Prof. Dr Peter Gruenberg Image Credit: Supplied

While BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche are commonly recognised symbols of German excellence and innovation, few associate the country with the inventions of aspirin, the electron microscope, MP3 music format and LCDs.

According to Competitive Alternatives: KPMG’s Guide to International Business Location 2010, the country that gave us Albert Einstein is also a leader in science and technology industry share of the total workforce.

Germany ranks eighth out of 139 countries for innovation in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Competitiveness Report 2010-11. It holds the fourth place for company spending on R&D and the sixth spot for quality of scientific research institutions.

The 2011 Competitiveness Report put out by the European Commission’s Innovation Union says, “From a dynamic perspective, the indicators show that Germany has been [making] good progress not only in increasing its public and private R&D investment but also in translating this into high-quality scientific and technological outputs, where it outperforms the EU average and the United States.”

Turning innovations into business

Playing a major role in this conversion are many German Nobel laureates who reduce the gap between pure and applied science. Among these are scientists such as Prof. Dr Theodor W. Hänsch, founder of Menlo Systems, an ultra-precise measuring instruments major, and Prof. Dr Gerd Binnig, who runs Definiens, a Munich software firm.

Hänsch set up Menlo Systems in 2001 and went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005. He shares his scientific knowledge of quantum optics with the business world. His latest work includes use of laser systems for satellite and outer space exploration.

The sole academic from a family with electronics and equipment businesses, Hänsch honed his business and research acumen further at Silicon Valley when Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were not known names outside research circles. In fact, Steve Jobs came to his undergraduate classes on electricity and magnetism at Stanford.

Binnig, on the other hand, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986, while he was with IBM, for developing the scanning tunnelling microscope, an instrument for imaging surfaces at the atomic level. This discovery and his later work on the scanning force microscope have made nanotechnology possible by allowing observation and manipulation of miniscule particles. In his Nobel autobiography, written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/Nobel Lectures, he says “doing” physics is the right way of learning as far as he is concerned. Definiens is now in its second decade of operation.

All the Nobel laureates profiled in this article have strong association with Germany’s famous Max Planck Society, which funds and conducts research in almost all fields in the natural and life sciences. The institute is recognised for its role in knowledge transfer and creating seeds of innovations that have commercial value.

According to the latest Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development’s Science, Technology and Industry Outlook published in December 2010, “Germany’s most important policy document, the federal government’s 2006 High-Tech Strategy, has recently been updated by the High-Tech Strategy 2020. It identifies key technologies for emerging lead markets. In the same vein, the Excellence Initiative, which seeks to promote cutting-edge research at German universities, has been extended until 2017, with a 30 per cent increase in funding volume.”

Prof. Dr Peter Grünberg
Institution: Forschungszentrum Jülich
Year of award: 2007
Discipline: Physics

The impact of Prof. Dr Peter Grünberg’s work is so immediate and practical that it reached the public even before the award. In his Nobel autobiography, he says, “I have a strong desire to explain new phenomena that I come across in simple physical pictures and do not feel comfortable with mathematical formalism alone.”

In 2007, Grünberg was awarded the Nobel Prize for the development of the technology used to read data on hard disks, allowing them to be miniaturised for use in laptops and some digital music players. A hard disk stores information in microscopically small areas magnetised in different directions. The more compact the hard disk, the weaker the individual magnetic areas, making them difficult to read.

In 1988 Grünberg discovered a new physical effect — giant magnetoresistance (GMR), simultaneously and independently discovered by Frenchman Albert Fert — based on the quantum mechanical combination of electron spins sandwiched in nano layers of the read-out head. The first read-out head based on the GMR effect was launched in 1997 through a deal with IBM.

The invention made it possible to increase the hard disk capacity of typical workstations up to 50 times (from approximately 10GB in 1997 to between 100 and 500GB today).

Grünberg’s invention also led to the commercial production of hard drive video recorders and the ongoing development of Magnetoresistive Random Access Memory (MRAM), a technology that will enable computers to boot up instantly.

It was because of lightweight miniature hard drives that compact mobile devices such as MP3 players and digital cameras came into being.

His citation on the European Inventor of the Year 2006 award in the Universities and Research Institutes category at the European Patent office reads, “IBM became the first licensee of GMR in 1995 and launched its first product in 1997. This new technology caused the price of 1MB memories to plummet, from 20 cents in 1997 to less than half a cent in 2001.

During that same period, the global revenue for hard drives grew by 66 per cent, from $126 million (Dh462.7 million) to $209 million.”

Prof. Dr Theodor W. Hänsch
Institution: Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
Year of award: 2005
Discipline: Physics
Company: Menlo Systems

Prof. Dr Theodor W. Hänsch, who works at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Munich, has built the most exact measuring instrument, an optical clock that measures oscillations in the electromagnetic field of visible light. Roughly it means measuring up to 1,015 oscillations per second using a pulse laser. The frequency spectrum of the pulse laser resembles a comb whose teeth represent the measured frequencies, which gives it the name frequency comb. This comb is used in the optical atomic clock, which can measure time up to 100,000 times more accurately than the best of conventional clocks and help to improve the performance of satellite navigation systems and increase data transmission rates in glass-fibre networks.

Hänsch’s specialisation, precision spectroscopy, is used to measure optical frequencies and makes possible the exact determination of physical constants.

There are many clues in Hänsch’s life history that explains why the inventor with more than 20 patents to his name is also an entrepreneur — his father’s business of farming machinery, his sister’s electronics engineering company, mixed with an early kindling of an interest in science. It was after a visit to the metallurgical laboratory of Heinrich Lanz AG in Mannheim, where researchers in white lab coats let the young boy look into their fancy microscopes, that the idea of becoming a scientist took shape.

“At a time when other boys dreamt about steering steam locomotives, I started to see myself as a future scientist,” Hänsch says in his Nobel autobiography.

His interest in laser was honed during his years at Stanford, and in the 1970s in the beginning of the microcomputer revolution, he worked on many laser-related experiments, creating waves in his little laboratory. He was a regular at the Stanford Hombrew Computer Club, where, he says, “Bill Gates sold rolls of punched paper tape with 4k and 8k versions of Altair BASIC.”

He returned to Germany in 1981 as part of the Max-Planck Institute of Quantum Optics. The company Menlo Systems, named after Menlo Park in New Jersey where Thomas Alva Edison invented the light bulb, was set up in 2001 in association with his former students Dr Ronald Holzwarth and Dr Michael Mei to develop commercial frequency comb synthesisers. In 2006 a US subsidiary was added. The company has more than 60 employees and a presence in Europe, North America and Asia.

“During my Stanford years, I enjoyed the liberating climate of entrepreneurship that was omnipresent in the heart of Silicon Valley. Fortunately, the old aversion between academia and industry is waning in Germany, and in 2001, my former students took the risk of starting a spin-off company, Menlo Systems GmbH, to develop commercial frequency comb synthesizers,” he says in his Nobel autobiography.

The Nobel, though life-changing, is a means to an end, says Hänsch. “I like prizes to reassure our sponsors that their money is being spent well.”

Prof. Dr Robert Huber
Institution: Max-Planck-Institut für Biochemie, Martinsried
Year of award: 2005
Discipline: Chemistry
Company: co-founder of Proteros biostructures and Founder of Suppremol

Prof. Dr Robert Huber says all life is chemistry. “The history of biochemical nanomachines is the history of proteins,” said Huber, speaking to scientists at the joint BioStar 2006 and ICBN 2006 congresses in Stuttgart.

Together with fellow scientists, Huber isolated the protein important for photosynthesis in purple bacteria and used X-ray crystallography to determine its structure, which, in turn, led to the discovery of similar proteins necessary for photosynthesis in other cyanobacteria.

Chemistry Nobel Prize winner and emeritus professor at the Max-Planck Institute for Biochemistry, Huber’s company Proteros Biostructures is a protein crystallography specialist with around 70 employees and annual sales of around €6 million (Dh30.3 million). Proteros carries out research on enzymes and other biocatalysts as well as protein agents, using X-ray or synchrotron radiation for biotech companies. Huber has since set up another company, Suppremol, which develops and produces antibodies to help treat rheumatism, multiple sclerosis and psoriasis.

In his Nobel autobiography, Huber, like Hansch, talks about growing up during the war and an early induction into academic discipline, studying “Latin and Greek, some natural science and a few optional monthly hours of chemistry”. He remembers fondly about his teachers in college who did justice to his inclination for chemistry.

Huber says his interest in application of his research began as early as in 1970 during his work on basic pancreatic trypsin inhibitor. “The potential of these systems for drug and protein design has spurred our interest until today,” he says in his Nobel autobiography.

Dr Gerd Binnig
Institution: IBM Zurich Research Laboratory, Rüschlikon, Switzerland
Year of award: 1986
Discipline: Physics, instrumentation
Company: Definiens AG, a Munich software firm

IBM claims him as its own — Dr Gerd Binnig was appointed an IBM Fellow in 1987 and won the Nobel Prize in 1986 when he was part of IBM’s research laboratory. Like many other scientists of the time, he has vivid memories of the Second World War. Binnig who had decided early on — at the age of ten that he would be a physicist — questioned his choice when he found theoretical physics too technical. “So relatively unphilosophical and unimaginative,” he says, in his Nobel autobiography. “I realised that actually doing physics is much more enjoyable than just learning it. Maybe ‘doing it’ is the right way of learning, at least as far as I am concerned.”

Binnig’s scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) is widely used in both industrial and fundamental research to obtain atomic-scale images of metal surfaces. It can form an image of individual atoms on a metal or semiconductor surface by scanning the tip of a needle over the surface at a height of only a few atomic diameters.

Today Binnig runs Definiens AG, a Munich software firm, as founder and head of research and has made nanotechnology possible by allowing observation and manipulation of miniscule particles.

Radiologists and other medical experts use Definiens software to volumetrically analyse the size of lesions. The inspiration behind Definiens is the human mind’s phenomenal ability to extract pertinent information from images. Definiens Cognition Network Technology extracts meaningful, context-specific intelligence from any type of data, be it text, image, numerical, or table format.

Prof. Dr H.C. Manfred Eigen
Institution: Max-Planck-Institute for Biophysical Chemistry
Year of award: 1967
Discipline: Chemistry
Company: Evotec and direvo

As a result of Prof. Dr H.C. Manfred Eigen’s work, “immeasurably fast reactions” have become measureable. Today two companies, Evotec and Direvo, count him among their founders. Direvo Industrial Biotechnology has dedicated its core laboratory to its co-founder Eigen, whose scientific discoveries and inventions laid the foundations for the company’s technology platform. Evotec has recently signed an agreement to develop a compound that could slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

The son of a chamber musician, Ernst Eigen, Manfred Eigen studied physics and chemistry and obtained his doctorate in natural science in 1951. He became the managing director of the Max Planck Institute, working on fast chemical reactions in solution. He developed a series of new measuring techniques called relaxation spectrometry. For this work Eigen earned the 1967 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The award was “for their studies of extremely fast chemical reactions, effected by disturbing the equilibrium by means of very short pulses of energy”. Eigen could extend the time range of the studies down to nanoseconds.

A keen mountaineer, Eigen was interested in proton reactions and was the first to determine the neutralisation rate and study the kinetic behaviour of protons in ice.

Over the past 40 years, Eigen (now emeritus professor) has focused on the “self-organisation of matter and the evolution of biological macromolecules”. In 1992 he was awarded the Paul Ehrlich Prize for this work and its far-reaching consequences in biology. More recently his interest has shifted to the technological utilisation of these ideas establishing a new “evolutionary biotechnology”.

The range of his work is diverse — from the thermodynamic properties of water and aqueous solutions and the theory of electrolytes, through thermal conductivity and sound absorption, to fast ionic reactions.