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 and Part VII of our series have shown.
Today, meet 10 canny people ranging from a man with a flying suitcase to a robot whisperer and a hacker of heating systems – and look forward to more.
Sven Lepschy is mad about flying. A veteran mechanical engineer who spent stints at Bombardier, Lufthansa and United Airlines, he flies business jets for fun.
Flying suitcases is his day job, and he has developed an electronic tag for suitcases for a subsidiary of the well-known suitcase maker Rimowa of Cologne. His vision is for there to be no more lines at check in – all the suitcases would be processed electronically. It’s part of his dream of paperless travel in the future, he told Handelsblatt.
It’s already come true at Lufthansa and Thailand’s Eva Air, which send data directly to their passengers’ smartphones, who then transfer the information via Bluetooth to an electronic tag attached to their suitcase. An invention that is likely to go far.
Patrick Izquierdo brought a new idea for saving fuel to Daimler. He nabbed the German Future Prize for the luxury carmaker to boot.
His idea is to reduce the engine’s inner friction and thus cut down on fuel consumption, right in the heart of the automobile. All combustion engines have friction, where metal faces metal. The coating he created is ‘Nanoslide,’ made of nanoparticles that allow the cylinder head to slide through the engine much more smoothly, reducing friction by up to half and, in turn, cutting fuel consumption by a total of 3 percent, according to Daimler. A promising result in dirty old times like these when every huff of emission counts.
Mercedes is the first car manufacturer to roll out ‘Nanoslide’ across its entire model range, and, armed with patents, Daimler and partner Heller plan to share the invention with the rest of the car industry.
Breaking glass could soon be a thing of the past.
Eveline Rudigier-Voigt was initially drawn to physics by Goethe’s Faust. She wound up winning Shell’s ‘She Study Award’ for her writing on thin films for solar cells.
She is now division manager at specialty glass manufacturer Schott and constantly on the hunt for new glass coatings. Her work has made Schott a recognized specialist in the field of pharmaceutical phials.
Now, Ms. Rudigier-Voigt is researching nanostructures on glass surfaces to give them a sheen of stainless steel.
Electronic navigators such as Google Street View brought the world into our living rooms. Now Georg Schroth is reversing the process.
He spent nights fretting over the fact that while GPS helps people navigate the external world, inside, where walls block satellite signals, we are stuck with signs and maps. Mr. Schroth headed for a renowned Stanford GPS lab and created an indoor navigation system that is independent of satellites or Bluetooth transmitters.
His trolley scans every centimeter of a room using cameras and laser systems. “It’s like Google Street View cars. The scanning process is like hoovering,” he said. It’s cheap and produces 3D images to map factories, shops and museums.
Google itself was interested, too, but in 2013 Mr. Schroth chose to start his own company, Navvis, instead. Now, 30 firms from Siemens to BMW and Strabag use his technology.
It earned him a vote of confidence from Google’s Don Dodge who said: “Navvis’ technology will become more important than both maps and GPS.”
Ugur Sahin, a medical doctor of Turkish origin, set himself the goal of developing tumor vaccines individually aligned to the genetic profile of specific cancer cells. Now he is revolutionizing the industry with his company, Biontech.
Together with his team, he’s working on translating scientific concepts into concrete cancer therapies. He’s already completed million-dollar deals with drug companies like Sanofi, Eli Lilly, and Genentech.
Can a robot read your mind? Research professor Sabine Jeschke is busy helping them figure out your facial expression.
Working at RWTH Aachen, a research university, her focus is on major social issues relating to robots and artificial intelligence (AI).
She also wants to find a way for robot helpers to become more suitable for everyday life, able to read gestures as well as faces. Her research has taken her to Sweden’s Göteborg, where she will help carmaker Volvo bundle AI and data analysis together.
Teaching a major corporation new ideas can be an uphill struggle but Robert Henrich, a pioneer of modern mobility, has been better at it than most.
Among his achievements: Developing the carsharing service Car2go for Daimler along with the urban transport platform Moovel.
A social scientist, Mr. Heinrich is now busy cooking up a concept for VW’s new mobility services brand, Moia, a big part of helping VW’s transform from a car company to a mobility services provider.
Leather production is still a real craft, even today, as Dietrich Tegtmeyer well know: “It’s a natural product after all,” he says.
Mr. Tegtmeyer has been studying leather, as a product and in production, for the past 15 years. He now oversees the leather division of Lanxess.
Lanxess is one of the leading producers of chemicals used in tanneries and Mr. Tegtmeyer is developing materials that cut the amount of water used in processing and makes the material more durable.
His latest project is attracting attention – not least because it’s using trash. A large quantity of shavings and waste cuttings collected in tanneries’ leather processing tended to be thrown away unused, but now his researchers are turning them into tanning agents, bringing the waste back into the cycle.
“Slow,” is generally how people in Germany think about the country’s network of 400-odd community savings banks, especially when it comes to change. Even “fuddy duddy” comes to mind, with their 35 million checking accounts (more than any other group).
Bernd Wittkamp wants to turn them into innovators. He runs a company that helps the publicly-owned banks partner up with startups.
He’s also found his own way in: His company Starfinanz launched Yomo, the checking account that savings banks will be offering only via smartphone.
If you want to change the world, you can’t be scared off by trouble. Christian Deilmann’s smart thermostat has won enemies as well as friends.
The former call Mr. Deilmann a heating hacker and they aren’t so happy about his gadget Tado. It’s a control unit that hacks into a boiler’s software and takes control of the heating process. The idea is for both greater comfort and less energy consumption. What’s a bit of hot water when the climate is at stake?