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 featuring the individuals leading the charge, as Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII and Part VIII of our series have shown.
Today, meet 10 smart folks, from a miniaturizer to a man giving service stations a new lease of life.
You could be tempted to worry about the lifespan of the service station, what with e-cars, lower gas consumption and no-driving zones. It certainly has Shell worried about its gas-station business but heroically, Lars Zimmermann is giving the fuel dispenser a new perspective. Instead of diesel or gasoline, the 35-year-old engineer is betting on hydrogen. Because to the extent that hydrogen is created through green electricity, it is environmentally friendly. Mr. Zimmermann planned and built the first hydrogen gas stations for Shell – initially in Germany, now in the U.S.
Inventing is Jens Trötzschel’s passion and luckily, as an executive at Heraeus Medical Components, he has plenty of time to tinker. His latest invention is CerMet, a material made of ceramic and platinum that’s used to miniaturize implants for small children and babies. It’s already being used to build prototypes. The clever bit is that although they are chemically incompatible, Mr. Trötzschel’s team managed to marry ceramic to platinum.
Extremely complicated research is often based on simple and vital questions. For example: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if mortally ill patients didn’t have to wait for a suitable organ donor to die? Especially if they are children.
Katja Schenke-Layland is making that come true at the Fraunhofer Institute in Stuttgart. A tissue engineer, she makes heart valves out of hybrid materials such as synthetic polymers and biological proteins that grow along with the children carrying them. It removes the need for further operations, which are high risk.
Ms. Schenke-Layland didn’t have an easy start, as a child realizing she was allergic to cats which ruined her dream of becoming a vet. She stuck with biology, psychology and sociology though and pressed on.
Her goal is to create tissues for which no donor organ is required but which must be so harmless that people can carry them inside for decades.
Christian Schuster was working for utility RWE when it established an innovation platform for pioneering business models. He rode the wave and set up his own entrepreneurial idea with a colleague. His startup ucair allows owners of solar panels to inspect their equipment with thermography drones, an easy and cheap way to check their status.
Curious about what a factory might look like in the future? Take a trip to southern Germany and visit SEW, a maker of electric engines. Johann Soder set up a future factory within a regular, everyday production hall.
Its self-organizing, networked systems help workers produce electric engines – individually tailored products costing no more than items which are mass made. “People, things, processes, services and data – everything is networked with standardized interfaces and state-of-the-art information technology,” Mr. Soder said. He is an impulse-giver, digital pioneer and creative destroyer all in one. The plant processes new orders digitally and guides the processes in the model facility making assembly lines a thing of the past. It’s promising stuff: He estimates networked production systems can increase productivity by up to 50 percent.
Ever heard of 3D image sensor chips? Josef Prainsack found a way to transfer these sensors from cars to phones and they combine real world images with virtual features. That’s how, for example, you can make virtual dinosaurs tramp through a child’s room or show someone how a new chest of drawers might look in the hallway. His chip works by using a 3D camera to measure the surroundings with a laser; a sensor registers the rebounding rays.
Patrick Pfaff dreams of robots relieving human beings of tedious work so they can go out to play. He’s an expert with 20 years of experience developing autonomous, intelligent systems under his belt.
His present focus is autonomously navigating, mobile robot systems that can share a working space with a human being. “Much of what we couldn’t even imagine a few years ago is now possible,” he said. His guiding question is: ‘Is that technologically feasible?’ followed by whether it can be transformed into marketable products. If the answer is yes, it means more time for people to get on with creative and demanding activities.
Traditional power company E.ON is striving to become a lean, green energy machine offering sustainable, decentralized and digital energy solutions. It’s greatly helped by Frank Meyer, who heads two central areas with which the ailing utility hopes to achieve new growth: innovation and the search for solutions for private customers. He is focusing on electromobility, photovoltaics, energy storage and energy management. His priority is to generate growth and profit.
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel began the transition to renewables in the feted ‘Energiewende’ or switch to green energy, it was no biggie for Carsten Bether. He had already launched Kiwigrid, a platform that can measure, monitor and automatize electricity production and use, to make it smarter. It has already attracted funding from investors such as Stefan Quandt, Innogy and LG in the double-digit millions.
SAP is seeking to make commercial processes more intelligent, and Markus Nova is playing a major part of that as heads of the department for automatic learning. It’s a sub-discipline of artificial intelligence that wins insights from large amounts of data. From HR to accounting, the information that’s won helps firms make strategic decisions.