched in 2011, Stocard now has 13 million users in Germany, Italy, the Benelux countries, Australia, the U.S. and Canada.
Nobody’s purse needs to burst now that 160 million cards have been activated through the app, and soon users will even be able to use to pay for goods.
Beauty products company Beiersdorf is sharing its research with companies and universities in an open innovation project.
It allows scientists to collaborate with professionals around the world and has 100 people and institutions working together. The initiative brought a supplier and developer together, who created a sun cream that doesn’t stain white clothing, previously a problem across the industry.
A chemical engineer, Andreas Clausen is now leading work on body lotion. He’s keen for his colleagues to have plenty of time for creativity too and led campaigns for employees to spend 10 percent of their time on their own projects and for idea coaches to drive their initiatives forward. If they do their thinking outside, they shouldn’t forget the suncreen.