Top Innovators

Germany's Quiet Visionaries, Part IV

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    German innovation is often implemented behind the scenes, as part of larger industrial or scientific projects. For example, Aspirin, the electron microscope and MP3s are German inventions. Despite the lack of fanfare on the consumer market, a new crop of German innovations have the potential to change the world.

  • Facts


    • In 2015, the German economy invested €62.4 billion in research and development, more than ever before.
    • From 2005 to 2016, German government spending on research and development increased from €7.6 to €16.4 billion.
    • According to the World Economic Forum’s index of global competitiveness for 2016–2017, Germany ranks third in terms of innovation. Switzerland and the U.S. are first and second, respectively. In 2010, Germany was ranked eighth.
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Germany offers a color broad spectrum of bright minds. Photo: Getty

As Part I, Part II and Part III of our series has shown, it isn’t just research departments at Germany’s blue-chip DAX corporations that are driving innovation. In fact, it is primarily the countless 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 want to offer you an insider’s perspective by featuring the individuals leading the charge.

Today, meet a watchmaker, a plug creator, a revolutionary insurance salesman and more. Stay tuned for our next installments.

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21: Theodor Prenzel, setting a pace like clockwork. Source: Nomos

The Swiss watch industry determines the pulse on the world market. But Nomos, a small watch-making business in Germany, didn’t want to keep to that beat any longer.

So Thomas Prenzel, director of production, worked with his team to develop something of their own – a new clock-pulse generator. Mr. Prenzel, an engineer specialist in precision mechanics, worked to create an innovative automatic watch.

“Up to now, watches have been either flat or accurate or affordable,” he said. “Our new automatic watch combines all three criteria in one unit.”

The watches, which have a minimalist design, sell far better than those of many large Swiss competitors.

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22: Christian Henn, fixer of ceramic stove tops. Source: Schott

Christian Henn might well have read into the dreams and hopes of passionate cooks around the world.

An engineer and process technician, he has managed to remove a major annoyance: scratches on ceramic stove tops. They occur when pots are slid across the surface.

A researcher at glass specialist Schott, Mr. Henn has managed to make glass surfaces as hard as a diamond. Even sandpaper doesn’t scratch it.

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23. Matthias Möhlig, the man who can stop a traffic jam. Source: Here

Traffic jams in cities are a growing problem but Matthias Möhlig is working on a solution at the map provider Here, a subsidiary of Daimler, BMW and Audi.

Mr. Möhlig, an IT graduate, develops services that use sensors in cars out on the road to collect real-time data about traffic situations, convey it immediately to drivers and so prevent traffic jams.

The systems that Mr. Möhlig developed are also being used in the preliminary stages of autonomous driving.

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24. Reinhold Elsen, the cleaner. Source: RWE

After spinning off its renewables division into a new company called Innogy, many are tempted to see the remaining part of German utility RWE as yesterday’s news.

It might be Germany’s largest producer of electricity, but RWE can only survive for the long haul if coal-fired power plants become cleaner. That’s where Reinhold Elsen comes in.

RWE’s director of research is working with his team on more efficient handling of material through digitization and on separating out carbon dioxide while generating electricity. He’s also hunting for new uses for soft coal in chemistry.

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25. Electrical plug specialist Roland Bent. Source: Phoenix Contact

Barack Obama was interested less in the DeLorean sports car from “Back To The Future” than in the electrical plug from the charging station next to it. Last year, as he visited the Hanover Trade Fair, the former U.S. president was moved to request a detailed explanation about the new “super-plug.”

It was created by a family firm together with leading automakers and is the baby of Roland Bent, who is director of technology at Phoenix Contact. He supervised the development of the rapid charging plug CCS, which can fill the batteries of electric cars with direct and alternating current far faster than in the past.

Currently, it takes several hours to charge electric cars with alternating current from normal plugs. Making charging technology faster is crucial for electric cars to catch on.

“The plug system allows charging times of five minutes for a distance of 100 kilometers,” Mr. Bent says. He is also a member of the National Platform for Electromobility, which advises the German government.

Now, Mr. Bent’s uniform plug has become the standard in Europe and the United States, used by VW, Ford, Daimler and BMW.

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26. Robin von Hein, insurance revolutionary. Source: Simplesurance

The founder of Simplesurance, Robin von Hein, and his 140-member team sell insurance directly via the internet for mobile telephones, laptops, bicycles, car tires or glasses. They also offer warranty extensions for refrigerators or expresso machines and legal protection for vehicles.

Simplesurance is really a broker, but a good one. Allianz, the world’s largest insurer, was so impressed that it bought a stake in Simplesurance in 2016 and is building on this.

It’s good news for the start-upm which has so far gathered €30 million, making it one of the best-funded “insurtechs” in the world.

But Mr. von Hein, who studied insurance-related business management in Frankfurt, has bigger goals in mind. He has his eye on the paperless administration of traditional policies. That could be throwing down the gauntlet to another rival, called Get Safe.

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27: Reinhold Achatz, the disposer of carbon dioxide. Source: Siemens

Reinhold Achatz is known as a maverick thinker whose curiosity doesn’t stop at the borders of companies or technologies. This was already true at Siemens, whose research program he directed until 2012. For the last five years, the 62-year-old has been head of technology at Thyssen-Krupp. His task there is to develop market-capable products.

Carbon2Chem is one example: In a few years, the grounds of a closed-down metallurgical plant in Duisburg are supposed to become the site of a new era in steel production. The ambitious project aims at transforming climate-damaging gases emitted during smelting into preliminary products for the chemical industry. This issue is crucial for the survival of Europe’s steel manufacturers: They are caught in the crossfire of politicians and environmentalists, because the industry releases tons of CO2 in burning bituminous coal to make steel.

Mr. Achatz believes that Carbon2Chem has the potential of reducing, perhaps even eliminating emissions of carbon dioxide. The Multi is another comprehensive project: an elevator that works without a cable and can move sideways. It uses the magnetic levitation technology co-developed by Thyssen-Krupp.

Martha Rook Portrait
28: Martha Rook, the gene cutter. Source: Crispr

Martha Rook is pushing forward with the development of genetic technology – a science that is stirring up great hopes. New procedures are expected to make grave illnesses less formidable.

Around the globe, biochemists are using the Crispr technology to develop innovative cell therapies. Ms. Rook makes sure that researchers always have the correct molecular tools for using the so-called genetic scissors.

As director of gene editing and novel modalities in the life-science division of the Merck Group in Darmstadt, the American is responsible for the development of reagents that aid in the rapid progress of  Crispr research.

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29 – Thomas Röhrl, the heating bill slasher. Source: PR

The 38-year-old commercial lawyer, economist and electro-technician is advancing the digitalization of the household.

His inconspicuous white box mounts on a radiator and transmits all energy usage data to the user via radio, meaning their energy usage no longer has to be read manually.

Mr. Röhrl is one of three managing directors of Erfurt-based company Qundis, Germany’s leading heating company. Qundis promises significant savings on heating costs, since it believes that those who are fully aware of how much heating they use are more likely to use it sparingly.

30 – Christoph Bornschein, the digital expert. Source: Digital network

Christoph Bornschein exemplifies the Berlin hipster with his checked shirts, long curly locks and digital consultancy company, which he named Torben Lucie and the yellow menace, or TLGG. The latter half of that long name alludes to his business partner of Asian heritage Boontham Temaismithi.

Mr. Bornschein advises major German firms such as E.ON, Lufthansa and Vodafone on how to digitalize their companies’ operation. Mr. Bornschein also developed mobility solutions for Daimler, and co-wrote a digital agenda platform for Germany’s economics ministry.

He originally started studying law, but dropped out in 2008 out before taking even one exam to found TLGG, which he then sold to U.S. media group Omnicom in 2015. Today, Mr. Bornschein is widely regarded as the top digital advisor to Germany.


This article was researched by a team of Handelsblatt companies and markets correspondents. To contact the authors:,

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