Start-up of the Day: Vialytics quickly registers road conditions

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.

The founders of vialytics GmbH, (from left to right) Achim Hoth, Patrick Glaser, Danilo Jovicic ©vialytics

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.

©vialytics

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.

More articles on start-ups can be found here.

 

Start-up of the day: Energy Floors is making smart parking spaces in Rotterdam

Over the coming year, Rotterdam’s Energy Floors wants to sell smart surfaces for public outdoor spaces that generate data, measuring how many cars, pedestrians and cyclists are passing by. These can be used to regulate traffic flows and lighting, for instance. These Smart Energy Floors also generate energy via the solar cells that are integrated in them. At the moment, the Rotterdam municipality is on the lookout for a suitable location for the application of this kind of energy surface in a city parking lot, says Michel Smit, CEO of Energy Floors. A trial of this is planned for 2020 in cooperation with the Engie energy company.

What motivated you to set up Energy Floors and what problem has this resolved?

“Our first idea was to create a Sustainable Dance Floor on which people can dance to generate energy, something that you can actually see because the tiles light up. (By converting the vertical movement of the dancer on the floor into rotational movement through a mechanism underneath the flexible floor tiles so as to generate energy, ed.) That idea originally came from two companies: Enviu and Döll. In 2017, they brought me in as a hands-on expert from the club scene. I had been running a large nightclub in Rotterdam for four years, called Off-Corso. They wanted to bring sustainability to the attention of young people and thought that the Sustainable Dance Floor could help with that.

Unlike today, it was difficult to get young people interested in sustainable energy at that time. It had a bit of a stuffy image. We initially tried out that first version of that dance floor at the Rotterdam pop stage Watt (which went bankrupt in 2010, ed.) – that made it the first sustainable club in the world. We started building our business around that first Sustainable Dance Floor.”

What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?

“That we had customers for the Sustainable Dance Floor before we had the actual product. At first, we only had a drawing of the floor, an artist’s impression. We worked out the concept and technology with TU Delft and TU/e in Eindhoven. And together with Daan Roosegaarde, we were able to further develop the interaction between the public and the technology. This is where our Sustainable Dance Floor is unique: the interaction between people and sustainably-generated energy. When they dance harder, they generate more energy.

This is what we want to offer people when it comes to our business proposition. That they themselves have an influence on improving the sustainability of energy. We want commitment. This is what we are specifically focusing on. The second obstacle was how we could go about expanding the scale for things that this product can be used for. So that it has a real impact. That’s why we wanted a surface that was suitable for large permanent fixtures in outdoor areas. We had to drop our initial unique selling point – as in ‘human energy’ – for this type of surface. Instead, we came up with our Smart Energy Floor. We use solar energy rather than kinetic energy. Otherwise, the project would be impossible to complete. The system has to be cost-effective, robust and resistant to wear and tear.”

What has been the biggest breakthrough so far?

“That we sold 25 of those Smart Energy Floors to schools last year. Three of them in Germany and the rest in The Netherlands. As a company, we have three business propositions: the Dancer for clubs and discotheques, for example, the Gamer for schoolyards and the Walker for large outdoor facilities. The first Walker in the Netherlands is located near Croeselaan in Utrecht on a crossing opposite Rabobank’s head office. Rabo has partly financed this floor. There is also one in the palace garden of the President of Malta. He found us via Google. It is a public garden with a Gamer and a Walker. A Gamer costs 13,000 euros including the installation. While a Walker is available from 25,000 euros.

The fact that we appeal to people all over the world doesn’t surprise us at all. Our first signed contract was with the producer of Absolute Vodka. He wanted to make a road show around New York with our dance floor in 2009. So, that’s what we did. We get two to three requests a day. Our challenge is to be able to deal with these properly. Because we want to keep on innovating too. As an example, you could also use the Smart Energy Floor on motorways if you developed the software for that.”

 What can we expect from Energy Floors over the coming year?

“We want to start selling more Walkers. This is a new market for us that has a lot of potential. Smart city projects that you can use it in are much larger projects than what we have done so far. You could equip bike paths with our technology so that you can turn them into walkways. We are going to do a smart parking trial next year together with Engie and the municipality of Rotterdam. We will be installing  a Walker for that reason. The energy generated by the solar cells in the surface goes to the electricity grid and can subsequently be used to charge cars. Currently, we’re looking around for a suitable location.

We are also planning to enter the German market. This fits in well with our product and company. There is plenty of capital there and focus on sustainability. And the German way of doing business isn’t that different from the Dutch way of doing business.”

What is your ultimate goal?

“Ultimately, we want our Smart Energy Floors to be used in all the world’ s major cities and have their data connected to each other. You can learn a lot from each other’s experiences. You could monitor and influence the behaviour of the users of our surfaces on city roads. For example, in order to regulate busy situations at certain locations. You can apply the technology in a smart way. If there are very few people driving or walking on the road, you could turn the lights off in the evening.”

Research shows that carbon in the world’s oceans needs to be recalculated

Godfather of evolutionary theory and naturalist Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) already assumed that there had to be something even smaller than the protozoa that were visible under the microscope in the “clear blue water” of the ocean. And he was right. Today we know that “every liter of ocean water is teeming with hundreds of millions of microorganisms,” as marine biologist Rudolf Amann says. He is director of the Max Planck Institute of Marine Microbiology in Bremen.

Amann and his colleagues have conducted extensive research into the importance of these microorganisms for the metabolic processes in oceans. This has produced some surprising results. This metabolic cycle is different than previously considered.

Metabolism, biomass and the world’s oceans

“Although they are only micrometers in size, the amount and the high metabolic rate of [microorganisms] determine the energy flows and the conversion of biomass in oceans,” states Tobias Erb. He’s a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg. The scientists explain that they have discovered a metabolism method that “plays an important role in the microbial degradation of algae biomass in the ocean.” For future calculations of the carbon dioxide balance of the world’s oceans, it is particularly important to know how the exact processes take place at a molecular level. At the same time, we also need to be aware of the global distribution.

What happens to the carbon contained in glycolic acid?

Single-cell algae (also known as phytoplankton) convert carbon dioxide into biomass. Other microorganisms continue to process many thousands of tonnes of algae biomass on surface water. That’s when the algae excrete the carbon out again, or after the algae bloom has died. Glycolic acid, a direct by-product of photosynthesis, plays a decisive role in this process. Bacteria partially convert this substance back into carbon dioxide.

The researchers then explain that, in order to understand the global consequences of this and its consequences for climate change, it is essential to have an accurate knowledge of the bacterial breakdown of algae biomass. Consequently, it is necessary to know exactly where and to what extent these nutrient networks are occurring. And moreover, what happens to the carbon in glycolic acid. That totals about one billion tonnes per year. This was not exactly apparent until now.

Microbial research ranged from understanding molecular principles in the laboratory, to demonstrating their importance in the marine ecosystem. © Max Planck Institute of Marine Microbiology/Gunnar Gerdts

The mystery of the fourth enzyme

During subsequent research with databases, he saw a cluster of four genes that provided building codes for four enzymes. Although three combined enzymes are sufficient in order to further convert a compound derived from glycolic acid. That’s why Schada von Borzyskowski did a laboratory test with this fourth enzyme to find out what its role is. He discovered that in this context, the enzyme provides a previously unknown reaction, referred to as imine reduction. The metabolic process is completed with this fourth reaction by creating a cycle “which allows the carbon in glycolic acid to be converted without releasing carbon dioxide.”

More articles on marine pollution can be found here

Metabolic cycle of the seas

The next step was to prove the presence and activity of these genes in marine habitats as well as their ecological importance, Tobias Erb explains. In the spring of 2018, the researchers carried out several expeditions near Helgoland so as to measure the formation and uptake of glycolic acid during algal blooms. They were able to demonstrate that the sea’s metabolic cycle actively involved in the metabolism of glycolic acid.

The bacterial genome sequences collected by the TARA Oceans expedition confirmed these results. This research spanned more than 10,000 kilometers of the world’s oceans. Blueprints of the metabolic cycle were found time and again. On average 20 times more often than all other known degradation processes for glycolic acid. “Our colleagues’ discovery in Marburg turns our earlier knowledge of what happens to glycolic acid upside down,” says Rudolf Amann. “Our data show that we need to recalculate the cycle of billions of tonnes of carbon in the world’s oceans.

Tobias Erb stresses that this work makes us aware of the metabolism of microorganisms and their global dimensions and how much remains to be discovered.

Photo caption: In satellite images, the algae carpets with their light streaks look like works of art. In the 70,000 square kilometre wide Deutsche Bucht alone, algal bloom produces about ten million tonnes of biomass in spring.

EU Commissioner Vestager to present new AI law at the start of 2020

Over the next three months, European Commissioner Margrethe Vestager will draft a new European law for AI. As of December, she will be responsible for the digitization of the European market. She plans to present her new AI law in March. After that, the European Parliament and the governments and parliaments of the Member States will have to approve her new AI law.

The new AI law is to lay out the rules regarding the collection and sharing of data by, among others, the large American tech companies such as Facebook, Amazon and Google whose internet platforms are being used on a massive scale by European citizens. At the moment there is only a guideline for e-privacy and one set of regulations for data protection (GDPR). The new law must include rules that make the collectors and distributors of data liable for any abuse use of this data.

Nightmare for the US

The greatest nightmare for the high profile big tech companies in the US is her intention to adopt new tax regulations following on from the new AI law. This should apply to internet platforms all over the world which make money from consumers in European countries. In recent years, Vestager has already taken Apple to court for tax evasion. She imposed a fine of 13 billion euros on them for this.

As far as she is concerned, the new tax regulations that she has in mind should be applicable worldwide. If she cannot do this because, for example, some countries do not want to cooperate, she said that the European Commission will continue to impose fines on non-European companies on an individual basis if they pay insufficient tax in the EU.

Breaking up Google and Facebook

She may also impose fines if American big tech companies abuse their dominant market position. She has done so in the past few years while she was European Commissioner for Competition. If these fines do not lead to an improvement in their behaviour on the European market, she wants to break up the American business conglomerates. That is what she said in response to questions from Paul Tang, a Dutch Member of the European Parliament. Tang is also member of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats on behalf of this PvdA party (the Dutch Labor Party). Vestager then told Tang that she had the means to do this. She did not specify what kind of means she has at her disposal.

Member of the European Parliament Paul Tang wants Commissioner Margrethe Vestager to break open American ‘big tech’ companies.

Gaining citizen’s trust

With its new European AI law, Vestager said they want to allay the fears of European citizens. In particular those who currently lack faith in the digitization of society. She says this is necessary as she believes there are two types of companies. The type that is digital – and the type that will soon become digital. In other words, sooner or later all citizens will have to participate in the digitization of everyday life, so she wants to make sure that the Internet is not intimidating to them.

In the second place, she wants AI to be used to make the citizens’ lives easier rather than more difficult. She wants to prevent digital platforms from collecting data via AI in order to influence the choice of consumers and businesses so that they can earn money from them. It was precisely for this reason that during her previous term as European Commissioner for Competition, she imposed a fine of 4.3 billion euros on the search engine Google.

More rules, less innovation?

The question is whether the new rules for AI will not stand in the way of innovation. Nicola Beer, an MEP from the Renew Group in the European Parliament, wanted to know whether Vestager had thought about how she intended to preserve Europe’s leading role in AI innovation. Vestager replied that she was looking for a more balanced situation. According to her, European citizens should benefit from the innovations that AI brings. Yet at the same time also be protected against their eventual misuse.

Europarliamentarian Nicola Beer wants to know how Vestager will ensure that the EU will remain a leader in the AI field.

Meanwhile, the initial reactions from the AI group of professionals to Vestager’s plans for new legislation have been quite reserved. “I find it a bit vague that Vestager says that AI sometimes makes life more difficult.” That’s what Buster Franken says, AI entrepreneur and developer from TU/e. “It is true that AI influences your choices via Google. But that can also make your life a lot easier.”

‘Small-scale AI companies in the EU are the victims’

Franken believes that there is a danger that a new law will burden smaller AI companies with far too many rules. “We already have a hard time finding capital to invest in our innovations. If new rules are added now, that will adversely affect us. It also means that you have extra work in order to comply with them. Maybe we don’t have the money for this. While this new law is supposed to combat abuse by large companies such as Google and Facebook.”

Read also: ‘Europe must invest in a hub for collaborative robots in SMEs’

“The point is namely that companies like Google can abuse data because they have loads of money. If there is a new law, they will undoubtedly be able to comply with it. Then they will simply look for another route. They have enough money to hire an army of elite lawyers. Small AI companies don’t have that.”

Start-up of the Day: Hydrogen as the ‘crude oil’ of the future

Wasserstoff, Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies

Hydrogenious is the product of a university research team that already had faith in hydrogen when it still wasn’t really relevant in Germany. They have managed to find a way to store and transport the hard-to-handle hydrogen in a practical way. After a successful financing round, they now want to establish their LOHC technology worldwide and “make hydrogen the ‘crude oil’ of the regenerative era”, says co-founder Daniel Teichmann.

In terms of mass, hydrogen has three times the energy content of gasoline. This is an impressive feature for an energy source. However, hydrogen also has the lowest density of all gases and is therefore difficult to handle. It evaporates easily, is flammable and must be stored under high pressure or at low temperatures.

Evaporation and flammability

Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies took up the challenge and solved both evaporation and flammability issues. The start-up company developed a process whereby hydrogen can be stored and transported together with oil (dibenzyltoluene) without risk. The result? The existing infrastructure can be used. Not only the fuel tanks at service stations, but also the pipelines for transportation. This could pave the way for emission-free mobility and industry.

Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies is a spin-off from the Friedrich Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. Managing director and co-founder Daniel Teichmann has been working in the field of LOHC (liquid organic hydrogen carriers) since the start of his PhD in 2009. The company was founded in 2013 as a result of a critical technological breakthrough, which was also co-developed by professors Peter Wasserscheid, Wolfgang Arlt and Eberhard Schlücker.

Dewatering system

What was already working under laboratory conditions could be implemented on a technical scale for the first time in 2016. The first LOHC dewatering system was commissioned at the Fraunhofer ILO in Stuttgart. Electrolysis and hydrogenation take place at the main site in Erlagen. The process works as follows:

  • The hydrogen is produced with the aid of solar energy using PEM electrolysis,
  • Hydrogen is hydrogenated through the chemical bonding of hydrogen molecules to the liquid carrier via catalytic reactions,
  • During the dehydrogenation process, catalytic reactions are again used to release the hydrogen molecules from the liquid carrier medium,
  • The carrier material is not wasted and can be reused again and again.

Target groups are the chemical industry as well as service stations and the chemical industry. Hydrogenious sells two types of equipment. These are storage facilities for use in hydrogen-producing wind farms for hydrogenation, and the so-called Release Box at service stations and industrial installations for dehydrogenation.

 

Wasserstoff, Hydrogenious
LOHC recycling system with storage installation and a Release Box (c) Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies

Innovation Origins spoke with Daniel Teichmann:

What is your motivation and what problem does the company resolve?

We believe in hydrogen as a renewable energy source. This motivated us to start the company in 2013. At that time, we could have developed the technology together with industrial partners, but we wanted to be in business.

What has been the biggest obstacle that you have had to overcome? Was there a moment when you wanted to give up?

Giving up never occurred to us and fortunately there was never a reason to give up. However, setting up and developing a business is a huge challenge. At the start, it’s usually a matter of finding funding. In Germany, there is not really an explicit culture when it comes to venture capital. Things are different in the Anglo-Saxon world and in China. Six years ago, hydrogen was not yet playing an important role in Europe. This has changed over the past year. As a university spin-off, we started out with a technology that works at the laboratory level. We first had to bring it up to an industrial level and make it commercially relevant.

Wasserstoff, Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies
Construction of the LOHC hydrogen infrastructure in the USA (c) Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies

What have been the highlights so far?

The successful funding round in July 2019, where we found four partners who not only act as capital providers, but also make a strategic contribution. This was an important milestone in the history of hydrogen-based LOHC technologies.

What are the advantages of your location?

Erlangen is an ideal location for us because of its proximity to the university, whom we also work closely with. In addition, the availability of specialists here is very good. We are also very lucky with our landlords, they’ve provided us with an excellent office and workshop space.

Where will your company be in five years’ time?

We want to progress from our current demonstration level to the realization of large industrial projects. We want to establish a successful global positioning of the LOHC technology. With our technology, hydrogen can then be easily and efficiently transported over long distances. For example, from Africa to Europe. That is how we can make an emission-free industry happen.

What distinguishes your innovation from similar products in the hydrogen energy sector?

Hydrogen has been produced and stored as an industrial gas for one hundred years. Our technology means that using hydrogen in a liquid form is feasible which thereby means it can make use of the existing infrastructure. In this way, we are turning hydrogen into the emission-free fuel of the future. Similar technologies exist in Japan, although they are not exactly the same. We are the technological leaders with our LOHC. As such, we hope to make an important contribution towards combating climate change.

Are you interested in start-ups? Read all articles from our series here.

Also interesting:

TU Eindhoven is bringing hydrogen as a source of energy for households one step closer.

Mobility of the future – battery or hydrogen?

Start-up of the Day: environmentally friendly cling foil made from beeswax

Problems with plastic waste reach the media almost every day. We are continually being confronted with it even in our own environment. Governments all over the world are trying to tackle this problem with regulatory bans, such as those on plastic bags and straws. Sandra Palazzolo and Kristina Immerz, two young women from the German region of Allgäu, have been working on a solution to the plastic problem since 2017. They are producing beeswax wrappers and cling foil at their start-up Wabenwerk (honeycomb). The products are not just for sale in the region Allgäu itself, but also in Austria and Switzerland and online via their own website. Now Wabenwerk has expanded its product line. The two founders are even playing with the idea of opening a shop in Kaufbeuren where they only sell unpackaged goods.

Innovation Origins spoke with co-founder Sandra Palazzolo about Wabenwerk and its plans for their launch on the market.

Both the founders of Wabenwerk: Kristina Immerz (left) and Sandra Palazzolo © Wabenwerk

How did you come up with the idea for the start-up?

Kristina and I are sisters-in-law. Even before Wabenwerk was set up, we had always made natural foils and we were busy being creative. One day Kristina read an article about beeswax in an organic magazine. We immediately became enthusiastic. ‘What a worthwhile and sustainable product!’ we thought, as well as easy for us to make ourselves.

The first beeswax foils were meant as a Christmas present. We worked so hard on the product and on the waxing technique and composition of the beeswax mixture, that they eventually became Mother’s Day gifts.

Sold out

Of course our friends also got beeswax foils, which proved to be very popular. A friend insisted on designing packaging for us. Another friend invited us to her craft market as exhibitors. We sold out at this market after just a few hours. We also received invitations to other markets and retailers were interested. That was the birth of ‘Wabenwerk Natural Foils.’

What makes Wabenwerk or your products so special compared to your competitors and what problems does it solve?

Beeswax manufacturers don’t see each other so much as direct competitors. At least that’s what experience has taught us over the years. We are all driven by issues ranging from pollution to microplastics to bee mortality. We are able to tackle all these problems through our work. This quickly creates a sense of community and an exchange of ideas. At first we could hardly believe it when we saw in black and white how much aluminium and cling foil you could actually avoid with every sheet you sold!

What has been biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?

Our biggest obstacle was the EU legislation concerning the Food and Consumer Product Safety Act. We received a phone call from the city council who alerted us to the compulsory guidelines. According to this, we have to remind consumers to pack food directly in our foil. Aside from the financial burden, it was not easy finding a laboratory where the requisite tests could be carried out on natural products such as beeswax. For the time being, we have decided not to advertise the foils for food packaging. This brought us a few sleepless nights. We questioned whether it was really worth doing all the work. In hindsight, it was just a minor setback. But this obstacle seemed insurmountable to us at the time.

And vice versa: what are you particularly proud of?

We’re very proud when we’re at a market and meet customers from last year who enthusiastically tell us how often they use our beeswax foil and how much plastic they’ve managed to avoid this way. We’re also seeing more and more children and teenagers at these markets who pack their snacks in beeswax foil and proudly tell us that. Which always feels very special to us.

© Wabenwerk

What motivates you to go to work every morning?

There are many reasons to do that. The enthusiasm of our customers and retailers. The varied work that goes into production. The fact that we can realize our ideas and of course the continued success of our company. However, the main motivation is our team and the atmosphere in our workshop. Our work is a lot of fun for all of us and we make a sound and sensible product. What more could you ask for?

 What can we expect from Wabenwerk in the coming years?

We are planning a pure organic line, a vegan line and a do-it-yourself set for the new year. Above all, we want to offer companies, hotels and organizations the opportunity to have personalized beeswax foils designed for them. With their own logo, as promotional gifts or business gifts or Christmas presents. We have already started on that this year. We look forward to being able to do even more along these lines in the future.

What is your vision for Wabenwerk? Where do you see yourself in five or ten years’ time?

Our vision is to keep working on Wabenwerk with the same commitment, to build a worthwhile and sustainable company and to be proud of it. We are constantly trying to evolve and to do something good for our customers and our environment.

Are ypu interested in start-ups? Read all of the articles in our series here.
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Tomorrow is good: Is Germany lagging behind or clearly steering ahead?

By using a few clichés about Germany, I tried to explain in my very first column for IO that Germany could do so much better if it took a look in a more practical and creative way at how innovations are taken advantage of and at government intervention. This view has been bolstered by my own experiences and the countless moaning Germans around me. There is an enormous need for more momentum. And above all, for speedier government action where social innovation is concerned. The Dutch could certainly lend a helping hand with that.

My next column should have been about how the Dutch sometimes rush into things, act too often like merchants and can perhaps learn something from German solidity and desire for structure. It is very illuminating to work with Germans when it has to do with guaranteeing quality through structure and process. Then that’s it, as far as comparisons are concerned. Or so I thought.

But this was soon followed by a splendid response from Christiane Manow-Le Ruyet to my intentionally provocative stance in my introductory column. She now thinks I’m a bit of a know-it-all. I would like to respond to that in a somewhat provocative way yet again.

Classic German defense

Actually there are many things we agree on and Christiane is very good at describing what can be improved in Germany. In my first column, I touched on a number of things that I think Christiane generally acknowledges as well. But she also tends to go on the defensive. Which kind of confirms what I often see happening in Germany.

Let me start by saying that, as a resident of the German capital and a regular traveler in Germany, I am very familiar with the classic German defense.

  1. What can be done in your country in the Netherlands (or Denmark or Sweden) is out of the question here. We are so huge, we have states as big as the Netherlands – and mega-suburbs. That’s why it works differently (as in slower etc).
  2. Yet it’s not going badly at all, because we are basically an export success story export thanks to the quality of our products.

However, I am convinced that the first of these points is not true. Germany can really move faster and the government needs to be more agile and is quite capable of learning from other countries. I understand the second point and it rings true. But it does not detract from the first point. Society is not benefiting enough from the innovations that go overseas if Germany itself is still just now starting to slowly digitize. All in part due to an unwieldy government.

Hipsters in Kreuzberg

Christiane also mentions the Dutch D66 leader who recently presented Berlin as a shining example for the Netherlands. I have to admit that I didn’t know what I was seeing when I read that sentiment. (I actually burst out laughing). Previously, liberals always looked to NYC – and all of a sudden it’s now Berlin? The Berlin that I think I know quite well, that I love. But would not consider a shining example for a successful model.

I know plenty of Dutch people who base their image of the German capital on their perceptions of Mitte and Prenzlauerberg. However, you would expect that a liberal leader of a Dutch governing party would do a bit more research. A bunch of start-ups and a few hipsters in Mitte and Kreuzberg don’t necessarily turn Berlin into an innovative and open city. Berlin is much more than just the hip “core.” It is paradoxical and oftentimes very conservative. Munich is much more of a D66 city (- but that comparison should be made in another column ; ).

Go Germany!

For the record, I do feel positive about Germany. In the face of an impending crisis and with a budget surplus, a lot can be done. Moreover, Germany will really start shifting over the next few years. This will benefit innovation, even in cities and general society. At long last we are seeing some signs of change. For example, where electromobility is concerned.

The latest news this week is that Germany has turned a corner and is now fully committed to electromobility. After years of holding back, a master plan for electromobility is on its way. And 3.3 billion euros will be invested between now and 2023 (also some investment in hydrogen). There is talk of one million charging stations. 10 million electric cars should be driving on German streets by 2030. Volkswagen is going fully electric. They’ve started producing the ID.3, an affordable e-car for the masses. BMW is installing 4100 stations, although mainly for its own employees. Doesn’t this so-called German inertia eventually steer the country in a direction that ultimately leads to a competitive edge?

Risk of deferral

In the coming years, considerable investments will also be made in bicycles: transport minister Scheuer has promised an extra €900 million. Numerous cities are planning upgrades to their urban infrastructure. Yet the risk of deferral is always looming in Germany. Or as Raoul Schmidt-Lamontain, a governmental policy-maker from Dresden, recently said: “In the meantime, money has been made available for trams and cycle lanes from new subsidy programs. But if, for example, I want to convert an intersection into a bicycle-friendly one or extend a bridge for pedestrians, then I also have to invest in the roads at the same time. So, I always need money from several subsidy sources all at once. If one stimulus program fails, investments in the other areas can’t be carried out either. And that money will stay put.”

So, no jumping for joy quite yet. Let’s see the results first!

Incidentally, Christiane is right and we were in agreement on this too – collaboration is worthwhile as (international) solutions can be found together … but sometimes by looking in the mirror as well.

About this column:

In a weekly column, written alternately by Floris Beemster, Bert Overlack, Mary Fiers, Peter de Kock, Eveline van Zeeland, Lucien Engelen, Tessie Hartjes, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions to the problems of our time. So that tomorrow is good. Here are all the previous articles.

 

Super Surf, an innovation for fuel cells, wins the German-Dutch Economic Prize 2019

Super Surf is the winner of the German-Dutch Prize for the Economy 2019. This cross-border project, which enables the mass production of hydrogen fuel cells, has beaten 35 other candidates to win the prize. The award was presented for the twelfth time this year by the German-Dutch Chamber of Commerce (DNHK).

“The mobility of the future has an interesting solution,” says DNHK director Günter Gülker about the winning concept. “Super Surf is a perfect example of what our two countries can do if they join forces.” Fuel cells are one of the most important technologies for making passenger and freight traffic emission-free, according to the jury. The problem so far has been that the cells could not be produced in large quantities. There was a lack of reliable quality control for the highly sensitive components.

Start-up for bus production

The six German and Dutch companies that support Super Surf have together found a solution to this problem. With the help of two project partners, they now operate optical 2D and 3D measurement systems that enable fuel cell manufacturers to guarantee consistent quality. But that’s not all. “The project is currently creating a German-Dutch start-up that will produce fuel cell buses for public transport,” says Susanne Schreier of project leader ADREM GmbH. “We are extremely pleased that our cooperation has now also been awarded the German-Dutch Economic Prize. This will give us greater awareness in both countries.”

Super Surf consists of Demcon (Focal) BV (Enschede), Hymove BV (Arnhem), NanoFocus AG (Oberhausen, D), Nedstack BV (Arnhem), ZBT – Zentrum für BrennstoffzellenTechnik (Duisburg, D) and project leader ADREM GmbH (Oldenburg, D).

Swapfiets and sennder

In addition to Super Surf, two other mobility specialists were in the finals: the Berlin start-up sennder, an online transport company that links large manufacturers to small and medium-sized freight specialists, thus revolutionising the European logistics sector, and the Dutch company Swapfiets, which became the world’s largest provider of bicycle subscriptions in just five years. These three companies have been selected for the final by a professional jury from 36 entries from both countries. An open online voting round finally decided which finalist would win the German-Dutch Economic Award 2019, an award for special innovations in the cross-border economy.

How sustainable can boatbuilding be?

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.

ecosail-Team © Salvatore Lopez

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.

©Salvatore Lopez

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.

Augmented Reality assists surgeons in the operating theater

Artificial intelligence is taking on more and more tasks in our modern world. For example, we use it every day when we use online search engines. Translation programs are unimaginable without AI, as are speech recognition, face recognition, computer games and, in the future, autonomous driving. In medicine, AI is also becoming more widespread and has already found its way into the operating theater. Just a few days ago, Innovation Origins wrote about operating with live 3D image navigation inside the body.

The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) has now gone one step further and has even been awarded the NEO 2019 Innovation Prize (worth €20,000) by the Karlsruhe TechnologyRegion for their ‘HoloMed’ system. The new system assists surgeons in the operating room via Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Augmented Reality (AR). It does this by creating a model from computer tomographic images of the patient. These reveal the hidden structures deep inside the body.

GPS for the brain

HoloMed’s main focus is on cranial punctures. This is a procedure whereby accumulated fluid is removed from the brain in order to reduce pressure. Frequently used for e.g. brain hemorrhages, craniocerebral trauma and strokes. In order to determine the optimal point of insertion and alignment for the puncture, the surgeon must measure and glean data from “various anatomical landmarks” from computer tomography (CT) and/or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.

“The difficulty lies in the fact that determining the angle of insertion only allows for a very small margin of error and the doctor isn’t able to see the target straightaway,” notes Professor Björn Hein. He oversees the project together with Professor Franziska Mathis-Ullrich at KIT. Determining this exact point is complicated as these images are only two-dimensional and the human head is three-dimensional. That’s why only about 60 percent of all free-hand incisions are able to pinpoint the best position.

Surgeons use HoloMed augmented reality glasses to assist them in determining this optimal insertion point and angle for the puncture needle. An AI developed at the AI by science staff member Christian Kunz uses the data from the patient’s digital file and their latest CT and/or MRI scans for creating a model that accurately depicts the structures deep inside the body that cannot be seen externally. This information is superimposed onto the surgeon’s AR glasses and shows the surgeon precisely where and how to guide the needle, much like a navigation system.

Easy to use and cost-efficient

Professor Hein states that machine learning methods are used in the automated generation of this information. “First of all, a segmented 3D model of the head is generated, which is used to determine the target position. However, the doctor is always able to make their own adjustments if appropriate,” Hein adds. The aim of the system is to provide an “innovative, novel and cost-effective solution that has a direct influence on the quality of these procedures”.

After its puncture method is successfully rolled out, HoloMed will also be used for other operations in the future. Since the system is, firstly, easy to use, and secondly, cost-efficient, the inventors say it is ideal for lowering healthcare costs. Plus it would also benefit poorly financed hospitals in emerging countries.

Cover photo: Dr. Michal Hlavac from the University Clinic for Neurosurgery Ulm and Christian Kunz from the “Health Robotics and Automation” (HERA) KIT team evaluating the HoloMed system during the initial surgery simulation with a dummy. (Photo: KIT-HERA).

New class of antibiotics apparently also works against multi-resistant germs

Multi-resistant germs evoke the specter of terror for people who have to go to the hospital. According to information from the German Federal Ministry of Health, 400,000 to 600,000 people in Germany contract infections every year that they have caught during in-patient treatment. As a result, between 10,000 and 15,000 people die in Germany and more than 30,000 throughout Europe.

The problem is that many bacterial pathogens are now immune to several classes of antibiotics. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Gram-negative bacteria with resistance to carbapenem and cephalosporin antibiotics” pose a growing threat because they can cause serious infections such as pneumonia or meningitis, wound infections or blood poisoning. The reserve antibiotic colistin is often no longer effective against these often life-threatening infections.

New mechanism of action

In the fight against these pathogens, researchers led by Anatol Luther of the pharmaceutical company Polyphor AG in Allschwil and Matthias Urfer of the University of Zurich have now developed a new class of antibiotics that can apparently also neutralize dangerous Gram-negative pathogens such as Escherichia coli, Klebsiella or Pseudomonas. The antibiotics interact with proteins of the outer membrane of Gram-negative bacteria,” said Urfer’s colleague John Robinson. “According to our results, they bind to fat-like membrane components, the so-called lipopolysaccharides, on the one hand, and to the BamA membrane protein on the other.

More articles on multi-resistant germs can be found here.

Read moreNew class of antibiotics apparently also works against multi-resistant germs

NXP makes Volkswagen Golf cars ‘talk’ with each other, improving safety

Volkswagen has started the rollout of NXP’s secure vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technology in its 8th generation Golf series. The technology enables cars to talk to each other, improving safety and protecting car drivers as well as cyclists and pedestrians, NXP says in a statement.

“The technology can prevent accidents by having cars communicate with each other, independent of car brands and without the support of cellular infrastructure”, NXP adds.

Volkswagen says road safety forms the core of its commitment to its customers. “As a high-volume manufacturer we aim to be a pioneer in this space”, said Johannes Neft, Head of Vehicle Body Development for the Volkswagen brand. “The introduction of V2X, together with traffic infrastructure providers and other vehicle manufacturers, is a major milestone in this direction. Volkswagen includes this technology, which doesn’t involve any user fees, as a standard feature to accelerate V2X penetration in Europe.”

According to Torsten Lehman, senior vice president and general manager of Driver Assistance and Infotainment at NXP, the technology has been proven in more than one million test days globally. NXP and Volkswagen have closely collaborated for high-reliability and performance, as well as for standardization of V2X communication that addresses cybersecurity and privacy protection.

V2X in Europe

Wi-Fi-based V2X is a mature technology that has been tested for more than 10 years. Presently, 1,000 km of European roads are equipped with V2X technology based on Wi-Fi with 5,000 km planned through the end of 2019. Its research and development, testing and standardization have occurred within a strong global eco-system of suppliers and car manufacturers to ensure reliability in diverse road and traffic conditions. Wi-Fi, therefore, forms the basis of the European standard that has been chosen for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. An additional benefit is its availability independent of paid cellular services. Other developing cellular-based technologies can be added complementary to Wi-Fi-based V2X.

Some of the characteristics of V2X:

  • It enables awareness and communication between cars, road infrastructure like traffic lights or street signs, and other road users such as cyclists and pedestrians.
  • It is a technology that is collaborative, allowing it to “tap into” surrounding sensor data from mutually equipped cars to warn of hazards and prevent accidents.
  • V2X is a technology that complements other ADAS sensing technologies such as radar, LiDAR and cameras.
  • It helps vehicles to “see” more than a mile ahead and around corners to provide early warning of obstacles, hazards, and road conditions.
  • It has the ability to “see” through objects, delivering more information than that obtained through the line of sight only.
  • Its sensing capabilities are unaffected by poor weather conditions.
NXP chip

Patch of color could throw autopilots off course

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.

©MPI-IS

“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.

Ranjan is the lead author of the paper titled “Attacking Optical Flow,” a joint research project involving the Perceiving Systems Department and the Autonomous Vision Group at MPI-IS.

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.

© MPI-IS

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.

Start-up of the day: Magnetic refrigeration set to cool the world

Current cooling systems in fridges, freezers, shop display counters and air conditioning, etc., are mainly based on gas compression technology. The coolant is pressed together with a compressor and is significantly warmer than the surrounding temperature. The excess heat is discharged into the outside environment via refrigeration coils and the coolant is then released anew. This causes the temperature to drop well below the initial value. To this day, gas compression appliances use fluorinated gas as a coolant. They will no longer be allowed to be used in the EU from 2030 onward at the latest. Newer systems use natural gases that are either explosive, highly flammable or toxic. Aside from that, their aggregates are often noisy and maintenance-intensive.

Magnotherm is offering an alternative. The cooling systems being developed there merely require a solid structure and water for cooling purposes. These systems are therefore safe, efficient and quiet. With technology that was originally developed at Technical University Darmstadt in Germany, the company is the first supplier in the world to be able to install heat exchangers. These are in the form of magnetocaloric cooling units that are cost-efficient and can be configured in various sizes for a variety of applications. The initial markets are refrigerated transportation and refrigerated displays for supermarkets.

 

Timur Sirman, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Magnotherm on the challenges along the way:

What was the motivation for setting up Magnotherm?

Magnetic refrigeration has the potential to usher in a new era for cooling that will make refrigeration much more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly. So far, stable and available magnetocaloric materials have failed to make this technology commercially viable. In his dissertation, Max Fries saw a way to innovate refrigeration magnetically and subsequently launched a start-up together with his co-founders.

Why is Magnotherm so important?

No one is waiting around for new technologies, no matter how good they are. It always takes someone to promote the technology and launch it on the market. This is our mission.

What is the technology behind Magnotherm?

The technology is based on the magnetocaloric effect, whereby special metals become hot and cold as a result of magnetization and demagnetization. By using water, heat and cold can be drawn from the metal and then harnessed.

What makes Magnotherm so different from the competition?

Unlike our competitors, we integrate materials science with engineering science. This means that we don’t just make magnetic cooling appliances. Due to our background and expertise, we are able to build them in such a way that the magnetocaloric materials are used optimally.

What was the biggest obstacle during the process of setting up the company?

Apart from the bureaucracy, the biggest obstacle was securing proper funding for the project. Because something like that doesn’t happen overnight.

Was there a point when Magnotherm almost didn’t get off the ground?

Yes, we were in the process of writing a proposal for an EXIST research transfer grant from the BMWi. After we had received feedback on our progress, we realized that we still had a lot to do. But instead of slinking off, we worked through the night until early in the morning and came up with the basic framework for our concept.

What was the most rewarding occasion?

When we drank the first magnetically cooled beer from our prototype!

What does the future hold for Magnotherm?

Our vision is to be the world’s first supplier of magnetic cooling systems and to introduce the enormous potential of this technology to the market.

Are you interested in start-ups? Read more articles on this theme here.

Start-up of the day: Apicbeam holographic display based on ‘spaghetti beam’ technology

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.

Christoph Knappe, CEO & Co-Founder Apicbeam ©Apicbeam

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 …

New bio-ink for 3D bioprinting advances cell research

Bioprinting, Bio-Tinte, Zellforschung, 3D-Druck

Bio-printing has brought new perspectives to cell research. So far, however, other 3D printing methods have fallen short of expectations. A special bio-ink has now been developed at TU Wien (Vienna) that solves the current problems.

The new bio-ink enables:

  • extremely fast and high-resolution 3D printing;
  • integration of living cells directly into microstructures during the printing process.

Bio-printing of microstructures provides cell research with models whereby it can be observed how diseases spread via cells and how their behaviour can be controlled. Nevertheless, the challenges for 3D printing are considerable. Not only do the structures have to be tiny, they also need to reflect the natural environments of cells. As it is the mechanical and chemical properties as well as the geometries of the cell environments that influence cell proliferation.

In concrete terms, this means that cell environments must be permeable for nutrients so that the cells can survive and multiply. It is also important whether the structures are rigid or flexible.  And whether they are stable or if they degrade over time.

Problems related to bio-printing

Manufacture of microscopic 3D objects is nowadays relatively straightforward. Living cells are embedded in the structure as part of the 3D procedure using bioprinting technology – a special additive 3D printing process. The drawbacks of this technique have on occasion been a lack of precision. As well as a time frame that is very brief for processing living cells. The cells are damaged if the time frame is exceeded.

Precision vs. speed

The biggest technical challenge in bioprinting was at times the low resolution that conventional technologies offered. Lithography-based approaches such as two-photon polymerization (2PP) are able to overcome this limitation.

Researchers at the TU Vienna have many years of practical experience in the application of this method. This is based on a chemical reaction that only becomes active when a molecule of the material simultaneously absorbs two of the laser beam’s photons. This is the case if the laser beam has a particularly high intensity and causes a selective and very specific hardening of the substance. These properties are conducive to high precision manufacture of the finest of structures.

The disadvantages of the two-photon polymerization is the slow printing speed. This ranges at times from micrometers to a few millimeters per second.

Cell-friendly bio-ink

According to Professor Aleksandr Ovsianikov, head of the 3D Printing and Biofabrication research group at the Institute of Materials Science and Technology at TU Wien, the slower print speed in bioprinting is the result of certain chemical substances. His team achieved a speed of one meter per second with cell-friendly materials. The process must be completed in a few hours in order for the cells to survive and continue to develop.

This represents a major breakthrough when it comes to embedding living cells for two-photon polymerization, Ovsianikov explains.

“The high level of speed achievable in laser scanning makes it possible to quickly generate structures for statistical analysis during cell culture experiments as well as for large-scale production”. Aleksandr Ovsianikov

Another advantage of this method is that the cell environments can be individually adapted. Depending on the structure, they can be made more rigid or softer. Even delicate, continuous transitions are possible. The laser intensity can also be used to adjust the degradation of the structure relative to time.

The bio-ink is based on a a gelatin norbornene hydrogel, whereby dithiothreitol was used as a thiol cross-linking agent together with a special biocompatible photoinitiator based on diazosulfonate (doi: 10.1039/C8PY00278A).

Compatible with stem cells

The discovery of the cell-friendly bio-ink is not only a technical breakthrough, but also a major contribution to cell research. The microstructures that result from this process provide unprecedented accuracy. New insights can be gained into the spread of diseases throughout the body.

“Furthermore, the material is also compatible with stem cells and has already been tested with obese human stem cells in a laboratory. As with the L929 cells used in the publication*, these cells can be embedded directly into the 3D matrix and printed in accordance with a suitable architecture. This leads to excellent cell viability.” Aleksandr Ovsianikov

Interdisciplinary Team

The research project constitutes a transnational and interdisciplinary collaboration. Besides the TU Wien, several Belgian research institutes were also involved: the Polymer Chemistry and Biomaterials Group in Gent, the Brussels Photonics Campus, the Department of Applied Physics and Photonics at the University of Brussels, Flanders Make in Lommel and Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

Three institutes were involved at the TU Vienna: The Institute of Materials Science and Technology, the Institute of Applied Synthetic Chemistry and the Institute of Lightweight Structures and Structural Biomechanics.

The high-resolution 3D printing technology and the requisite materials will be provided by UPNano, a young and successful spin-off from TU Vienna.

*Publication: A. Dobos et al. (2019):  Thiol–Gelatin–Norbornene Bioink for Laser‐Based High‐Definition Bioprinting, Advanced Healtcare Materials.

 

Also interesting:

3D printing technology for natural regeneration of damaged bone

Tomorrow is good: How we fail and why it matters

I regularly speak at so-called FuckUp Nights, events where people talk about failed projects and companies. I like the format very much. To be able to talk about something implies that we have acknowledged and reflected on it. This kind of conversation has always been the best therapy for me. Because it obliges us to reflect on an experience, to structure it and to want to understand it. It’s about the following questions: What was my fuck-up? Why did it happen? What did I learn and what can others learn from this experience? All quite banal. And yet so difficult.

We live in a supposedly successful society that is focused on successful people. Failures are inevitably irrelevant. So we believe. In my world, success and failure are two sides of the same coin. When it comes to success, there is always the risk of failure.  And when it comes to failure, there is always a chance of success. This is not a theory, it’s just the way it should be. We basically learn in two different ways. Through experience (trial & error) and through imitation. We gain experience when we try something new or we imitate it. And if we succeed, then our brain releases neurotransmitters such as dopamine, etc. This in turn encourages us to repeat the experience that we had. If we fail, this is accompanied by emotions of disappointment, frustration and doubt. Which tends to make us want to avoid a similar situation.

Tales of failure

There are plenty of stories about failure. We often talk about companies or their products. Ultimately though, it is always people who go through failure. Over the next few months, I will be reporting here regularly on so-called fuck-ups – failed companies, athletes, products, politicians – and what we can learn from them. Because that’s what it’s really about. It shouldn’t be the mistake, the failure or the fuck-up that has to be highlighted, but the experiences and lessons we can gain from them.

Today I would like to begin with my own fuck-up. I had to file for bankruptcy for my company in 2011. Prior to this in 2009, our market had collapsed by 50% and the banks lost confidence in us. This was despite our successful restructuring. That’s what went down. It would be easy to say now that we or the banks were to blame for the financial crisis. And for a while that’s certainly what I believed and thought. There was only one problem: why did my rivals, (who were in the same industry and some of whom were even with the same bank), make it? They certainly weren’t the culprits. But who then? No matter where I looked, I kept coming back to myself. To the decisions that I hadn’t made, that I had mistakenly made, or that I made too late. The information and advice I ignored. The facts that I didn’t want to believe because they didn’t fit into the image I had of myself or my company. The overestimation of the time and financial resources available to me and my company. The misplaced priorities I set because I thought it would somehow all work out. And so much more.

Many minor and major mistakes

We don’t just fail from one day to the next. Of course, there are cases where a totally unexpected event suddenly shakes the very foundations of a company’s business. But these are the exception rather than the rule. It is the many minor and major mistakes, lack of trust and poor judgement that cause a project, a career or a company to fail. Or, as a friend of mine put it: “Bert, it is not about not making mistakes. All that matters is that you make fewer mistakes than your competitors.

Five reasons for failure

What have I learned? Well, that entrepreneurs fail due to five reasons:

The first reason is lying to yourself. When we pursue a career, take over a project or take over the succession of a company. Even though we basically know in our hearts that we don’t really want to do that. When our heart really beats for something else other than what we are currently doing. When we fool ourselves that way.

The second reason is when we overestimate ourselves. If we overestimate our resources, our financial leeway, time constraints, the goodwill of our customers or the motivation of our employees.

The third reason is doubt. The opposite of overconfidence. When we are unaware of our strengths and competencies which we need, especially during difficult times. Or if we don’t trust these for some reason. When we lack tried and tested experience in dealing with difficult situations.

The fourth reason is the lack of decisiveness, which means that we cannot concentrate and focus on what is most important ahead of us.

Last but not least, the fifth reason is simply the randomness of life. The so-called black swan events, the occurrences that we believe will never happen and that if they did, they would never happen to us. As in my case, a 50% drop in the market – overnight.

About this column:

In a weekly column, written alternately by Bert Overlack, Mary Fiers, Peter de Kock, Eveline van Zeeland, Lucien Engelen, Tessie Hartjes, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions to the problems of our time. So that tomorrow is good. Here are all the previous articles.

 

Lack of team spirit? That’s why so few German scientists become entrepreneurs

In the Global Competitiveness Index 4.0 issued by the World Economic Forum in 2018, Germany ranked third behind the USA and Singapore as a top location for world-class research. In terms of innovative capacity, Germany was in fact the undisputed leader of the 140 countries evaluated. Nevertheless, spin-offs from scientific institutions are relatively rare. The rate is just 5%, whereas it is 19% in Estonia (32nd place overall).

A research project sponsored by the Joachim Herz Foundation and carried out at the Entrepreneurship Research Institute of the Technical University of Munich (TUM ERI) has now looked into the reasons why German academics are apparently reluctant to set up companies. In an initial preliminary result, the researchers found out that the problems often lie in three essential factors for success. Namely: team spirit, pragmatism and soft skills.

Over the course of their study, the research team is spending several months overseeing more than 100 entrepreneurial teams. This involves experts from universities and companies working together, some of them at the Entrepreneurship Research Institute at the TU Munich. Participants provided information in weekly online questionnaires and interviews on the challenges they faced when setting up a spin-off.

© Pixabay

Teamwork important for success

Expertise is not enough when it comes to starting a business. Not even when you’ve completed your degree summa cum laude. And innovative technology isn’t enough either. At least as important, is a good working knowledge of the market in order to be able to gauge which idea has the potential for commercial success. Which is precisely what scientists tend to lack after graduation. That’s why, according to experts, it’s important for academics to start a company with people who have industry and start-up experience.

In addition to this lack of familiarity with the market, the results of the study show that there is another major obstacle that often stands in the way of young entrepreneurs. Nicola Breugst, Professor for Entrepreneurial Behavior at the TUM School of Management, explained during the presentation of the preliminary results that many start-up teams find it difficult to find a common and straightforward path. This lack of consensus concerns the decision as to what the product is supposed to be able to do. As well as the question of how this vision can best be implemented. “The start-up teams begin by discussing various ideas over and over. Without being able to commit themselves to one course of action. So, eventually they fail,” she said. “Therefore, university and other start-up funding institutions should not be limited to just providing technology and knowledge of the market. They also have to offer soft skills training, e.g. team-oriented coaching.”

Less perfectionism, more pragmatism

Another major hurdle for entrepreneurs in Germany found in the results of the study, is the “German virtue” that is appreciated worldwide. Perfectionism. Under the motto ‘fail fast and early.’ start-up teams are required to present potential customers with prototypes early on that are not completely finished. That’s with the aim of finding out whether there is a market for their products. However, this testing and obtaining feedback at such an early stage contradicts the scientific mindset. That is, incomplete findings do not provide a basis for decisions and communication with others. For this reason, academics must learn to think less scientifically and in a more ‘pragmatically enterprising way.’

Prof. Breugst presents the preliminary results © Bert Willer / UnternehmerTUM, October 2019

“The preliminary results of the study show that even interdisciplinary academic start-up teams with similar initial situations and challenges are pursuing very different directions in terms of development. Teams that listened less to the expert tips from our incubator and who lost themselves in their decision-making processes have generally not been successful,” explained Prof. Dr. Dr. Holger Patzelt, Professor of Entrepreneurship, also at the TUM ERI. Scientists should dare approach possible target audiences and important stakeholders even with prototypes that are still works in progress. However, he stressed that they all had some things in common: curiosity, willingness to take risks and openness to new ideas. “After all, even if in the worst case they do not produce any results, scientists should engage in research projects as this is an important prerequisite for spin-offs”.

Three-year study

In this three-year research project, the researchers want to find out how scientists become entrepreneurs, which factors support or inhibit this process, and which ‘fundamentally relevant but often neglected psychological processes’ take place within academic spin-offs. A further goal is to understand how interdisciplinary start-up teams work together successfully, find compromises and develop common core values for their companies. They also want to see why some university chairs produce more start-ups than others.

Dr. Nina Lemmens from the Joachim Herz Foundation said that the education system and funding opportunities in Germany are ideal for entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, there are still very few people who dare to start a company or who give up too soon. “What is the reason for this? Is it the mindset? Lack of willingness to take risks? Or the fear of failure? How can we scientists be encouraged to experiment more?” she asked. The final results of the study will be presented at the start of 2021 in Berlin.

More articles on entrepreneurship can be found here.

Start-up of The Day: automated inventory management for logistics companies

Monitoring inventories in warehouses is a labor-intensive and time-consuming task that also leaves plenty of room for error. With its latest autonomous drone inventAIRy® X, the Kassel-based start-up Doks. Innovation has found a solution that makes logistics management more efficient and reliable. Inventories in pallet high-bay warehouses will become automated and customers, e.g. in automotive and raw materials logistics, can create a digital picture of their stock.

This makes easy to identify available capacity in the warehouse and to localize lost goods. According to the inventors, inventAIRy® X saves up to 90% of the time and up to 80% of costs. Employees no longer have to worry about inventory and can spend their time on more important tasks. In addition to inventory, the drone also includes other parameters such as storage temperature, packaging conditions and possible damages. The data can be retrieved on the accompanying handheld device.

Innovation Origins spoke to the CEO of Doks. Innovation, Benjamin Federmann, about his company and its goals.

The founders © doks. Innovation

How did you come up with the idea of setting up the start-up?

Due to a connection with a research project, it was possible to conduct intensive customer interviews over three years which became the basis for the strategic planning behind the GmbH. The determined need for automation and digitization in logistics forms the basis of the original business plan and continues to form the orientation of product management to this day.

What makes Doks. Innovation special compared to your competitors? Are there other start-ups dealing with the same topic?

The competitors we know about, usually offer isolated solutions or technologies that are directly linked to a specific system (e.g. WMS). We offer an open standard, fully integrated solutions, and associated workflows and far-reaching data analytics options for e.g. core data enrichment and qualitative questions around intralogistics processes.

What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome?

Until today, the biggest challenge has to do with the acceptance of drones paired with expectations that are influenced by science fiction films.

© doks. Innovation

What motivates you to go to work every morning?

Our team, the responsibility towards our clients, the ability to develop the best solutions, and the opportunity to learn something new every day.

Was there a moment when you wanted to give up?

We never wanted to give up. There was always another defeat and setback, which – alongside the solutions for our customers – only made us stronger as a team.

And vice versa: What made you particularly proud?

Every cent of turnover makes us proud. In B2B sales, all sales are hard-earned and each time a manifestation of success for everyone – from the idea, through development, on to production, and finally to implementation at the customer level.

© doks. Innovation

What can we look forward to in the coming years, in other words, what can we expect from Doks. Innovation?

We are planning significant further development of the most important solutions – inventAIRy X, summAIRy, and delivAIRy. At the same time, we will aim our marketing significantly more on an international level and continue to grow along with our customers.

What is your vision for Doks. Innovation?

We want to become the largest provider of automated data collection with a focus on warehousing, inventory, inventory recording, and documentation as well as masters in data in Europe.

Interested in more start-ups? Read all of the articles in our series here.

German minister sees a bright future for natural gas

“Gas is sexy!” With these rather remarkable words, the German Minister of Economic Affairs Peter Altmaier opened a meeting in Berlin last week intended to mark the culmination of months of dialogue between the Ministry and industry on the future of natural gas.

Natural gas  you say? Isn’t that the fossil fuel that we in the Netherlands are hoping to get rid of as soon as possible because of its high CO2 emissions? And didn’t we read in the latest budget report that higher taxes are going to be set in order to discourage its use?

It would appear that Germany has a different view on this. Altmaier even sees a “bright future” for gas, that’s what he told the audience. Until 2030, he expects the demand for natural gas to increase rather than decrease. “Natural gas will serve as a bridge technology for many years to come. After that, demand will decrease. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the gas industry – “because by then, we’ll be well on our way to the hydrogen world”.

First, ten more years full of natural gas and then gradually make the switch to hydrogen gas. That’s the scenario that Altmaier has envisioned in the hope that Germany will become number one in the field of hydrogen technology.

Lobby

It is a development that will undoubtedly be viewed with a certain amount of concern within environmental circles. After all, although gas is cleaner than oil and coal, it is still a fossil fuel.

However, the gas industry is welcoming this development. Large companies such as Exxon Mobil and Nordstream have been lobbying hard in recent months to give natural gas a prominent place in the “Energiewende” – the German term for the transition to a low-CO2 energy system. And that seems to be working, if Altmaier’s words are any indication.

The Hindenburg Zeppelin: The Germans previously had grand plans for hydrogen. That went badly wrong.

Five arguments in favor of natural gas

For instance, Exxon Mobil issued a bulletin in August listing the five reasons why natural gas should play an important role in the energy transition in Germany and Europe. After all, it is not solely Germany that is struggling with the transition to sustainable energy. The new EU Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen has also promised to come up with an ambitious “European Green Deal” as soon as possible (within 100 days) to ensure that energy supplies will all be CO2-neutral by 2050.

Exxon Mobil’s five points are certainly not surprising. They are all arguments that are heard elsewhere:

  1. Germany produces just 180 Terrawatt hours of green electricity, despite the fact that it has a relatively large number of windmills and solar panels. That’s only a fraction of the annual energy consumption of 2500 Terrawatt hours. It will take some time before this gap can be closed. Therefore, grey energy (as in fossil fuels) is needed to cover this.
  2. Natural gas qualifies as the first option. It is a good alternative to coal because 60% less CO2 is released during its combustion. And it is also much more environmentally friendly than petroleum, which is still used by a quarter of German households.
  3. Even if we were to have much more green energy, the power grid is not yet prepared for that. Companies like the Dutch Tennet are working hard on improving this, but that takes time. Most experts estimate that it could take years before the required capacity is reached. For instance, in order to transport massive amounts of wind energy from the North Sea to industrial companies in southern Germany. This is also where gas is an obvious alternative, because gas pipelines are ubiquitous.
  4. Natural gas is multifunctional. It can be used for cooking. For warming up your house. You can fill up the tank of your car or a bus with it, and it can be used to generate electricity.
  5. Natural gas can initially be used to produce hydrogen (see the end of this article). At least until other (cleaner) technologies are available.

 

Corporate and political interests

These are all plausible arguments on their own. Nevertheless, there are a few drawbacks. First of all, it sounds like an advertising campaign. Which it is, of course. There are huge interests at stake for the energy industry. For Koninklijke Olie (Royal Dutch Oil) in the Netherlands, for example, one of the largest gas producers in the world.  Or for the German car industry, which would love to sell more LPG cars for several more years. One might well wonder if the promotion of gas as a bridge technology is not just a way of postponing the transition to green energy.

The same can be said about the politics. Don’t forget that the gas economy has major political interests. Look, for example, at the dispute between Germany and the USA over the construction of Nordstream 1 and 2, two gas pipelines on the bottom of the Baltic Sea between Russia and Germany, where a lot of money has been invested. This quarrel has everything to do with political power and national economic interests. After all, gas brings in a lot of money for governments.

When it comes to green energy, the situation is slightly different. More sustainable energy can also lead to higher electricity prices and yellow shirt protests. Electorally, therefore, gas has its advantages over the often more expensive green alternatives.

Nordstream is a pipeline project that the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has been working on for years. It transports Russian gas via Germany to the rest of Europe. The largest shareholder is Gazprom, but the Dutch Gasunie also has an interest.

All the more reason for ‘climate warriors’ to distrust the gas lobby. This is certainly true if the lobby argues that it is a bridge technology which will lead to a sustainable hydrogen technology. As yet, this technology is non-existent.

Skeptics wonder whether the whole ‘gas is sexy’ story isn’t just another way of saying: “We just don’t feel like investing in genuine green technologies anymore. Like more car power points along the motorway, more windmills and solar panels, CO2-neutral buildings, new technology for power storage, etc.”

But one thing is certain – the last word on natural gas has not been spoken yet. The debate between gas proponents and opponents is continuing in Germany and Europe. This week, Merkel did promise that a government strategy on the future of natural gas, hydrogen and electromobility would be on the agenda before the year is out.

One last thing: what exactly is hydrogen?

Hydrogen is a gas that cannot be extracted out of the ground like natural gas. It must be manufactured. This can be done in various ways. One way is with the help of steam and gas. But electrolysis is more common. With this method, electricity is conducted through water, whereby hydrogen is released as a gas. This gas can then be used as a fuel in cars, for instance, or in industrial processes.

This is in itself beneficial for the environment because the combustion of hydrogen does not release any CO2 nor any fine particles. The disadvantage is that electricity is needed in order to produce hydrogen.  And if that is produced with fossil fuels, then from an environmental point of view you are further from your goal rather than closer.