Best Innovators

Germany's Quiet Visionaries

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    A lot of German innovation is 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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German innovation burns bright. Source: Getty

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.

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