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, Part VIII, and Part IX of our series have shown.
Today, meet 10 of the best, from an insurance policy revolutionary to the woman who has made the car a cozy mobile mashup where your office meets your living room.
Andrew Rear has the worrisome task of revolutionizing customers’ experience with insurers, and doing it from inside a company that a few years ago was hoping things would stay just the way they were.
He’s a Scot with a math doctorate who is now scouring the sector for start-ups in the insurance sector, known as insurtechs. Happily, he has found eight which are already promising.
That could be good news for Munich Re, the world’s largest re-insurer and his employer. Mr. Rear heads up the Munich-based company’s Digital Partners platform. It’s all part of a pushback by larger firms that don’t want to miss out on the next big thing.
Vera Schmidt is inventing the car of the future. She may be German but she’s relocated the task to – where else – California.
Ms. Schidt is a Daimler designer who has created new interiors for luxury cars, placing intelligent surfaces where once there was a battery of switches and instruments. It’s all in line with where cars are headed, with computers steering them rather than people.
In her vision of the future, passengers riding in cars will enjoy a cozy oasis that’s one part home, one part office – something we can all look forward to.
Sascha Klement keeps a close eye on car drivers and their habits. An IT specialist, he developed software and artificial intelligence at his start-up Gestigon that uses sensors and cameras to register how people in a car move.
Perhaps most importantly, the sensors can spot whether drivers are overtired. In a further technological leap, passengers’ gestures can also control the radio.
His work has paid off: French auto supplier Valeo just took over Gestigon and is hoping to use the technology to beat rival Bosch in autonomous driving.
Light wave expert Winfried Kaiser is the creative mind at Carl Zeiss when it comes to semiconductor technology.
A physicist, he set up the firm’s extreme ultra-violet (EUV) lithography department, the most forward looking of all its divisions.
His work could help light up the next generation of chips, a big part of enabling computers to make their next great leap forward.
Many scientists dream of creating a cancer vaccine. Ingmar Hoerr has a shot at make this vision a reality at Curevac, the company he co-founded.
Back while he was studying for his doctorate, Mr. Hoerr believed he discovered how to make a possible vaccine from RNA, a sort of translator molecule within cells that allows genetic information to be turned into proteins. The RNA molecule was long considered to be too unstable for pharmaceutical applications, but Mr. Hoerr developed processes to stabilize it so it could contribute to a vaccine.
Now, his company is pressing ahead on a set of vaccines and immune therapies to combat cancer, with the farthest along a potential vaccine against prostate cancer. His work has been recognized by the European Commission, which invited Mr. Hoerr to join its high-level working group seeking ways to support breakthrough, market-creating innovation.
Startup Smight (SM!GHT) from German energy supplier EnBW, the country’s third largest, has brought yet another technology into the “smart” age. The startup’s multi-functional streetlamp doesn’t just light the way but can also charge electric cars, serve as a wifi hotspot, call emergency services, be an environmental sensor or help you park, depending on the light’s configuration.
Matthias Weis came up with the idea for Smight after several years spent designing street lighting for cities and municipalities at EnBW. Trained as an energy systems technician and business economist, he’s now director of Smight – a word short for smart city light. He already lights the streets in Australia and Norway with an invention that won him the Digital Leader Award.
“Water is our most valuable resource,” according to Ursula Schliessmann, and that’s why it’s important to keep it clean. She heads environmental biotechnology and bioprocess engineering at Stuttgart’s Fraunhofer Institute.
What that means is curbing the pollution of rivers and seas by hormones, toxins, micro-plastics and pathogens from sewage water.
A trained process engineer, she develops technical processes based on nature, by which impurities in organic sewage are removed at the source. Any nutrients sourced in the process are siphoned off to be used in agri- and aquaculture. Ms. Schliessmann also lowers water wastage and improves water quality by shortening water circuits, making them more efficient.
An interest in electronics sparked something way back for Martin Pusch, who was already chief appliance fixer as a child at home.
He studied biomedical engineering and now uses it to help people with physical disabilities, creating the world’s first microprocessor-controlled prosthetic thigh.
At Ottobock, a medical engineering producer, he is a leading expert for technology transfer, designing prosthetics that help people get mobile faster.
“When I have an idea that brings me closer to a solution, I consider it a windfall,” he says.
Daniel Wiegand remembers seeing a video of a plane taking off vertically, without the need of a runway, on YouTube. He was inspired: Small, electric planes that can start and land anywhere would spell the end of congestion on streets, laborious changing of trains or pollution being pumped into the air.
A student of power engineering with a focus on air propulsion technology, he started playing around with a few calculations, just for fun. Later, in a bar, a friend challenged him: “If you really think that could work, then do it!” Mr. Wiegand remembers his reply: “OK. I’m going home and founding an airplane manufacturer.”
He had always been fascinated by flight, crafting model planes as a child and going on to gain a glider pilot’s license by the time he was in his teens.
He later launched Lilium Aviation, which is developing a battery with the right capacities to power an airplane. Mr. Wiegand predicts his airplane will be able to fly from Munich to Berlin within a decade.
But he’s imagining much more. A flying car, or Personal Air Vehicle (PAV) isn’t that far off. In the first stage, the PAVs will have to be operated by licensed pilots, and passengers will order their air-taxi through an app. Eventually, pilots will stay grounded and control machines remotely. When that happens, people will be able to fly PAVs themselves. The U.S. cartoon The Jetsons could one day become a reality.
Often shoppers don’t really know what they’re looking for. It’s Reiner Kraft’s job to make an educated guess as head of research at Zalando, Europe’s largest online fashion outlet based out of Berlin.
Mr. Kraft is smartening up Zalando’s search engine. He has worked for IBM and Yahoo, larger companies, but he’s more excited about Zalando, which is still small in comparison to U.S. giants.
Why? The bigger companies have lost their creative edge, he says. They’re no longer inventing anything new, just optimizing.