Top Innovators

Germany's Quiet Visionaries, Part VII

  • 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, Part IIIPart IV, Part V and Part VI of our series have shown, 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 want to offer you an insider’s perspective by featuring the individuals leading the charge.

Meet a standard setter, a fashion funker and cobot maker, and stay tuned for our next installments.

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51. Roland Leitz, who puts the funk into fashion. Source: Adler

Many retailers talk about digitalization, but Adler has put it into action thanks to the fashion chain’s IT head, Roland Leitz. Six years ago he started to add RFID chips to all of the company’s merchandise. It was a win-win; not only do the radio frequency identification tags protect the garments against theft, but robots can now handle inventory.

Mr. Leitz’s latest idea takes the RFID a tad further. He’s working on interactive changing rooms that can recognize every item of clothing thanks to wireless communication. The idea? A computer could suggest complete outfits to customers.

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52. Wolfgang Reichelt, a Setter of Standards. Source: PR

Wolfgang Reichelt’s company, Block, is a leading supplier of small and medium-sized transformers, which control the flow of electricity in household appliances, lamps and computers.

Mr. Reichelt owns 20 patents himself and does his own basic research. It’s a busy job – he’s also CEO of 700 employees, is recognized worldwide as an expert and has spent 30 years sitting on international standards committees as the German representative for transformers. There’s more here than meets the eye.

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53. Sami Haddadin, Robo Man. Source: DPA

Ever heard of a cobot? Sami Haddadin, a Finish-Jordanian scientist born in Germany, develops sensitive, intelligent and safe robots, known as cobots, or cooperative robots, for use in human environments. They are currently the strongest growing segment of robot technology.

Mr. Haddadin works with doctors at Leibniz University in Hanover and is investigating how humans and robots can work together without the danger of injury, such as in a sudden collision. “My goal is to equip robots with a kind of safeguarding reflex system,” he said. “That is the prerequisite for such robots being able to be used in many areas of life.” He’s pretty determined. “I firmly believe that robotic science can help mankind,” he said.

54. Marco Boerries, the Company Whisperer. Source: PR

Marco Boerries is already known as Germany’s Bill Gates. He is a big thinker, and now plans to launch a new platform, Enfore, to give smaller companies the same access to e-commerce as major retailers. His dream is for 200 million little companies being able to look like one, using a combination of hardware, software and internet services, to help traders network better.

There’s still a ways to go but Mr. Boerries has plenty of successes behind him. At the tender age of 16, he wrote a software program named StarWriter, with the same functions as Microsoft Word, only cheaper. StarWriter became Open Office and the programmer became a millionaire. A second company involved banking software, and a third he sold to Yahoo. E-tail revolution, here I come.

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55. Daniel Wolansky, Breathing In and Out, Helping Patients Do So Too. Source: PR

It’s a simple-sounding problem with a complex solution: during a medical operation, how can a patient’s artificial respiration be made so unobtrusive that their lungs stay fully functional after surgery and resume their task as fast as possible? As product manager at Dräger, a manufacturer of medical- and security-technology in Lübeck, Daniel Wolansky developed the auxiliary system Smart Ventilation Control.

In operations, the system performs a lung-relieving ventilation. That marks a change from today, where anesthesiologists just rely on personal experience. After wound infections, respiratory problems are the second-most frequent accessory symptom after operations, so this could really be a game-changer.

56. Kerstin Leineweber, a Reader of Genes. Source: PR

Why are some people susceptible to diseases while others stay healthy throughout their lifetime? It’s not just lifestyle but also genetic predisposition. Bayer researcher Kerstin Leineweber tracks such hereditary risk factors. She heads the Disease Genomics section in the pharmaceutical division and hunts down genetic markers that can be linked to a disease. Her focus right now is on the heart. “It’s the proverbial needle in the haystack,” Ms. Leineweber said.

Her work means analyzing immense amounts of data; if researchers identify risk-indicating genes, they must determine in a second step how the process proceeds in cells as a disease develops. So Ms. Leineweber and her team are laying the foundations for new active ingredients in Bayer’s labs.

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57. Tilman Frosch, the Virus Researcher. Source: PR

Tilman Frosch got his first real test in 2016 when blackmailing software infected a hospital network, forcing it to close down its entire IT section.

Together with his G-Data Advanced Analytics team, Mr. Frosch helped the hospital overcome the cyber attack and the police to hunt for clues. He’s an anti-virus specialist working with a team who analyze malware and help fix the harm wrought by viruses, worms and trojans. His work is also fed back to companies making virus scanners.

There’s a huge need for his advice and emergency aid. After all, companies network their entire offices and factories together, but often can’t protect themselves adequately.

“We must solve the problem that many companies don’t have any IT specialists,” Mr. Frosch said.

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58. Daniel Sommermeyer, the Immunizer. Source: PR

Daniel Sommermeyer is at the cutting edge of what remains one of medicine’s biggest challenges: Cancer.

Mr. Sommermeyer and his research team work at Medigene, where they are modifying the genes in immune cells to activate them against cancer cells, an innovative approach for cancer-immunity therapy.

A Munich-based company, Medigene is among a new vanguard of experts leading a new, promising strategy to battle cancer.

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59. Helmut Oellers, Taming Sonic Waves. Source: PR

Incomprehensible loudspeaker announcements, concerts so loud that the entire vicinity listens along – these are a few of people’s least favorite things.

The core of the issue is that it’s hard to manage sound waves. Helmut Oellers, head of research at Berlin start-up Holoplot, has done just that. Sounds from his loudspeaker system can be directed as precisely as light.

Sounds good? Earlier this month, the invention was awarded the Future Prize at the tech festival SXSW in Austin, Texas.

60. Holger Sedlak, Refrigeration Revolutionary. Source: PR

It often takes an outsider to upturn a dyed-in-the-wool industry. IT specialist Holger Sedlak is one of those mavericks.

“I’m neither a refrigeration technician nor an engineer,” he said. “Thank God!” Nevertheless – or possibly for that very reason – he came up with a pioneering refrigeration machine, the eChiller. It has no environmentally-damaging cooling substances like fluorinated hydrocarbons, but uses water instead. “Everybody said it couldn’t be done,” he noted.

Mr. Sedlak was working for chipmaker Infineon when he came up with the idea, fiddled around with the parameters on his computer and bingo. Together with Infineon engineer Oliver Kniffler, he set up Efficient Energy in a garage outside Munich. It took a lot of tinkering until their breakthrough, but now the eChiller cools things down to a range from 10 to 28 degrees Celsius and is highly versatile. Cool thing.

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

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