The date is Tuesday, January 9, 2007. The location, San Francisco. Steve Jobs, wearing a turtleneck sweater, jeans and sneakers, was standing on the stage. “We are introducing three revolutionary products today,” he said. Then the icons with which we are now so familiar appeared on the screen.
The word “iPod” is printed under the first one, “phone” under the second and “internet” under the third. “An iPod, a phone, and an internet communicator. Are you getting it?” the head of Apple asked. “These are not three separate devices, this is one device, and we are calling it iPhone.” The device would change everything, Mr. Jobs predicted.
As most of us know, Mr. Jobs, now deceased, was proven right. The smartphone shapes today’s living environment more than almost any other invention of the last few decades. More than one billion iPhones have been sold in the last ten years. The iPhone has not only made Apple the world’s most valuable company, with a market value of $730 billion, or €678 billion, but has also created new business models and destroyed others, all around the world.
It was actually a simple idea, but it was one that showed the power of technological innovation, creative and simultaneously destructive. Silicon Valley undoubtedly remains the nucleus of the digital revolution. The founders of Google and Facebook are treated like global superstars. And the next generation of companies, like Uber and Airbnb, is continuing to attack the giants of the previous, industrial age.
It is true that the U.S. is dominant in this sphere. But Germany also has innovators whose products shape our view of the world. Their insights and discoveries enable us to explore new worlds, and their technologies could be the initial spark of further revolutions. But often they work far away from the limelight.
Handelsblatt’s reporters embarked on a search for new ideas and the people who thought them up.
They discovered people like René Seeber, a 48-year-old mathematician from the central German city of Kassel, who launched his first company while still a student. Called Cobion, the company developed software that could search through millions of websites for images of missing children. Mr. Seeber’s latest software project, Dedrone, tracks down drones and helps safeguard airspace.
Then there’s Katja Schenke-Layland, a 39-year-old biologist at the Fraunhofer Institute in Stuttgart. She is working on ways to produce heart valves or other tissue from hybrid materials, like synthetic polymers and biological proteins. The benefit of the approach is that this hybrid tissue grows with the bodies into which it is implanted. This is especially helpful for children, because it reduces the need for multiple operations.
Frank Fitzek, 45, a professor of communications networks at the Technical University of Dresden and his team have developed a technique they call “tactile internet.” It enables people to see and hear what a robot sees and hears – for example one that is removing radioactive waste from a nuclear power plant, for example. The technology is based on the fifth generation of mobile communication systems, 5G, being developed by Mr. Fitzek and 23 other professors.
All these examples, and many more, show that it isn’t just research departments at DAX corporations that are driving innovation. In fact, it seems, given Handelsblatt’s research, that it is primarily countless small and mid-sized companies, largely unknown world leaders in their niche markets known as “hidden champions,” that have enormous potential in terms of digitalization and the development of new business sectors.
It is also clear that the foundation of a country’s economic strength does not consist of politicians in their government offices or top managers in corporate boardrooms. Politicians can only establish the right conditions to allow creative people to thrive. This includes a strong education policy, good universities and efficient research funding.
Germany has always been strong in basic research and weak in marketing what it invents. German companies tend to pursue their research on the down low, often developing new products and processes that are not necessarily directed at the general public. Companies rarely celebrate their innovations the way Apple does.
But that too is changing. The hunt for the “next big thing,” a groundbreaking technology that could ring in a new era, has been underway in Germany for some time.
Of course, money also plays a role. In 2015, the German economy invested €62.4 billion in research and development, more than ever before. The government is also doing its part. From 2005 to 2016, German government spending on research and development increased from €7.6 to €16.4 billion.
But human beings – and their ideas – remain the most critical factor. This is especially true today, when digitalization accelerates everything. Technological progress has always existed, but today’s breathtaking pace is new. And we are merely at the beginning of this development.
Meet the first ten innovators in a series featuring Germany’s top 100. Watch this space.
Martin Wezowski, software visionary
Martin Wezowski, 46, is a rock star, and twice over. In one life, he was a real rock star, a bass player for Swedish power metal band Majestic from 1997 to 1999. In his other life, he is a rock star of the digital world, chief designer and visionary at software provider SAP and, as such, in demand worldwide.
The man with the long, salt-and-pepper hair knows how to captivate his listeners. “We are industrializing space,” he says. “I would like to build a future in which we want to live,” he proclaims.
And he likes to think laterally; he doesn’t assume that science fiction is all fiction. Software is key to achieving this. But new ideas and products are only future proof if users find them convincing.
To that end, Mr. Wezowski wants to create a sort of fan community for SAP products. He learned how to do this in his career as a rock musician and music manager. It also helps that he feels comfortable in many different cultures. He spent his first 14 years in Poland, then he lived in southern Sweden. A civil engineer, he also studied media production technology, and he has designed websites, posters and advertising. He came to SAP in 2013.
Gesche Joost, programmer and educator
A 42-year-old professor of design research at the University of the Arts in Berlin who has been anointed Germany’s “digital champion,” Ms. Joost joined forces with IT experts and digital entrepreneurs, to develop the Calliope mini, a small computer motherboard made to teach students primary school and up, how to code.
One day, they hope all third graders in Germany will be using the device. “It’s about developing an analytical way of thinking and understanding how programming works,” explains Ms. Joost. Similar devices exist in other countries – the BBC micro:bit was a forerunner – but right now devices like this are not very common in Germany. In the southwestern state of Saarland, all elementary schools can already request free Calliopes, and pilot projects are being discussed in other states.
Achim Kampker, e-vehicle maker
There is a market for electric vehicles, University of Aachen professor, Achim Kampker, 41, said in May 2012, “just not the right product.”
At the time Mr. Kampker, an engineer born in the western city of Moers, had already been hired by Germany’s postal service to develop an inexpensive, battery-driven delivery vehicle. He beat all expectations. The postal service has already built 2,000 of his Streetscooters and more are on the way.
Ulrich Weinberg, genius whisperer
Every company would love to have their own Steve Jobs. But it’s not that easy. Still, Ulrich Weinberg, 58, is trying. “Using multidisciplinary teamwork, we try to inject a Steve Jobs-like quality into our daily business,” said the professor, who studied graphics and painting and who heads the School of Design Thinking at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, just outside Berlin. There he teaches students and professionals to think in new ways and to work together, in more creative ways. It’s a method that SAP and Bosch also employ.
Edward Budd, financial researcher
Edward Budd, 41, is trying to connect two worlds. In his day job, he is in charge of Deutsche Bank’s digital strategy in payment transactions and is working on implementing blockchain technology; this is basically a kind of digital ledger system that manages itself and doesn’t require a centralized authority.
But Mr. Budd is not just a banker, he also raises cattle. And the two parts of his life are converging. Blockchain can revolutionize the financial world and cattle farming alike, as well as other industries. He approaches both tasks with the same attitude: “There is nothing more important than experience to do something well.”
Hans Langer, 3D printing pioneer
Today there is hardly anything you cannot make with a 3D printer, from cars to furniture to athletic shoes. The fact that industrial 3D printing has caught on so quickly and reached industrial maturity so fast, is partly the doing of one man: EOS Chief Executive Officer Hans Langer, 65.
In 1989, Mr. Langer, a physicist, founded 3D printing pioneer EOS in Krailling, near Munich. Today the company is the world market leader in laser-supported 3D printing. This is how it works: A computer-guided laser beam melts layer upon layer of plastic or metal power, building a highly complex, solid product in the process. There are hardly any companies today that are not considering the use of 3D printers. The production method is already established in the manufacturing of special components, such as for the aerospace industry.
Indeed, the importance of Mr. Langer’s pioneering work is reflected in the fact that even the competition uses EOS licenses.
Sven Jungmann, big data doctor
Sven Jungmann, 31, is a resident physician at the Emil von Behring clinic in Berlin, one of over 100 clinics in Germany’s Helios chain. Besides treating patients he is also trying to coral electronic data about health to make diagnosis easier for doctors everywhere. He is doing this by collecting big data on health and by getting patients to fill in digital questionnaires.
Adolf Klenk, hair loss guru
Adolf Klenk combines research with marketing. The 61-year-old is the inventor of the anti-hair loss shampoo, Alpecin for Men, which has helped family-owned business Dr. Wolff expand as far as China. Mr. Klenk studied chemistry and earned his doctorate at the University of Stuttgart. He even appears in ads for the company and his latest product is coming out this spring: A sunscreen gel for men with little hair.
Peter Karbe, lens master
Peter Karbe originally wanted to be a photographer. But he realized, “I’m better at theory than practice,” he said, during his training as a photographer. Instead, he became a photographic engineer, a job that combines knowledge of engineering with the craft of photography, and he got a job with camera and optics maker Leica.
He is especially fascinated by lenses. In Wetzlar, in eastern Germany, Mr. Karbe, 59, experimented with all the important Leica lenses of the last 20 years. For instance, he and his team redeveloped the legendary Noctilux family of lenses.
These are apparently capable of transmitting more light than any other lenses in the world and photographers rave that it turns night into day. No other lens produces better photos in poor lighting conditions, even in candlelight.
Mr. Karbe’s role model is Leica pioneer Max Berek, the originator of the microscopic lens and he says that the market should await something new and exciting from Leica soon – but for now, that is all he is saying.
Jan Regtmeier, interface innovator
It’s small and inconspicuous and can be built into almost every niche. The modular microcomputer is called the MICA, short for a Mini Industrial Computer, and it is being celebrated as a sensation. A MICA can be installed into a variety of environments in industry and used to collect or process data which it then sends onto other computers.
The man behind the project is Jan Regtmeier, director of product management at Harting IT Software Development. The 37-year-old physicist’s task was to create an interface through which industrial machines talk to a company’s IT base. This meant creating a flexible and comprehensive interface, which can use a variety of software languages and interface with a wide number of operating systems. It also has to be tough to withstand heated, cold or dirty environments.
“MICA closes this gap,” says Mr. Regtmeier. The minicomputer has been on the market since January 2016, and demand is strong.
In 2016, MICA, helped the Harting group, a family-owned company in the northern German region of Westphalia, win the Hermes award, one of the world’s most prestigious industrial innovation prizes. As the awarding committee noted, MICA “will make it easier for small and medium-sized enterprises to enter the world of Industry 4.0.”