Almut Otto is a writer and has over 30 years of know-how in the communications industry. She learned the trade of journalism from scratch in a daily newspaper and in a special interest magazine. After studying communication sciences in Munich, she worked as an international PR manager in the textile, shoe, outdoor and IT industries for a long time. For some years now, she has been concentrating more on her journalistic background. As a passionate outdoor and water sports enthusiast - her hobbies include windsurfing, kitesurfing, SUP boarding, sailing and snowboarding - she is particularly interested in keeping the oceans clean and shaping a sustainable future. In addition, she is always fascinated by the latest developments from the world's hardware and software laboratories.
How do self-driving cars handle potholes on the road? As just stay driving ahead or spontaneously around them aren’t an option. You have to take the bull by the horns, that’s what the founders of vialytics were thinking. They designed a system that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to map out road conditions. This is how the road authorities can deal with the problems as quickly as possible. Danilo Jovicic, who founded the start-up together with Achim Hoth and Patrick Glaser, explains how the system works.
How did you come up with the idea of setting up vialytics?
We wanted to do business as an independent company and set up our own start-up. We got to know each other through the Activatr and Pioniergeist start-up programs. It was by coincidence that we then got together in a small group. That’s where the idea of doing something with road management took shape. We came up with a lot of wild ideas for a couple of weeks. We also had a lot of contact with municipalities who told us about problems concerning road management. The overarching issue there was autonomous traffic. We thought carefully about what you need to do in order to be able to drive safely autonomously. That invariably comes down to good roads.
What does your product look like?
Municipalities can continuously monitor their streets with our system. This is done with the help of a modified smartphone mounted on the windscreen of a municipal service vehicle. On a sweeper, for instance. These are at any rate always out and about in the city. The smartphone records the road every 4 meters.
This data is subsequently sent to us. It is then analyzed using an algorithm. Any damage to the road is automatically detected this way. The municipalities get the data back again in the form of a dynamic map. As they are better informed about the condition of the roads, they can react more quickly to any damage. This leads to a more sustainable and efficient way of road management. After all, plenty of municipalities don’t address the maintenance of their streets until it is far too late. Which means that the costs are also much higher. Current systems do not offer a proper solution. Those recordings are actually made with too great a time frame between each other. Nor are they carried out systematically.
Was there a problem you had to resolve first?
It was particularly difficult in the beginning to gain the trust of municipalities. This was mainly due to the fact that municipalities rarely cooperate with start-ups here. We set up 5 pilot projects where our system was tested. Thanks to the positive reactions we received, we have now managed to build up a customer base of 50 municipalities throughout Germany. Currently, we are also in contact with cities in other countries who are interested in our product.
What are you especially proud of?
We are especially proud of our first customers who have dispelled any preconceptions that local councils are a bit stuffy. Some of them were so enthusiastic about our solution that they bought the system before it had even been fully developed. Of course, we are also very proud of our team, which has expanded considerably over the last 6 months. Our employees are busy developing the product on a daily basis.
What does the future of vialytics look like?
Our goal is that of internationalization. We want road authorities all over the world to be able to maintain their road networks in an efficient and sustainable manner. Apart from that, we will continue to work on improving things so that we can keep on responding to the requests of our customers.
What tips do you have for other starters?
Do you have a good idea? Jump into the deep end and dare to make your dreams come true. And for those who have already set up a company: at some stage, take each employee along with you to a client. That’s what you’ll learn the most from.
Have you always wanted to write a pop music classic? Good news! Prof. Dr. Stefan Kölsch and PhD student Vincent Ka Ming Cheung from the Max-Planck-Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig have decoded part of successful music’s DNA. Songs like James Taylor’s Country Road, UB40’s Red, Red Wine or The Beatles’ Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da are irresistible thanks to their perfect combination of anticipation and surprise. Pleasure in music depends on both past and future expectations.
“It’s fascinating how people are able to enjoy a piece of music, if for no other reason than how chords have been arranged over time,” Vincent Cheung says. “Songs that we like are probably songs that strike a fine balance between our knowing what’s going to happen and the surprise of something we weren’t expecting.” The neuroscientist then adds:
“”If we understand how music activates our pleasure system in the brain, we would also be able to explain why we often feel better when listening to music. Even when we may be feeling melancholic.”
Neuroimaging and machine learning
As part of their research, the experts used a machine learning model to analyze a total of 80,000 chords from 745 classic American billboard pop songs. This enabled them to mathematically quantify uncertainty and surprise. This is one of the elements that distinguishes this study from an earlier one. Previously, reactions to surprising musical passages were only taken into account when a piece of music was actually heard for the first time, Cheung explains. He and his colleagues, on the other hand, have also taken into account “the uncertainty of a former expectation.”
We are all familiar with this: the first bar of a piece of music is heard and we recognize the song straightaway (faster than Shazam can). According to Cheung, the researchers have removed elements such as text, melody and rhythm from the songs in order to prevent this from happening. They just kept the chord sequences of the original pop songs. As a result, the hits were no longer recognizable for the test subjects.
Cheung explains the uniqueness of their research:
“Our study combines neuroimaging and machine learning in order to find out how the anticipation of music makes music enjoyable and also reveal the immediate underlying neural networks.”
Mix of surprise and familiarity
The result: when test subjects were relatively sure which chords they could expect to hear next, they enjoyed being surprised. In other words, their expectations were compromised. Conversely, the researchers also proved that if test subjects were not sure what they could expect next, they would prefer the next chords to be familiar rather than surprising.
“Although composers have known this intuitively for centuries, the underlying processes of how expectation evokes joy in music were still unknown,” Kölsch confirms. “In the past, most studies have only looked at the effects of surprise on musical pleasure, but not at uncertainty when it comes to listeners’ expectations.
The scientists used brain scans from functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) for their research. They also discovered that the perception of musical pleasure is reflected in three areas of the brain. The amygdala (for processing external impulses). The hippocampus (for controlling influences and memory). And the auditory cortex (auditory center). These regions process emotions, knowledge and memory and sound. By contrast, the activity in the so-called nucleus accumbens, where the anticipation of reward is processed, merely reflects the uncertainty of the listeners. This also came as a complete surprise to the researchers. Up until then, it was thought that this part of the brain (linked to the human reward system) also played a role in processing pleasure in music. It is Cheung’s view that further research will eventually reveal the way in which these brain processes come together and how they exactly lead to delight in music.
Dance and film
In short, the results of the researchers show that the sense of pleasure influences the areas of the brain that process sounds, emotions and memories. “And that musical pleasure depends on the dynamic interaction between past and future expectations. Our fundamental human ability to predict something is therefore an important mechanism whereby abstract audio sequences acquire an emotional significance. By doing so, they transform into a universal cultural phenomenon that we call ‘music’,” the researchers state.
Another important outcome of the study is that people’s expectations of chords are gained implicitly over the course of their lives. In this respect, our previous experiences in music determine our expectations. Take for example, listening to the radio or the sound in bars and restaurants. These can also have an impact on the kinds of music we enjoy.
After considering their findings, the study’s authors encourage future brain research to pay more attention to the combined role of uncertainty and surprise. One could, for instance, examine why other art forms such as dance and film have such great value for people. The results could also be used for improving artificial algorithms that generate music. Or for helping composers to write music or predicting musical trends.
Make it easier, don’t ditch it
The next step for the neuroscientists is to examine how information flows across various parts of the brain while listening to music. They want to know why and how it happens that people who listen to music sometimes get goosebumps. Cheung anticipates the outcome of that research to be even more significant: “We think there is great potential in combining computer modelling and neuroimaging not only in order to understand why we enjoy music, but also what it means to be human.”
Getting back to music, are we any closer to the moment when an automated composition kit for music might be made based on Cheung’s findings? “Our results could be used to improve artificial algorithms for generating music or simplify compositions.” However, this is not yet a substitute for human composition. Because, after all, a perfect song needs lyrics, melody and an uplifting rhythm.
The worst thing a person with osteoarthritis can do to their joints is place too heavy a load on them. Excessive joint load often results in too much strain on the joints and weeks of pain. On the other hand, however, completely relieving those joints is not helpful either. That’s according to sports orthopedist Stefan Sell from the KIT Institute for Sport and Sports Sciences (IfSS) in Karlsruhe, Germany:
“When it comes to the prevention and treatment of osteoarthritis, weight and nutrition are just as important as the right amount of exercise.”
In other words, it’s best if the patient exercises intensively for a certain amount of time every day while at the same time avoiding too much strain. Like taking a brisk walk for several hours.
Training algorithms based on motion data
But how can you accurately assess all of this? Finding the right way to do this isn’t easy. Not too many people are able to interpret their body’s signals correctly without professional support. Perhaps a well-trained athlete might be able to do that.
All the more reason for a consortium of sports scientists, doctors, computer scientists and industrial partners to work on a cure for damaged knees. Together they have devised a prototype for a high-tech knee brace. It is equipped with sensors that use self-learning algorithms which are able to measure the load on the knee.
The consortium worked for a total of three years on the intelligent “Anthrokinemat” knee brace. This brace will help osteoarthritis patients in future to properly regulate their day to day physical activity. The model is equipped with numerous sensors that collect all relevant data concerning the load on the joint. Even before an osteoarthritis patient exceeds the maximum load level, they will receive alerts on their mobile phone. The aim is to make the patient aware that excessive strain can result in further damage.
Artificial neural networks calculate the joint load level
Professor Thorsten Stein, head of the BioMotion Center, states that the biggest challenge was to find a viable algorithm for quantifying the load on the knee.
“The sensors can only measure motion, not the load itself. However, in the case of osteoarthritis, joints should not be exposed to too much of a load. That’s why we need to be able to assess the forces in the knee as accurately as possible,”, Stein states.
Machine learning algorithms (as in artificial neural networks) are used to solve this problem. This involves training an algorithm with motion data. Over the course of the training process, the algorithm automatically learns to estimate the forces in the knee that are associated with motion.
“Osteoarthritis is a very common disease,” Stefan Sell explains.
According to official statistics, around 35 million people in Germany have radiographic signs of osteoarthritis. About ten million of these people are obviously ill. As joint wear and tear increases with age, one in four German citizens over the age of 50 and about 80% of over-75s will suffer from osteoarthritis. The spine is the most affected area, but osteoarthritis of the knee and hip joints is also widespread.
Joint project between Unis, BMWi and the company
In the past three years, sports scientists at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) have laid the foundations for the design of the smart brace. They have received funding for their work from the Federal Ministry of Economy and Energy (BMWi). The project partners are the University of Bremen, the manufacturer of amongst other things Bauerfeind orthopedic aids, and the sensor technology company ITP. A prototype is currently under development in another research project.
The Sell and Stein work groups have recently published some of these research results in the Sensors trade journal.
After Greta Thunberg made her sustainable trip across the Atlantic with the Malizia II racing yacht as an alternative to flying, the carbon hull of the yacht was much discussed all over the world because this material anything but sustainable. However, it is still the safest and best choice for the tough conditions on the high seas. For now at least – because the ecosail project team under Prof. Fahmi Bellalouna at the Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences is currently working on making boatbuilding more sustainable.
For the 1001 VELA Cup 2019, launched in 2006 by the University of Palermo together with the University of Naples, the team developed a dinghy which – based on its weight – consists of 70% natural materials to comply with the competition requirements. In the end, the German team with its Mach 1 took 5th place in the international professional student competition with green boats.
Tropical wood and frame structure
The boat, which weighs about 110 kg, resembles a 470 – an Olympic two-man racing dinghy with trapeze and spinnaker – but is made of laminated flax fabric with 50 % natural resin content. In addition, the inner hull structure, a frame structure, is made of tropical Okoumè wood and Sapelli wood. This tropical wood is characterized by its high strength and low weight. The deck of the Green Dinghy is made of birch wood. In addition to the above properties, it is also relatively flexible.
Bellalouna explains the background and the future of construction and materials:
“The inner structure of the fuselage consists of a frame construction and the use of light but stable Okoumè and Sapelli wood species. This lightweight construction led to a high weight reduction and more stability of the hull. Furthermore, the use of flax fabric as a light and high-strength natural fiber and vacuum pressing as a laminating process gave the fuselage shell a stable and light hull form.
“The use of natural fibers, e.g., flax, jute and alfalfa grass, is comparable to wood due to the very positive ecological balance. They have the ability to thrive in dry and water-poor areas and can be harvested several times a year. Natural fibers also have very good mechanical properties. Thus they will gain more importance in the future in industrial applications, e.g., in automotive, shipbuilding and aircraft construction.”
Cross-industry: Natural fibers for industrial production
The aim of the ecosail project is not only to investigate and evaluate the industrial use of natural fibers in boatbuilding. After all, the student sailing team has now proven the suitability of the developed concepts in practice. The next step is to present these concepts to potentially interested companies at trade exhibitions and in specialist publications. The university team hopes for further possible cooperation agreements. The students, many of whom are professional sailors, are already working in close cooperation with yacht design and production companies.
In principle, all university teams participating in the 1001 Vela Cup are supported by sponsors from the sailboat construction and construction industry. At the same time, the companies use the event as an intensive exchange platform as well as a source of inspiration for the development of their new concepts.
Bellalouna is delighted:
“The interest of customers in environmentally friendly and sustainable products has also reached the boat market. Sailing is per se an environmentally friendly and sustainable form of mobility that only uses wind and thermal as energy sources. As a result, many customers now pay attention to the composition of materials and the manufacturing processes of sailboats. This development is often confirmed by experts – such as designers, engineers, shipyard workers from the boat and heavy cruiser shipbuilding industry.”
But there is still a long way to go. Bellalouna explains:
“Boat and heavy cruiser ship building are very expensive due to the number of pieces and the size of the market. Therefore, manufacturers try to use established materials and manufacturing processes in order to reduce costs. The use of new ecological materials and manufacturing processes is technically very risky and economically unprofitable due to the lack of long-term tests. Most boat and heavy cruiser ship builders are small shipyards that cannot bear this technical and economic risk. And in research, there are universities and institutes in Germany and around the world that are dedicated to the development of sustainable concepts for small boats and heavy cruiser ships, but it is not a lucrative field of research.”
Hybrid fiber instead of pure carbon
Even though natural fibers could represent an alternative to carbon and plastic fibers in the long term due to their very good mechanical properties and excellent ecological balance, Bellalouna sees their future task more in the area of hybrid fibers, which are composed of natural and plastic fibers. Because, according to Prof. Bellalouna:
“The production of hulls using composite materials made of epoxy resin and plastic fibers cannot be 100% avoided in the medium term due to the economic efficiency and good technical control with regard to load and production. Of course, this depends on further development in the field of natural composite materials.”
Interdisciplinary green boat building
A total of 25 students were involved in the 8,000 hour boat construction of the pioneering ecosail dinghy. They came from the fields of mechanical engineering, mechatronics, automotive engineering, industrial engineering and international management.
The next 1001 VELA Cup will take place from 17 to 22 September 2020 in the Gulf of Palermo. In addition to the Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences, two other German universities, the Kiel University of Applied Sciences and the Eastern Westphalia-Lippe University of Applied Sciences, will be present with their own teams.
A hacker attack on autonomous vehicles could be catastrophic. A research team from the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems (MPI-IS) and the University of Tübingen has now demonstrated that a simple patch of color could completely disrupt autopilots. And this splotch of color could be discreetly put on a T-shirt, or on a rear car windshield sticker, or even used in an logo on a shopping bag.
“It took us three, maybe four hours to construct the pattern – it went pretty fast,” notes Anurag Ranjan, PhD student in the Perceiving Systems Department at the MPI-IS in Tübingen, Germany.
But fortunately everything has the all-clear at the moment. That danger is minimal for the series models currently available on the market. Nevertheless, as a precaution, the researchers did inform a number of car manufacturers who are currently working on the development of autonomous models. This will enable them to react promptly to any potential risk.
Optical flow is disrupted
In their research, Anurag Ranjan, and his colleagues Joel Janai, Andreas Geiger and Michael J. Black tested the resilience of a number of different algorithms for determining optical flow. These types of systems are used in autonomous vehicles, robotics, medicine, video games and navigation. The optical flow refers to the motion in a scene that is captured by onboard cameras.
Recent developments in the field of machine learning have led to faster and improved methods for calculating motion. However, the research carried out by the Tübingen scientists shows that such methods are susceptible to errors. For example, a simple, colorful pattern that is added to a scene as an obstructive signal is capable of disrupting things. Even if the colored pattern doesn’t move. This could cause the deep neural networks (which are often used for flow computation these days) to make faulty computations. As a result, the network could suddenly (mis)calculate that a large portion of elements in a scene are moving in the wrong direction.
Scientists have already shown that even tiny patterns of color could disrupt the neural networks. This was the reason why objects like stop signs have been incorrectly classified in the past. The Tübingen researchers found that algorithms which are used to determine the movements of objects are also susceptible to these types of attacks. It is imperative that this does not happen when it comes to safety-critical applications such as autonomous vehicles. These systems have to be absolutely safe in the face of such attacks.
Small patch with huge effect
The researchers have been working on the Attacking Optical Flow project since March last year. Over the course of their research, they were surprised that even a small patch of color can cause chaos. A size of less than 1% of the total image is in itself large enough to disrupt the system. The slightest interference caused the system to make serious mistakes in its computations. This then affected half of the image area. The larger the patch of color, the more devastating the impact.
“This is worrying because in many cases the flow control system blotted out the motion of objects across the entire scene,” Ranjan explains.
It’s easy to imagine the damage a disabled autopilot could cause. Especially when an autonomous car is driving fast or is driving around the city.
Mystery of the self-driving car has been maintained
It is still a secret known only to their respective manufacturers as to how some of these self-driving cars actually work in practice. That’s why computer vision research scientists are only able to speculate.
“Our work aims to shake the manufacturers of self-driving technology awake and warn them of the potential threat. If they know about it, they can train their systems to withstand such attacks,” says Michael J. Black, Director of the Perceiving Systems Department at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems.
One aim of the R&D team is to show the automobile industry how improved optical flow algorithms can be developed using what is known as “zero flow” testing.
“If we show the system two identical images and there is no movement between them, the optical flow algorithm should not change color in any way. Yet this often isn’t the case, even without an attack. This is where the problems start. And this is where we have to start to fix what the net is doing wrong,” Ranjan explains.
He and his team hope that their research will help raise awareness about this problem. Their goal is to get car manufacturers to take these types of attacks seriously. Consequently, they can adapt their systems accordingly to make them less susceptible to malfunctions.
The paper will be presented at the International Conference on Computer Vision ICCV, which is the leading international conference on machine vision.
More IO articles on autonomous driving can be found here.
Gone are the days of boring screen displays – now we are all sitting up and paying attention. The Munich-based start-up Apicbeam, a spin-off from TUM, has designed a holographic technology that helps bring collective ideas midair to the fore digitally. As a result, every user sees things from the same perspective. Absolutely ingenious. We spoke with Christoph Knappe, CEO and co-founder of Apicbeam. He gave us a glimpse behind the scenes. Against this background, we are already looking forward to the exciting future of this young company from Munich.
Can you please briefly tell our readers how you came up with the idea for this new invention and what is so special about Apicbeam?
Just to clarify: I am not the inventor of Apicbeam technology. It was our co-founder Sascha Grusche who came up with the amazing idea for the Apicbeam. He originally worked on an image-based teaching concept that could explain the relationship between colors and wavelengths to students. He succeeded in encrypting two-dimensional images and videos on a quasi one-dimensional ‘spaghetti’ beam which subsequently makes these images appear to float in space. The interesting thing about this is that the images appear to all viewers simultaneously as if by magic. When you experience this collectively for the first time, it is a very fascinating and unifying experience.
Which fields of application are interesting for your free-floating holographic images?
We are currently working on calculating and making simulations of where the limits of technology currently lie. As a consequence, we will then be able to estimate how large we can display floating images using our patented process.
In principle, many areas of application are plausible for new display technologies like Apicbeam. In addition to the automotive and entertainment sectors, most inquiries at present are coming from premium brands and advertising agencies that want to present their products and customers in a new, attention-grabbing way. The free-floating marketing of the future, so to speak.
Our grand vision, however, is to bring people back to the discussion table and enable fascinating, unifying digital experiences. Apicbeam’s technology has the potential to make these kinds of experiences a reality in a very simple and affordable way.
A product like this is definitely a technically very complex one to develop – was there ever a time when you almost gave up?
In my opinion, you can always find reasons to give up. That’s also an easy option. Uncertainties are always expected with a start-up, but you can learn to deal with them.
As far as I know, you only have one life on this beautiful planet that we call home. So you should value your time on earth and make the most of it. I can’t say what this means for any given person. For me personally, it means not spending 40 hours of my life in a major financial institution just because I make good money. That simply doesn’t fit in with my adventurous spirit and values in the long run.
We have a great team at Apicbeam, and a wonderful working relationship with TU Munich and our partners. And we just really enjoy creating something new together. To think ahead in terms of the future, to help shape the world. We are very aware that every adventure also has negative sides and that it all will come to an end at some point. Nobody can say when the Apicbeam adventure will be – for whatever reason – over and done with. Giving up can also be an important step if there is no other way. The only thing I can say for sure is that there will undoubtedly be new adventures beyond that.
Which idea are you currently working on and which display technology or design from your company can we look forward to in the future?
We are currently working with a customer on a project for the 2020 Nuremberg Toy Fair. However, I can’t say any more about this at this point. Things are still pretty exciting.
Starting a business and having a private life – how can you reconcile both in a positive way?
There are certainly many different approaches to this whole subject. Personally, I find it very important to listen to your body and mind. We often forget that we have an inner voice that tells us when something is up. In the big monopoly game that’s out there, we quickly learned to be higher, faster, better. In my case, there was a point at which I overstepped my limits in my old job in the automotive industry. I wasn’t sleeping well, I couldn’t concentrate properly. In the end, I no longer had anything that drove me. I just didn’t see it anymore. Forty hours in a well-paid “prison” with restrictive bureaucratic processes just didn’t suit me or my life at that time. It was my business sense and the supposed promise of security that brought me into that situation. After a few conversations with friends, my family and a one-time visit to the professionals at Rechts der Isar Hospital, one thing became clear: I had to get out of prison.
One day I may well want to find a more solid sense of security once more, particularly when it comes to planning a family. But for now, my appetite for variety and adventure is what matters.
If you look back on your experience as an entrepreneur: What tips do you have for other fledgling startups?
Try something, fall down and get back on your feet – that’ s how almost everyone learns to ride a bike. Oh yeah, and turn off your mobile phone and head off into the mountains for a hike …
Whether with a pram or in a wheelchair – anyone who travels in snow with small wheels has a hard time. Moving around becomes an immense effort. Patrick Mayer demonstrates how ingeniously this problem can be solved. The former snowboard professional was himself bound to a wheelchair for a long time. Nowadays, he can sometimes use crutches to move around again. And thanks to his invention Wheelblades, even in snow and on ice. We spoke to Patrick, who started the Swiss company Wheelblades.
Patrick, from your own experience you know how difficult it is to use a wheelchair in snow. What steps have you taken to address the current situation?
As a first step, I experimented by myself and created a simple working model. When I noticed how well my idea worked, I looked for a professional engineering agency to help me produce a professional prototype. Then came the pre-production series and ultimately the definitive version.
Interestingly, the problem hasn’t just been around since today. Why do you think it took so long to find a workaround?
Certainly one of the reasons for this is that I myself am affected by the problem. I just simply wasn’t prepared to accept this limitation of mobility. On the other hand, I knew that there are a lot of people in wheelchairs all over the world who would be happy with an assistive device like this. Niche or no niche! I took a very serious financial risk in order to design the Wheelblades products. Not everyone is willing to do that. I am driven by a vision and you have to start somewhere.
Which obstacles almost forced you to give up?
Financial constraints, isolation and errors in large-scale operations.
And in retrospect, what are you particularly proud of?
That I always believed in my visions, never gave up and very often went far beyond my comfort zone, no matter how great the challenges were.
Are there any other inventions that you are planning which will make life in a wheelchair easier?
Of course there are more ideas, but I don’t want to talk about them here. There are some companies out there among the manufacturers of assistive equipment who steal ideas. Then they present them as their own. Unfortunately, I also went through this experience. If my plans work out, then all wheelchair users will soon be able to look forward to a really special sense of freedom. Although those people who would rather sit on the couch at home probably won’t like my new ideas.
To what extent does your start-up influence your current life and hobbies?
My company is dominating my life at the moment and there is not much time left for friends, hobbies, leisure time etc. But if you want to build something up, you have to be prepared to set your personal needs and desires on the back-burner.
Do you have any advice as an entrepreneur which you would like to share with other newcomers?
There must be a vision that drives and fulfills you.
Give it your best shot or give up.
Start small and don’t consider yourself too good for any job.
Have buffers planned in. Both in terms of finances and time.
Consult with friends and advisors who support your project honestly and sympathetically.
Don’t let yourself be swept away by slick catchphrases such as: “I’ll make you really big”.
Are you interested in start-ups? We report on other innovative companies here.
Apart from climate change deniers, no one else is indifferent as to where climate change is heading. Experts and a growing number of citizens agree that it is high time we stopped climate change. Recently, the German federal government announced a climate package aimed at achieving Germany’s climate targets. However, the advisory committee of experts led by Prof. Dr. Ottmar Edenhofer, Director of the Mercator Foundation (MCC) and of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), sees the climate package that has now been drawn up as more likely to jeopardize Germany’s climate targets rather than aid them. Incidentally, the committee had devised an action plan in advance on behalf of the German chancellor. The plan was presented to the cabinet for approval in July 2019.
A key aspect here is the CO2 tax and emissions trade scheme. Both are currently are being discussed a lot in the public arena and amongst the political parties. Although, pragmatically speaking, it is quite irrelevant how CO2 taxation takes shape. The main thing is that it is taking shape. That is the unanimous opinion of the experts at least.
Dividend: Anyone who behaves in a carbon-neutral way ought to get their money back
After all, in principle it is only a matter of being able to present CO2 emissions across a wide range of areas in an economic sense. From electricity and transport to consumer goods. Only in this way will industry and consumers consciously behave in such a manner that less CO2 is produced. Many citizens are not enthusiastic about the idea of an additional tax in the first place. As they fear that everything will just become more expensive. This is the area where politicians are more afraid of losing votes. Brigitte Knopf, Secretary General of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC), placates the discussion:
“Not to worry. The goal is not merely to make everything more expensive. Our proposal includes compensations for the CO2 price that are socially just. This can be done either by means of a climate dividend, as has been done in Switzerland. Or by partially financing the EEG Tariff* with it, so that the price of electricity is lowered.”
This means that those who act in a climate conscious manner will have more money in their pockets at the end of the day. The principle could work as follows: first of all, there is the matter of the climate tax. Which everyone must pay according to their behavior. Those who act in a more climate-neutral way pay less. For example, by cycling a lot or not flying. After a certain time, let’s say one year, the money collected from the climate tax is paid out in an equitable amount as a dividend to every citizen. So those who have acted in a climate neutral way will have more money left over. But this government package does not provide for a climate dividend. The government could and should already create the administrative conditions necessary to offset the CO2 tax. Via health insurance, for instance.
CO2 tax is too low
However, a climate dividend only makes sense if the CO2 tax is high enough. But this is exactly where the committee sees a few tricky issues:
“First of all, looking on the bright side: in principle, the German government has followed our proposal and plans to introduce a fixed price for non-ETS sectors.** Plenty of people are definitely unaware that we have already been paying a CO2 tax on electricity, energy-intensive industries and air traffic since 2005. In the medium term there should be a national emissions trading scheme for both heating and transport. And in the long term, a minimum price should be incorporated into the EU emissions trading scheme. Nevertheless, the CO2 price which has now been agreed upon is in the first place much too low to have a knock-on effect. Initially just €10 and then €35 in 2025. For comparison: In our opinion, a price of €46 in 2020 and €120/tCO2 for the year 2030 would be more effective,” Knopf points out,
… and she adds:
“The problem is the longer that the increase in CO2 prices is postponed, the higher the prices will have to rise each year in order to meet the set EU targets. And it is precisely this that will present us with much greater challenges at a later stage. Namely the need for social equity and greater planning certainty for investments.”
And last but not least, the German government is relying on the purchase of emission certificates from other EU countries. But for one thing, no one knows whether certificates will be available at all nor how the prices of these certificates will change.
Social equity virtually impossible to implement
Admittedly, in the beginning, the additional burden on medium income households will not be felt due to the low prices. But this will change over the long term. Therefore, a further point of criticism is that the current climate package will weigh most heavily on low and middle-income households in the future.
“Since the focus is on energy and as low-income households spend a particularly large proportion of their income on energy, low and middle-income households will be hit hardest in percentage terms if there are no compensations. According to our calculations, measures such as: reducing the electricity price, raising the housing allowance and adjusting the reimbursement of heating costs for people on benefits – are far less effective than a climate dividend. Otherwise the electricity price should be reduced even more than planned. Especially since, according to our calculations, the bottom line is that high earners are charged less than the middle class in terms of percentages. And a large proportion of low-income earners – who do not receive social assistance or housing subsidies and who do not benefit from the relief measures in question – are in fact even more severely penalized by the climate policy.
About a quarter of households in the lowest income group will pay more than 1% of their income as a result of the government’s proposal. The flat-rate commuter allowance is also proving to be unfair. This is due to the tax advantage for high-income earners. The additional relief measure in the package aimed at increasing the flat-rate commuter allowance for long-distance commuters does not help those with lower incomes. The committee also finds it difficult to assess the impact of the allocation of the subsidy programs and measures in the construction and transport sectors. Especially since tax advantages are more likely to be used by high-income earners. For example, the experts fear that the adopted measures will be a social catastrophe in the medium to long term as CO2 prices rise. There is no broad-based compensation mechanism in place that would specifically benefit low and average earners.
Germany should now take action with respect to the EU
Experts also do not consider the still rather cautious package of measures by the Germans with respect to the EU to be the right approach:
“Now that the planned greater reduction of emissions by 50 % or even 55 % by 2030 has created momentum on a European level, it seems like the right time to take action. As a window of opportunity has now been opened for well-timed reforms. The German government should use this time to actively promote a comprehensive European emissions trading scheme,” Knopf urges.
This would also make it possible to determine whether the establishment of a national emissions trading scheme could be dispensed with and if European implementation of one could take place at the same time. Precisely as an EU-wide solution would be the right approach:
“The German approach should be coordinated with similar concepts in other EU member states well in advance. In order to avoid a growing patchwork of incompatible national strategies. We also definitely need a minimum price in EU emissions trading in order to provide a regulatory framework for investments in technologies which emit less CO2,” says Knopf. And right now. Otherwise barely anyone will dare to invest in the future.”
Monitoring should be much stricter
Last but not least, the advisory committee of Experts considers the control mechanisms exercised by independent bodies to be too weak. Knopf points out:
“At the moment, only ex-post monitoring of the measures by a panel of experts is planned. However, the committee should also have the right of initiative for supplementary taxes for the climate targets (ex-ante evaluation of alternative options). A good example is the UK Committee on Climate Change, which has a high priority for climate policy in the UK. Its mandate is to evaluate and monitor progress on emission reductions. And to report on the projected remaining CO2 budgets for fixed five-year terms. The committee also carries out independent analyses in the fields of climate science, economics and politics and makes concrete recommendations for emission reduction targets in the form of future five-year budgets on this basis. The government, in turn, is legally obliged to respond to these annual reports.”
**Background: while the ETS sectors covered by the EU Emissions Trading Scheme include electricity generation and parts of industry, whereas other sectors such as households, transport, agriculture, etc. are considered as non-ETS sectors.
Scientists surrounding Prof. Gordon Cheng from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) recently gave the robot H-1 a biologically inspired artificial skin. With this skin, (which is the largest organ in humans by the way), the digital being will now be able to feel its body and its environment for the first time. However, while real human skin has around 5 million different receptors, H-1 has a total of just over 13,000 sensors. These can be found on the upper body, arms, legs and even on the soles of its feet. Their goal is to provide the humanoid with its own sense of a physical body. Thanks to the sensors on the soles of the feet, for example, H-1 is able to adapt to uneven ground and even balance on one leg.
But of far greater importance is the robot’s ability to safely embrace a human being. And this is not as trivial as it sounds. As robots are capable of exerting a force that would seriously harm humans. A robot comes into contact with a human being at several different points especially during an embrace. It must be able to quickly calculate the correct movements and the appropriate amount of force required using this complex data.
“This may be less important for industrial applications, but in areas such as healthcare, robots have to be designed for very close contact with people,” Cheng explains.
Biological models as a basis
The artificial skin is based on biological models in combination with algorithmic controls. The skin of H-1 is made up of hexagonal cells. They are about the size of a €2 coin. The autonomous robot has a total of 1260 of these cells. Each cell is equipped with sensors and a microprocessor. These are used to measure proximity, pressure, temperature and acceleration. Thanks to its artificial skin, H-1 perceives its environment in a much more detailed and responsive way. This not only helps it to move around safely. It also ensures that it is safer in its interaction with people. It is able to actively avoid any accidents.
Event-driven programming delivers more computing power
So far, the main obstacle in the development of robot skin has been computing power. Previous systems were already running at full capacity when evaluating data from several hundred sensors. Taking into account the tens of millions of human skin receptors, the limitations soon become clear.
To solve this problem, Gordon Cheng and his team chose a neuroengineering approach. They do not permanently monitor skin cells, but use event-driven programming. This allows the computational workload to be reduced by up to 90 percent. The key is that individual cells only pass on data from their sensors when measured values vary. Our nervous system works in a similar way. For example, we can feel a hat as soon as we put it on. Yet then we quickly get used to it and don’t need to give it any attention. We only tend to become aware of it again once we take it off or it gets blown away. Our nervous system is then able to concentrate on other, new impressions which the body has to react to.
Gordon Cheng, Professor of Cognitive Systems at TUM, designed the skin cells himself about ten years ago. However, this invention really only reveals its full potential as part of a sophisticated system. This has recently been featured in the specialist journal ‘Proceedings of the IEEE.’
Hand on your heart, dear reader: how thorough are you when you wash your hands? Do you take 20-30 seconds to do it? By the way, that’s as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice … And do you use enough soap? Do you really clean your whole hands? Do you dry your hands properly afterwards? Not to mention actually sanitizing them. I admit it, I thought I was thorough, but I feel caught out. It seems that I, too, am carelessly spreading germs. Although I will change.
But what’s worse is the spread of germs throughout hospitals, because that’s where germs find people whose immune systems are already weakened. And that can have devastating consequences. We spoke with Robert Hellmundt, who founded the Heyfair start-up together with Alexander Döpel. The young entrepreneurs are launching a disinfectant onto the market which allows users to directly see if they rub it into their hands sufficiently or not. And the good thing about it? The dye disappears after drying your hands.
How did you come up with the idea of setting up Heyfair?
At a trade fair we heard about a lack of adequate hand disinfection and the serious consequences of that for society. There are 8.9 million hospital-acquired infections every year in Europe alone which lead to enormous costs for the healthcare system. Above all, this causes a great amount of suffering for the patients affected.
We quickly realized that the main cause was, unfortunately, human error. Too often, hands are not properly disinfected or not disinfected at all during crucial moments. That’s why we started thinking about how we could help people follow hygiene guidelines more easily. Our solution is simply to show what parts are clean and what aren’t.
What makes Heyfair’s product so special compared to other products?
We have developed a disinfectant that dyes hands an intense color when it is used, but then disappears after the product has been dried off. When I use it, I can tell then and there from the color of the dye if I’m sanitizing my hands effectively. The disinfectant will not work on parts of the skin that aren’t clearly highlighted by the dye. This might be because there is not enough of it on there or nothing has been applied to that area.
The dye helps me enormously when it comes to the actual act of disinfecting my hands. Yet the product also has a powerful psychological component. As others can see if and how well I am sanitizing my hands too. This really increases motivation to do things properly. The spread of germs happens much less frequently this way, so fewer people are infected with potentially dangerous pathogens.
What obstacles have you had to overcome and was there a moment when you wanted to give up?
The beginning was especially difficult. We started with a radical idea in a field outside our own area of expertise and did not know if it was really good or technologically feasible. So we had to invest a lot of time and money at considerable personal risk in order to get things done more effectively. All the while under the constant uncertainty of whether our efforts would ever pay off. I had never really considered the possibility of just giving up. Because despite the many setbacks, worries and sleepless nights, it was always progressing. I still wonder today where this journey will take us. Aside from all of that, we have become more familiar with the subject and we know that our idea is not just good, but is also achievable.
Tell our readers what you are particularly proud of …
We have had several wonderful experiences in our company which I look back on with great pleasure. The moment, for example, when we first tried out the first working prototype on our hands in our improvised laboratory. After three years of hard work and many unsuccessful attempts, we were finally able to see what had previously only existed in our imagination. That was a very special moment for me. Another nice thing: the moment when trial customers, who for a long time were initially very skeptical and quite dissatisfied, become more and more enthusiastic about the product as a result of the constant improvements. At a certain point we heard: “Now it’s really good! Can I keep it?”
Yet I am especially proud of the company itself. We are getting better and learning more every day. What we can do this week is always more than what we did last week. This way we are constantly improving conditions so that we can accomplish even more at Heyfair.
What can we expect from you in the coming years?
In April we entered the training market sector with SteriCoach for the first time and we are still striving to make a difference. It is simply unacceptable that so few people know how to disinfect their hands properly. We make all of the important aspects of correct hand disinfection visible with our product. The training can be repeated as often as required. So, there is no reason to let someone go back to work after the training without them showing that they have mastered how to disinfect their hands properly.
In line with our experience with SteriCoach and company structures (which we are continually expanding upon in order to develop, manufacture and market our product), we are currently preparing for the introduction to the market of the right disinfectant for daily usage. This will enable companies with high hygiene requirements to continue to uphold optimal hygiene standards.
Where do you think the company will be in 5 years from now?
We stand by our user-friendly hygiene products being the ultimate tool for the prevention of infection. In our view, as things stand today – thorough basic hygiene within professional areas is still far too complicated and prone to error. We aim to remedy this with cleverly designed products that will always be deemed easy to understand and intuitive in their application. My goal for the next five years is to make our disinfectant, (which shows up as a dye only temporarily), the new gold standard when it comes to hygiene-sensitive areas.
Of course, in the long term, we would like to set the standard everywhere for user-friendly sanitation solutions.
How do you manage to combine your private and professional life?
Not at all right now. Regrettably, my work is all too often at the expense of my wife and two children. I don’t even want to mention my friendships or my extended family. Hobbies are out of the question for now. I am always trying a few things out, although I haven’t yet found a solution that might work better for me over time. This is also due to the fact that my duties and responsibilities are constantly changing. Even delegating tasks often takes up an incredible amount of time. Therefore, it frequently comes down to this: take a deep breath and improvise. As a rule, however, everything is going exactly the way it should: if you just keep going, do your best and from time to time ask for a bit of understanding.
When you think back to the early stages, how does your actual life now as a founder differ from your original ideas?
In actual fact it was never my goal to actively run a business, so I can’t really make that comparison. However, what has always stood in the way of my expectations are the many minor problems and tasks that can take an incredibly long time to deal with. Processes can drag on unbearably for ages. If you don’t pay attention, half of the company is paralyzed which can destroy the team’s motivation. That’s why I always try to keep an eye out for signs of these energy-consuming processes and why I try to motivate my team to do the same. Usually they find a solution together so they can get through all that frustration more quickly, or even manage to cleverly avoid it.
If you had the choice… Would you set up a start-up again? And if so, would you take the same approach and choose the same company format?
Definitely. I also sincerely hope that Heyfair won’t be my last start-up.
However, if I look back, I probably should have chosen an easier subject for the initial phase.
Nevertheless, I have few regrets. As I see it, our approach was the right one, and today I still feel as if the company’s format and the city of Jena still suit me.
Lastly, what tips do you have for other start-ups?
As a start-up you start out with very limited resources, without any defined processes, customers, contacts, cash flow or perhaps even with only a limited knowledge of the sector. Maybe even all of that at once. Therefore, competitors who have already established themselves on the market have a huge advantage. You will only be able to catch up with them by being very fast. You need an excellent team, thousands of good ideas and a corporate culture where these can be expressed and discussed. If everything is as it should be, there’s a spark and the best ideas are accomplished with enthusiasm and passion. As a founder, your most important task is to ensure that this happens on a regular basis.
You and your team will have the opportunity to get this done by ensuring that your company is running efficiently and that your team does the same as well.
Interested in other start-ups? You can read all the episodes from our daily series here.
Gone are the days when artificial climbing walls were turned into towering peaks. As from now, there are revolving climbing routes. Your advantage: thanks to the sensor, the climber will always be provided with another type of grip. The flexibility of the vertical treadmills also makes them suitable for use at events, as a training device and for rehabilitation. The fitness training machine Everest Climbing was developed by the Polish-German team of entrepreneurs Piotr Malecki and Dariusz Salamonowicz. The latter told us more about the product.
How did you come up with the idea to start Everest Climbing?
We wanted to create a piece of sports equipment that was more versatile than anything before it. A piece of equipment that’s fun and that benefits everyone’s health and fitness as well. When we started out, we had completely different ideas, yet we were never entirely satisfied with them. Then Piotr said “Let’s build a climbing wall.” At first I thought it was just a joke. But when he told me what he meant, I was thrilled.
The idea itself is not altogether new. Because our climbing wall works according to the principle of a treadmill. But it is vertical and climbing grips were mounted to it. You can best see how our climbing wall works in this 40 second video:
What distinguishes Everest from conventional climbing wall solutions?
It’s hard to talk about standard solutions because this kind of equipment is relatively new and produced by only a few companies around the world.
But we were the first to use motion sensors on this type of equipment. This allows the climbing wall to automatically adapt to the needs of a climber. We also developed a new system that constantly and automatically changes the position of the climbing grips in relation to each other – while climbing. This means that the climbing distance is not only unlimited, but it is also never repeated. It is this system that makes our climbing wall so special. By the way, we have patented it.
Creating a constantly changing route has a double advantage. On the one hand, climbing never gets boring, because you never know when and where the next climbing grip will turn up. And on the other, the maximum level of exercise efficiency can also be achieved.
We also use climbing grips that have been specifically designed for us. In the beginning we worked with conventional climbing grips and tried them out at various levels of difficulty. But after about two years we decided to produce our own grips.
Were there moments when you almost gave up?
Maybe giving up is a bit of an overstatement. But we have already wondered a few times what we would do if we weren’t financially successful. In moments like those, we always brainstormed, tried to analyze our mistakes and adjust our strategy. And we kept on going. Fortunately, there are two of us who are founders. Because it was often the case that when one of us was desperate, the other was full of optimism. So we were always able to support each other both mentally and emotionally.
And what are you particularly proud of?
Of the possibilities that our climbing wall offers everyone. When it comes to entertainment, it puts a happy smile on everybody’s face, because it’s a great deal of fun. In the fitness area, it produces faster and more fantastic results than any other machine in the world. It develops all muscles, burns calories, helps build a perfect figure, not to mention it’s fun. In addition, it is has been greeted with a sense of hope and positivity in the rehabilitation sector.
Which solution of yours can we look forward to next and where do you want to go from here?
That’s a very good question. The Everest climbing wall is our top priority. But we have been working on a new product for a year and a half now. This is the VR Motion Simulator. Up until now, these simulators had been very large and were designed with the entertainment industry in mind, but not for private users. Soon we will be introducing a small VR Motion auto-racing simulator for home use that anyone will be able to afford.
We would like to establish Everest GmbH in the three areas of entertainment, fitness and rehabilitation. The entertainment industry is always on the lookout for new products. They have already embraced our product and have fallen in love with it. The next step for us is the fitness industry, which is currently our focus. A few days ago we signed contracts with our first reference gyms. We are also currently in talks with a large fitness chain.
And in the near future we will also be turning to the rehabilitation industry. We have met so many fantastic people at various events who, despite their handicaps, have not given up on their dreams – including their sports dreams. We also want to realize our other ideas. There are still some projects that are on the back-burner that are waiting for their time to come.
Finally, do you have any tips for other entrepreneurs?
We are still at the very beginning of our path. So I don’t feel authorized to give tips to other entrepreneurs. – Perhaps one thing: please don’t underestimate the importance of marketing and financially-strong partners nowadays. Even the best product should be placed on the market.
Everyone is familiar with it: how at some point the battery in your smartphone loses power and needs to be replaced faster than the device itself. This is now a thing of the past with the batteries from the start-up High Performance Battery. Founders Prof. Günter Hambitzer, Sebastian Heinz and Thomas Lützenrath’s company offers next-generation batteries. Hambitzer explains how.
Can you briefly describe the idea behind High Performance Battery AG?
In principle, all of the battery systems that are currently on the market are already outdated. They lose their capacity and their level of performance drops after each charging cycle. The more intensively these batteries are used, the faster they will age. For example, fast-charging current lithium-ion batteries with organic electrolytes has a significant negative effect on their lifespan. The unique thing about our battery technology – and therefore the idea behind it – is that it addresses the problem of degradation at the chemical source. This means that our primary focus is on battery life. In order to solve this degradation issue, I had to change the basic system of battery chemistry that has been used up until now: From the outset, the impetus was on switching from organic to inorganic chemistry.
Long waiting periods for lab results could soon be over. An interdisciplinary research team led by Wolfgang Ensinger, Professor of Materials Science, and Helmut Schlaak, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology, both of TU Darmstadt, are now working with Ivana Duznovic, chemist, and Mario El Khoury, electrical engineer, on the design of a prototype lab-on-a-chip system. This system detects substances directly on site.
Inspired by biological nanopores
The scientists drew their inspiration from nature. This is because biological nanopores, which are integrated within cell membranes, ensure that substances are transported from the outside to the inside, or from the inside to the outside. They function either as sluices or as selective transport systems. Another special feature is that they are specialized when it comes to specific substances.
To date, there is no technical system available that is able to match the sensitivity and specificity of biological nanopores. Their performance is unparalleled. However, biological nanopores themselves are unsuitable for technical applications. They are simply too fragile.
Ensinger and Duznovic therefore rely on synthetic nanopores which they equip with a chemical or a biological sensor. To do this, the surfaces of the nanopores are made functional accordingly.
“Our goal is to design a new generation of sensors that are highly sensitive and efficient, based closely on their biological counterparts,” Ensinger explains. “If we then integrate these bio-inspired sensors into a microfluidic system with a portable electronic analysis system, then they become a lab-on-a-chip system,” Schlaak adds.
System works just as accurately as laboratory
Microchips that directly measure substances on site are a dream come true for both physicians and environmental analysts. Until now, samples had to be sent to a laboratory in order to e.g. diagnose a disease, monitor its progress or test the contamination of wastewater with pesticides or drugs. This in turn often entails a long waiting period for the results. In an effort to develop a new generation of sensors that are highly sensitive and powerful based closely on their biological counterparts, the interdisciplinary team at TU Darmstadt has now presented its patented “lab-on-a-chip” prototype. It is no larger than a credit card, but has the functionality of a laboratory. And it works even faster, more cost-effectively and with less required effort than a conventional laboratory. This is because the values are determined during the visit to the doctor or at the testing site. Nonetheless, the system is just as precise, robust and reliable as a laboratory.
Several processing steps are necessary
A number of steps are, however, necessary for production. First, the synthetic nanopores need to be produced. This is done by bombarding polymer films with heavy ions. This job is carried out by the GSI Helmholtz Center for heavy ion research in Darmstadt. After impacting the polymer films, the nanopores are made bigger and transformed into a conical shape. They then have a narrow and a wide opening and look similar to a funnel. The nanopores are enlarged by treating one side of the film with a caustic solution.
“The caustic process creates free carboxy groups, by which we are then able to activate the nanopores via a chemical cross-coupling reaction,” Ivana Duznovic explains. “Basically, we are able to attach all kinds of substances to the carboxy groups. However, it only makes sense to use substances that are biologically or chemically relevant and which enable us to identify biomolecules with a high degree of specificity and sensitivity that are relevant for diagnosis or environmental analysis. The sensor would otherwise make no sense.”
Nanopores can be regenerated
The nanopores were activated specifically for the detection of histamine. This messenger substance plays a central role in allergic reactions and could also be important in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. The detection method conceived by Ensinger and Duznovic is based on a displacement reaction. A substance coupled to the carboxy group binds on to a metal ion that can also bind on to histamine. If the sample contains histamine, the metal ion transforms into histamine, which can be recognized by a drop in the electrical current of the nanopores. The following applies: the greater the decrease in electrical current, the more histamine is contained in a sample. Since the substance coupled to the carboxy group is able to be recharged with the metal ion, the nanopores may be regenerated and used for further detection.
From prototype to system
The next step is the development of the ‘lab-on-a-chip’ system.
“We already have a functional microchip, but some problems still need to be resolved because the detection is not just supposed to work in an aqueous solution, but also in a blood sample,” according to Schlaak.
The team would like to be able to recycle the chip in order to cut down on costs. This is also theoretically possible due to the ability of nanopores to regenerate. For this reason, any later results must not be influenced by the initial use of the chip:
“We must not have any so-called memory effects,” El Khoury says, summing up the problem.
Another hurdle for the commercialization of the product is the search for suitable test subjects who could provide relevant proof, as is the case in medicine.
“We need a marker that has already been validated,” Ensinger explains. ” We need to be certain that this method actually makes medical sense and is helpful in diagnostics, screening or the monitoring of the course of a disease, for example,” the materials scientist says and he adds:
“We are currently looking for some interesting candidates and are already collaborating with the University Hospital in Mainz. Of course, we are open to other ideas”.
A lab-on-a-chip system based on biologically-inspired nanopores can only be developed in close collaboration with other disciplines. Ensinger and Schlaak applaud the interdisciplinary approach of the LOEWE research cluster iNAPO. Chemists, biologists, materials scientists, physicists and electrical engineers have all been involved in the development.
“We at the TU Darmstadt are very well positioned for such projects,” said Ensinger enthusiastically. Next, the team wants to equip the surfaces of the nanoprobes with equipment that enables the detection of proteins in order to identify complex biomarkers.
Geothermal energy is considered to be regenerative energy. Its advantages: The heat stored in the earth can be used for heating and cooling and also to generate electricity. Scientists at the TU Bergakademie Freiberg, the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) and the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) in Spain now want to find out to what extent low-lying volcanic regions can also serve as a clean and sustainable source of energy. They are doing this by actively pumping water into these ultra-hot geothermal systems in order to generate renewable heat and electricity.
The research project, named HIGHER, is about a new form of deep geothermy that concentrates primarily on volcanic regions. What is particularly interesting about this technology is its potentially high energy production. As a matter of fact, it exceeds conventional systems by a factor of ten.
First step has been taken
Nevertheless, the research is still in its infancy. This means that it also has to face some major scientific and technological challenges. It is still unclear whether or not these systems can be operated safely. And as yet we don’t know how they will behave over much longer periods.
The team has now taken an initial step towards researching these systems. For the first time, they have analyzed in various experiments how long it takes cold water to reach the depths. As well as how the rise in pressure and the cooling of the bedrock and thereby seismic activity are all affected. This is of crucial importance: a fundamental understanding of seismic activity in deep geothermal operations is an important factor when it comes to the safe and sustainable use of geothermal technology.
The researchers initially developed their own software called OpenGeoSys for their work. Which is an open source research platform that is managed by the UFZ in cooperation with various universities and research institutions. With the help of this platform, the scientists were able to simulate and describe the complex physical processes in the earth’s crust on a computer for the first time ever. As a result, they gained important insights into how supercritical geothermal systems might be safely operated in the future.
Results have been published
The scientists recently published their results in the renowned scientific journal Nature Communications. The HIGHER project is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. With a positive outcome – as the TU Freiberg and the UFZ are planning to further expand their collaboration in the field of environmental geosciences.
“Please hold, you are next in line …” – who is not familiar with this irritating announcement, which – according to statistics – makes us spend almost 43 days of our lives on hold? With the help of e-bot7, lengthy customer service will in future be a thing of the past. The fledgling company plans to use adaptive AI in order to make this process more efficient. Furthermore, employees and bots will also be directly provided with relevant information so that they are able to respond to customer inquiries within the shortest possible time. The Munich-based start-up was founded in 2016 when the entrepreneurs – Fabian Beringer (CEO, Sales & Marketing), Xaver Lehmann (CEO, Strategy & Finance) and Maximilian Gerer (CTO, IT & Data Science) – also got so annoyed by customer service and realized that something had to change.
Fabian Beringer & Xaver Lehmann in an interview with Innovation Origins.
Please give our readers a brief history of the origins of e-bot7:
Fabian: After becoming so frustrated when we were kicked off a customer service hotline after waiting for more than 37 minutes, it was clear to us that this was a problem that had to be resolved. That’s exactly why the three of us entrepreneurs were tinkering with an idea that, with the help of artificial intelligence, would not only help agents to be able to work more quickly, but also automate recurring customer queries so that customers will be able to get their answers faster.
What makes your product so special compared to other products?
Xaver: We offer a hybrid Agent + AI platform whereby agents do not have to manually train the AI system, but it is trained automatically during business operations. We also call it “automated supervised real-time learning.” With our solution, we are able to improve customer service efficiency by up to 80%. Integration is simple and fast – less than two to four weeks – and flexible, i.e. it can be used on-premise or in the cloud. Furthermore, you will be able to use our Contextual Dialog Editor to set up complex processes, integrate them into the back-end systems and then fully automate them. We also have the most powerful multilingual algorithm as well as important strategic partnerships with EY, Sopra Steria, Roland Berger, McKinsey, Muuuh! and so on. In addition, the platform is capable of being seamlessly integrated into existing CRM systems.
Fabian: While most of those in the industry still choose to use third-party neural networks, we offer a simple interface for end clients which have our own AI developers and technologies that allow us to constantly update and improve our models, while offering each of our clients a comprehensive, customized solution to get the most out of their resources.
What major challenge have you had to overcome?
Xaver: Over the past year, our team has more than doubled and is set to keep on growing. A big challenge in this growth phase is building structures and maintaining the identity of e-bot7. Therefore it is crucial that we hire the right people.
Do you remember a particularly good time when it came to setting e-bot7 up?
Fabian: It’s very difficult to name the one best moment because life as an entrepreneur is always exciting. We are very happy to see that we can give our team members the opportunity to reach their full potential. At the same time, we are always thrilled with the great feedback we receive from our customers.
What are your plans for e-bot7’s future?
Xaver: We have a lot of stuff planned for our roadmap. One of our milestones for the coming years is our international expansion into Europe, USA and Asia. We want to become the leading provider of artificial intelligence for customer service. With the opening of new offices in London and Paris and an existing office in the United Arab Emirates, E-bot7 might be employing up to 100 people by next year.
Fabian: In addition, we want to expand and develop more languages with a focus on internationalization. In the future, companies will have to concentrate more on extending customer service in order to establish direct contact with customers. This trend is supported by new AI technologies such as the e-bot7 platform. Currently, it is technologically possible to automate up to 80% of text-based queries. We believe that full automation will take 100% longer. This would require an enormous amount of data, computational power and new technologies. As soon as this is possible, e-bot7 will become the first provider of this AI technology.
How important is this work to you?
Fabian: In our opinion, the ‘Life-Balance’ motto is not ‘Work-Life-Balance‘. E-bot7 is a substantial part of our life and we think about it all the time. That’s a lot of fun. Nevertheless it is important to take time for our families, friends and other stuff!
Xaver: It was clear to us from the beginning that you have to give your all and that there is always a solution. If you have enough stamina and ambition, hard work and the openness to constantly see things from different angles, you will succeed in moving a company forward. That’s really the kind of work we enjoy.
What is your final tip for other entrepreneurs?
Xaver: Have confidence in yourself and never give up. Many people will talk down the idea and say that it will never work. Do your own thing and realize your vision! There are some people who believe in you and will help you bring it forward.
The dream of many children could come true thanks to this writing trainer: in the future, a smart pen will point out and help children correct spelling mistakes while they are writing, instead of them having to look these up. At least this is one of the research goals of Julia Knopf, Professor of German Primary Education at Saarland University.
“We want to develop the technological basis for a new spelling training concept and test it out as a prototype,” is how Knopf explains the background to this exciting developmental concept.
“This pen is intended as an intelligent aid – it should help children to improve their handwriting, lettering and spelling skills on their own,” Knopf explains.
The hope is that this automated writing process will help children develop legible handwriting.
There is already a prototype of this kind of pen out there, Jung explains:
“The pen is based on the Ergo or EduPen from Stabilo, which is currently being further developed and upgraded with the addition of an innovative training concept.”
This new writing trainer is based on a pen that is equipped with sensors. While the above model is intended for teachers who can use it in order to measure and promote children’s writing and graphomotor skills, the latest pen is designed to provide direct support to children. The writing that a primary school student writes on paper is transferred to a tablet in real time. A sensor system evaluates what has been written and, if necessary, informs the learner of any spelling mistakes and errors. Nevertheless, the tasks are much more complex than that:
“An important part of the study deals with the issue of when and which methods should be used when providing feedback on spelling, as well as what the didactic exercise scenario should look like,” Knopf states.
The task of the project partners is to solve these technological challenges. In the current research project, spelling is recorded and accordingly commented on and embedded in a training concept. It is not just a matter of correcting the child’s mistakes:
“The purpose of the pen and the corresponding app is to give the child individual feedback on their spelling performance, as well as to provide the child with suitable exercises for advancing their development. The training focuses primarily on learning strategies which determine the correct spelling of words,” Jung explains and adds: “This means that it is not the aim of the app and pen to merely correct the child’s mistakes. Rather, the child should be encouraged to use German sentence structures themselves. In addition, the application is not intended to replace actual spelling lessons, but to be used as supplementary educational material.”
As soon as these training concepts have been designed for spelling, they are to be tested at various schools. Jung adds:
“This research project will run for three years. During this time, the development and testing of the prototype will be the main focus. The pen will be put on the market after the project has been completed”.
The joint project ‘Handschrift-Training und Schrift-Digitalisierung mittels kontextsensitiver Stifte’ (Handwriting training and digitization using context-sensitive pens) is being funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) to the tune of €1.3 million. In response to whether an application for adults is also feasible, Jung replies by saying that perhaps one day we will all be using a pen like this one as a matter of course:
“The combination of pen and app will be aimed at children up to grade 6, largely due to the underlying play approach. However, it makes sense to consider expanding this concept.”
Whereas other plants (such as grapes) respond swiftly to changes in climate, alpine plants seems to take their time to adapt. It is true that they are gradually creeping upwards so as to avoid earlier rising temperatures. But according to a study carried out by ecologists at the University of Vienna and the Swiss WSL (Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research), the tempo at which they are acclimating is still too slow. The team led by Sabine Rumpf and Stefan Dullinger – both from the Department of Botany and Biodiversity Research in Vienna – observed in their studies that these plants tend to die out rather slowly in locations that are nowadays too warm for their species. However, this same kind of migration delay has also been seen amongst new plants that have re-colonized themselves in regions which were previously too cold for them. Consequently, when it comes to global warming, the current biological situation of many alpine plants leads us to conclude that they will not acclimatize in time in order to be able to propagate their species further.
Comparison between the years before 1970 and 2014/15
For their research work, the team compared the changes in flora in the Alps between the years before 1970, and the years 2014/15 at over 1,500 study sites. They also examined the observable changes in light of what was expected in relation to the changes in climate. Results revealed that almost none of the plant species kept up with climate warming without some lag. Even though nearly 135 of them were studied in detail.
„Sixty percent of the species can still be found in areas that they are no longer suited to in terms of climate,” Rumpf says, summing up the results, “Thirty-eight percent have not populated any of those areas that now offer a suitable climate, and we observed no signs of migration delay in either direction for just 7 percent.”
Risk of underestimating climate change
“Delayed migration implies that, on the basis of current evidence, we tend to underestimate the full extent of the consequences of climate change,” warns Stefan Dullinger, “it is particularly problematic where populations will only become extinct in the future, perhaps decades from now, due to the climatic conditions that already exist.”
This so-called “extinction debt” is not randomly distributed across species and regions. It is especially prevalent among species at the highest altitudes. It is precisely these species that are considered to suffer the most from climate warming. After all, they hardly ever have the opportunity to migrate to higher regions.
Delays also offer opportunities
The greater the risk for a species, the slower it seems to take to realize this threat. However, the slow response of high alpine populations also increases the chances that these species will succeed in adapting to the change in conditions as they evolve. However, there is only a glimmer of hope:
“This is an opportunity that plants will only be able to exploit if we succeed in getting global warming under control and stabilizing the climate as soon as possible,” Rumpf concludes.
As of September 19, 2019, the busy Berliner Straße des 17. Juni has become a 3.6-kilometer test circuit for automated and network-enabled transport. The digital infrastructure required for this was developed by TU Berlin. For the first time ever, autonomous driving can now be researched and further developed with all of its extensive aspects under real, urban traffic conditions taken into consideration. This particular area, which is regarded as an urban lifeline, poses many challenges for road users.
29 months for development and implementation
From Ernst-Reuter-Platz to Brandenburger Tor, traffic light systems, roundabouts, cycle paths and footpaths, parking lots and entrances and exits must be taken into account. In other words, ideal conditions for a test circuit that examines future technologies of automated and networked transport for improving public traffic flows, environmental conditions and the safety of road users. The DAI-Laborresearch laboratory and the associated Agent Technologies in Business Applications and Telecommunications department at the Technische Universität Berlin (TU Berlin), are both headed by Professor Dr.Dr. h.c. Sahin Albayrak. He and his research team needed a total of 29 months in order to develop and set up the test circuit. The focus is on vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, the combination of sensors and the use of AI mechanisms. In future, the test circuit will also offer other regional and supraregional companies, as well as research institutions, the opportunity to explore automated and autonomous transport in a real urban environment.
At the core of the project is the DIGINET-PS reference framework. It was designed at TU Berlin and creates the conditions for the test circuit, vehicles and control center to be able to communicate with each other. More than 100 sensors are installed along the test route which measure weather conditions, traffic volume, parking conditions, environmental pollution as well as road conditions. This data is anonymously analyzed and evaluated on the road and in the control center by specially developed software. This enables forecasts to be made across a wide variety of topics. The data is shared with vehicles connected to the network using a communication infrastructure based on ITS-5G and 4G. This makes it possible to improve perception and decision-making process for various critical maneuvers and application scenarios. This innovative intelligent infrastructure allows vehicles to warn or even predict accident-prone situations with cyclists on the road, for example.
Cameras, radar and laser scanners in vehicles
The automated and networked vehicles are equipped with cameras, radar and laser scanners. As a result, information can be collected within 360 degrees around the vehicle, analyzed and exchanged with other automated and networked vehicles. This means that a vehicle is alerted by the control center when a traffic light turns green. They can coordinate with each other and therefore quickly respond accordingly. It is also possible for the intelligent transport systems to recognize other road users as well as pedestrians and react appropriately to each situation.
Professor Albayrak is confident:
“By centralizing the collection, aggregation and analysis of data, we will be able to develop novel, secure solutions for road traffic problems, generate new ecosystems and business models, and create added value”.
Funding by BMVI & Berlin Senate
Funded by the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI), the project contributes to the implementation of the Smart City Strategy of the federal state of Berlin in the area of mobility and supports the federal state’s Digital Agenda. But not only that:
“The insights gained here in Berlin are an important basis for future transport policy decisions,” said Federal Minister Andreas Scheuer, who was also present at the opening of the test circuit.
The Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure has funded the research project with more than 4.6 million euros since the start of the project in April 2017 as part of the Federal Government’s ‘Strategy for Automated and Networked Transport’.
The project has also received support from the Berlin Senate Department for the Environment, Transport and Climate Protection.
An international team from the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm and the Aachen Graphene & 2D Materials Centers recently developed the world’s smallest accelerometer. This might prove to be a sensational breakthrough in sensor and navigation technology. The team used the exceptional mechanical and conductive properties of graphene as a basis. Furthermore, the ultra-thin layer structure of the material also plays a role in further developments.
“The future for very small accelerometers is promising,” explains Xuge Fan from the Institute for Micro- and Nanosystems at KTH Stockholm. “These types of sensors will be able to improve navigation in mobile phones, be used as pedometers and in mobile games, and be used in cardiovascular monitoring systems. They can also be used as the basis for motion-capture wearables which capture the smallest movements of the human body.” And Fan adds: ” These NEMS transducers can also be used for determining the mechanical and electromechanical properties of graphene.”
After MEMS, NEMS is next
While microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) have formed an important basis for innovations in sensor and medical technology for several decades already, nanoelectromechanical systems – NEMS for short – are now entering into the next stage of development.
Professor Max Lemme, holder of the Chair of Electronic Components at RWTH Aachen University and Managing Director of AMO GmbH, explains further:
“The initial idea for sensors made of graphene membranes came to us around 2012, and the preliminary results were published in the following years. The idea for this specific accelerometer was then developed on the basis of these results in 2015 or thereabouts.”
And he adds …
“Our cooperation with KTH in recent years has already proven the potential of graphene membranes for pressure and hall effect sensors and microphones. The range of applications is now being extended to include acceleration sensors.“
A few more steps towards production
Lemme is optimistic that the material will be ready for the market within a few years:
“We are working on industry-compatible production and methods for integration in order to achieve this.“
The professor is also pleased with the fine body of work being done at the Aachen Graphene & 2D Materials Center – a consortium involving RWTH Aachen University and AMO GmbH:
„Research into graphene and two-dimensional materials is characterized by the iterative feedback of basic and applied research. For example, we try to translate recently discovered material properties into applications straightaway – this is what makes our work so exciting.“
Nevertheless, Lemme cautions against too much euphoria:
“The sensor is a prototype. Of course, we have tested and proven that it can be replicated in the laboratory, but many steps are still required for manufacture.”
It is still not known when a sensor developed by the consortium will actually be launched onto the market:
“That all depends not only on technical improvements but also on commercial considerations. Moreover, the graphene technology must be brought to a production-ready state, regardless of the application.”
The team published an overview of this issue in the journal Nature Materials in May. Lemme also outlined the next research steps as follows:
“As part of the Graphene flagship project, we want to develop a pilot line for prototype production together with partners in Belgium, Finland, Spain, England and Germany. This would enable us and our industrial partners to bring graphene technology up to a substantially higher level of technological sophistication. This is essential in order to be able to incorporate graphene into products in nanoelectronics, photonics and sensor technology.”
The research was funded by the European Research Council through the Starting Grants M&M’s (277879) and InteGraDe (307311), the Swedish Research Council (GEMS, 2015-05112), the China Scholarship Council CSC (Scholarship Grant), the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (NanoGraM, BMBF, 03XP0006C), the German Research Foundation (DFG, LE 2440/1-2) and the European Commission (Graphene Flagship, 785219).
Conventional brake discs are made of cast iron containing graphite. They do have some advantages. These include good thermal conductivity and a very good capacity to store heat. They are also reasonably inexpensive. But their disadvantage is that they are prone to severe corrosion and excessive wear and tear of materials during operation. And this is precisely what leads to a substantial amount of fine particle emissions and enormous environmental pollution.
This could all soon change. In a joint project between the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT and the Department of Digital Additive Production DAP at RWTH Aachen University, scientists have developed a special coating process that reduces these factors considerably. Matthias Brucki, M.SC from the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT, explains the details:
“Protecting parts from both wear and corrosion is no simple matter. The usual processes, such as solid chrome plating and thermal spraying, have their disadvantages. Up until now, laser deposition welding has only been able to assert itself in this area in a few isolated instances. Which explains the main driving forces behind the demand for a more comprehensive solution. We have now developed an alternative, patent-protected process which is the Extreme High-speed Laser Deposition welding EHLA process, which eliminates the shortcomings of conventional processes related to coating technology and maintenance and repairs.”
The so-named Extreme High-speed Laser Deposition welding process (EHLA) is the first process to quickly and economically apply wear and corrosion protective coatings on brake discs. Thomas Schopphoven, research associate and team leader of “Productivity and Systems Technology” within the Laser Deposition Welding Group at the Fraunhofer ILT, explains further:
“The EHLA process is particularly suited to the automotive industry – e.g. for coating brake discs, which have previously been difficult to coat due to the high levels of pressure and the high demands placed on cost-effectiveness and environmental friendliness. EHLA makes it possible for the first time to apply coatings with good adhesion to brake discs that are firmly bonded to the base material and, unlike coatings produced by conventional processes, do not peel off.“
Whereas the layers of conventional processes have pores and cracks, the coatingss produced using the EHLA process are very dense. They therefore protect the part much more efficiently and over a longer period of time. This increases service life and prevents untimely failures due to damage to the surface of the friction areas. Brucki emphasizes:
“From an ecological and economic standpoint, the development of coatings on brake discs is aimed at preventing wear and corrosion. With EHLA, high-quality, pore-free and crack-free coatings with stronger metallurgical adhesion and less leakage can be fabricated from a wide range of materials. Functional properties of the brake disc shouldn’t be reduced by the coating.”
As a large range of materials can be used in this process, an application-specific coating using environmentally friendly materials is now possible.
New process design offers advantages
EHLA’s innovation is based on the well-established laser deposition welding process. This is used successfully, for example, as a repair method for turbine blades. But EHLA offers decisive advantages. In this process, the powder particles of the coating material are melted directly by the laser beam. In conventional processes, this only takes place in the molten state on the surface of the part. Since EHLA causes liquid drops of material instead of solid powder particles to enter the molten weld, the process speed is increased from 0.5 to 2 meters per minute by a staggering amount of up to 500 meters per minute.
The high process speed means that the heat effect on the material that is to be coated is reduced significantly. Whereas conventional laser deposition welding affects the material thermally down to the millimeter range, EHLA only affects the material in the micrometer range heat-wise. This enables completely new material combinations and applications. These include the coatings of aluminium or cast iron alloys – as is now the case with brake discs. But that’s not all, as Brucki notes:
“Due to compatible process conditions, EHLA can be used to process a wide range of materials. This offers the user a broad spectrum of coating materials that can be used to prevent wear and corrosion.”
In the conventional deposition welding process, the carbon from the brake disc dissolves in the weld. This results in brittle areas, pores, bonding defects and cracks in the coating or bonding zone. EHLA avoids all of this through the particular process. Brake discs made of grey cast iron can for the first time be reliably protected with firmly bonded coatings.
Resource-efficient and process-reliable with superior quality
Another advantage is offered as well. Only thick layers of half a millimeter or more are possible using the conventional welding process. This requires a lot of material. In addition, post-processing is very time-consuming. The EHLA process now makes it possible to apply very thin layers with thicknesses of 25 to 250 micrometers. Whereby the coating becomes cleaner and smoother. In this way, roughness can be reduced to about one tenth of the previous values. In addition, around 90 percent of the material is used in the new EHLA process. This makes the process extremely cost-effective and resource-friendly. Prerequisites for standard industrial use are thus met.
And this is all about to happen. Successful initial trials have shown that the EHLA process makes it possible to manufacture coated brake discs based on conventional cast iron discs using a variety of material combinations. A system technology suitable for series production with a modified grinding process for finish is currently being set up by HPL Technologies in Aachen.
Moreover, Brucki sees other areas of application as well:
“In addition to the major challenges facing the automotive industry in manufacturing coatings for brake discs subject both to great pressures and demands, other applications for the EHLA process are coatings for parts in the offshore industry which are exposed to the most severe corrosion and wear conditions, such as hydraulic cylinders. As well as corrosion and wear prevention, EHLA can be used to apply coatings with a defined surface topography, thereby giving the component additional functions.”
“The EHLA method also offers promising possibilities beyond just coating, e.g. with the hybrid-additive approach for the production of bulky elements on existing conventionally produced parts. Previous process chains have usually been characterized by a subtractive approach in which up to 90 percent of the original part is frequently mechanically removed. EHLA can help here: The machining of flanges and secure mountings for a pre-cast part on a shaft, for example, can take several hours. The same part produced by the hybrid EHLA process only takes a few minutes and the final finishing by lathe is also completed after just a few minutes.”
EHLA has meanwhile received three renowned innovation awards. Their technology was awarded the Joseph von Fraunhofer Prize in 2017, the Berthold Leibinger Innovation Prize in 2018 and the second prize in the ‘Steel in Research and Development’ category of the Steel Innovation Prize for its eco-friendly laser alternative to chromium(VI) coating.
Incidentally, details of the EHLA method and other current topics concerning research and development can be found at the joint Fraunhofer stand (C12 in Hall 4.1) at the International Motor Show 2019 in Frankfurt from September the 12th to the 22nd. More information on the new process can be found here.