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Network Dresden Research and business

A n inquisitive mind, passion, ability – and having the right contacts: a proven formula for success in the advancement of mankind. In Dresden, research and business provide mutual support and inspiration. The results speak for themselves. Developments that will change and improve our lives are already at the conceptual stage. With its many scientific institutions, sophisticated networks and modern facilities, Dresden is a hothouse for new ideas. But it is the individuals involved who have the most interesting tales to tell. By Stefanie Maeck

Thinking ahead

It was an eureka moment six years ago when Gerhard Fettweis sat down with his fellow professors at TU Dresden to discuss what was still missing from modern mobile communications. “We are as yet unable to move objects,” it occurred to him. The electrical engineer is now working with colleagues in 5G Lab to explore the future of the internet – the fifth and breakthrough generation. According to him, this will constitute a revolution: cars that drive themselves, remote operation of robots, bomb disposal by robot all become possible with this ultra-fast network. Crucial for the so-called ‘tactile internet’ is its haptic dimension. Fettweis explains his vision of the future: “The operator is able to actually feel what the robot is touching or handling.” In order to achieve this, “latency needs to be reduced to one millisecond”, because unless transmission and response are virtually instantaneous, the feel will not be totally authentic. In other words, the objective is real-time internet.

I see myself as a sort of creative artist.
Gerhard Fettweis

“I see myself as a sort of creative artist,” confides Fettweis. He left Silicon Valley in 1994 to come to Dresden – a minor culture shock but also the opportunity of a lifetime. If he had stayed in California, he assumes that he would have gone the usual route, i.e. found a start-up and get rich under permanent blue skies. But in occasionally overcast and cold Dresden, he was able to do something really innovative: “Ideally, I want the whole TU to get carried away with 5G Lab and for it to give us a big push forward.”

Around 20 TU Dresden professors collaborate on the project. They are motivated by the scope for thinking beyond the currently imaginable and for overcoming the boundaries between disciplines. Coordinator Fettweis says that the interdisciplinary aspect is important: “For example, I have physiologists and psychologists in my team, but robotics, mechatronics and of course software engineering also play a major role.” He remembers well how people back in 1994 said he was crazy for predicting that we would soon be watching movies on our mobile phones…

Gerhard Fettweis 54, Professor für Nachrichtentechnik an der TU Dresden
Gerhard Fettweis 54, Professor of Teleccommunications at TU Dresden, shares responsibility with Frank Fitzek for running the university’s 5G Lab, a network of around twenty TU professors who are exploring the future of the Internet. 5glab.de

It is now clear that the tactile generation of the internet will change the worlds of work, retail and health on a dramatic scale. And for the better: “I see this leading to a lot of new assistive openings for creatively gifted people. They will advise the engineers.” In everyday life, for example, we will make use of tactile haptic feedback to learn and practise skateboarding on the simulator before we venture out onto the street. And, using an exoskeleton, remote physiotherapy will become possible. Angela Merkel herself has shown interest in these pioneers’ work. She recently allowed a scientist from the team to interview her for her government blog. Fettweis: “My colleague had to dress up in a suit, which made him look like an undertaker, but he did his job really well!” 5G Lab is not science fiction, but rather the future ‘made in Dresden’.

Help for high-tech start-ups

The best reward for Bettina Vossberg is when she succeeds in securing financial backing – when she helps a new business idea get off the ground. Vossberg, who compares her role to that of a midwife, has her office in a villa on the TU Dresden campus. This is the headquarters of HighTech Startbahn Dresden which she founded five years ago. A native of Cologne, she arrived here with 14 years’ experience of working abroad in Hong Kong, Malta and Jakarta. As she got to know the research facilities of Dresden, she was impressed by the quality of the people who work here.

There was the occasion when I accompanied a group of applicants to the notary, and shortly thereafter we were awarded 1.7 million in funding for our project.
Bettina Vossberg

But she also saw what was missing: great ideas were being shelved because the university lacked cash resources and entrepreneurial expertise. Vossberg, who is now 51 years old, had discovered her mission in life: “There was the occasion when I accompanied a group of applicants to the notary, and shortly thereafter we were awarded 1.7 million in funding for our project.” Her job consists of bringing money and ideas together and of getting start-ups from the high-tech sector up and running. Today, she has engineers and physicists sitting in her office, a group she describes as “often austere in manner”. Vossberg advises them on how to inspire others with their discoveries and inventions, works with them on drawing up a business plan, fine-tunes the original concept and introduces them to ‘business angels’ with money to invest. She sees Startbahn (meaning ‘launch pad’) as an incubator, hatchery and training camp for young entrepreneurs.

“It’s always exciting to coach applicants for the Hightech Venture Days, a workshop on how to secure capital for setting up a new company”. Word has got around among European investors that this particular talent fair brings top ideas together with international financiers. “But anyone planning to attend needs to undergo a crash course in how to make their pitch,” explains Vossberg. This year, the 60 most promising new ventures from six key areas of technology will be presenting their case. Vossberg feels a great sense of pride whenever she sees her protégés step up to the podium and make their impassioned ten-minute pitch to investors from every continent.

Bettina Vossberg 51, set up HighTech Startbahn in Dresden
Bettina Vossberg 51, worked in several different locations around the world before setting up HighTech Startbahn in Dresden. She advises high-tech pioneers on how best to bring their innovations to the market. hightech-startbahn-netzwerk.de

At the end of her working day, she has the lively Neustadt district just outside her front door. As for Dresden, she enjoys the international flavour of the city: “With every start-up, I am learning more and more about the world. It’s great fun launching these young entrepreneurs onto the global market.”

The tales of Hoffmann: version 2.0

Language is a sort of sideline for Professor Rüdiger Hoffmann. This grand master of language technology is not primarily a linguist but an engineer. Automatic speech processing, machine generation of language – this is his forte. “We humans are highly sensitive to language. In the age of Siri and similar apps, we can’t stand it when synthetic speech is poorly reproduced. We are acutely aware of that on public transport, for example.”

We have been able to help patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease or from a stroke to recover the power of speech.
Rüdiger Hoffmann

This particular human sensitivity is at the core of his work. Until 2008, Hoffmann headed the Institute of Acoustics and Speech Communication at TU Dresden. Over the years, the city has acquired an international reputation as a centre of excellence in language technology. Hoffmann recalls: “We were already good at our job in the early years of the Institute in 1969 when computers were really clunky.” Today, the Institute is showing how cutting-edge research can be used for practical purposes. The team have used technology to help ethnic German immigrants from Russia: “We wrote an automatic training system for mitigating problems with the accent. The IT program had the patience of a saint, correcting pronunciation and aiding the language learning process.”

Speech technology from Dresden also assists in the field of medicine: “We have been able to help patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease or from a stroke to recover the power of speech.” And the team also wrote an algorithm to identify material on the internet which posed a danger to adolescents.

Rüdiger Hoffmann 67, is Professor Emeritus of Engineering at the TU Dresden.
Rüdiger Hoffmann 67, is Professor Emeritus of Engineering at the TU Dresden. From 2003 to 2008, he headed the internationally renowned Institut für Akustik und Sprachkommunikation (Institute of Acoustics and Speech Communication). tu-dresden.de

So in which direction is language technology heading next? Hoffmann says that this issue was debated at Interspeech, the leading conference in the field of automatic language processing. After meeting in venues such as Lyon (France) and Singapore, the international forum was persuaded to visit the Elbe metropolis. Taking ‘Speech beyond Speech’ as their guiding theme, they are exploring how language technology can recognise and process moods and other complex signals such as irony. 1,500 scientists from around the world were hosted by Hoffmann and his team. Of course, Hoffmann invited the specialists to a satellite workshop fringe event in his ‘historical-acoustic-phonetic collection’, his pride and joy. It is also quite unique: “Brilliant as the exhibits here may be, we are obviously doing much more modern things now.” And how does the Professor spend his time when he is not cataloguing his collection? He is fascinated by Dresden’s Royal Palace: “A clever mix of restoration and reconstruction.” Alternatively, he spends happy hours in the well-stocked library of his home in the peaceful suburb of Leubnitz-Neuostra, his favourite reading matter being essays by Franz Fühmann.

Biotechnology Man

The arrival of Wilhelm Zörgiebel in Dresden proved to be a real stroke of luck for the city: he founds companies with the same regularity that most of us go off on holiday. “We are up to about 15 now,” estimates the investor. And where others see problems, Zörgiebel sees opportunities. Today, he is Managing Director of Biotype , a high-tech laboratory for DNA analysis and forensic science: “That’s despite the fact that I come from a completely different background. But at least I always got good marks in biology!”The arrival of Wilhelm Zörgiebel in Dresden proved to be a real stroke of luck for the city: he founds companies with the same regularity that most of us go off on holiday. “We are up to about 15 now,” estimates the investor. And where others see problems, Zörgiebel sees opportunities. Today, he is Managing Director of Biotype , a high-tech laboratory for DNA analysis and forensic science: “That’s despite the fact that I come from a completely different background. But at least I always got good marks in biology!”

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, I discovered that there was huge potential for development. It was like a new world was opening up in the East.
Wilhelm Zörgiebel

Zörgiebel is driven by innovation. In fact, he wrote his doctoral thesis on the subject at Harvard Business School. “At that time, no-one was interested in innovation management,” he recalls. When the young PhD returned to Munich, everything was pretty much as before. But then geopolitics took a sudden turn: “With the fall of the Berlin Wall, I discovered that there was huge potential for development. It was like a new world was opening up in the East.”

Zörgiebel quit his job and in 1992 purchased Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau, a complex of buildings that was steeped in tradition but which had been neglected by the GDR government. The job of renovating the furniture factory to its former glory was immense, but at least there was no longer any danger of state interference: “We had to set about the project applying intelligence and new methods.”

Wilhelm Zörgiebel 62, investor and company founder.
Wilhelm Zörgiebel 62, investor and company founder, moved from Munich to Dresden in 1990. He has founded 15 companies in the field of biotechnology and was a prime mover behind the intercultural festival ‘Hellerau meets Internationals’. biotype.de

Zörgiebel has now created a private high-tech centre in Hellerau. His initiative has brought 50 companies from the biotechnology sector to this 16,000-square-metre hotspot on the edge of the idyllic garden city, including some from Silicon Valley and Tokyo. Hellerau is a place where innovation and the future flourished once before. But Zörgiebel also has a personal recipe for innovation: “Good people seek each other out.”

A network has spontaneously developed on the basis of this conviction whereby you see someone in the pub and call out: “Hey, I need your help!” Zörgiebel is of course a director of biosaxony, the network of biotechnology companies in Saxony. Recently, they even moved ahead of American competitors. Dresden is internationally recognised as one of the top players in the sector.