Digital Developments in Leipzig and Dresden, Part 1

Leipzig and Dresden are an hour’s train ride apart from each other. They appear to maintain a friendly rivalry, though both are tied at the hip through Germany’s Digital Hub program. For Leipzig, the first city we visited of the pair, the effort is called the “Smart Infrastructure Hub Leipzig”; in Dresden the work is referred to as the “Smart Systems Hub.” In this brief article, I’ll share what I learned today about each.

SpinLab’s operations include 10 start-ups that are getting a master’s level education in how to run a new business.

Both are mid-sized cities located in the former East Germany state of Saxony. Wide boulevards are sliced by tram tracks and bordered by out-sized blocks of buildings colored in drab grays and beiges. However, each also has its charming neighborhoods, with narrow tree-lined streets and gracious family homes, as well as walkable pedestrian plazas packed with outdoor diners enjoying the unseasonably warm weather. Leipzig has the country’s largest zoo; Dresden has magnificent churches, palaces and horse drawn carriages conveying tourists around the sites.

SpinLab is located in a former cotton mill taken over by creatives after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Purchased in the late 1990s, the site still houses artists (150 of them, according to Managing Director and Co-founder, Eric Weber), along with galleries, start-ups, established companies, and this privately-held organization with four primary purposes:

  • To serve as an accelerator for start-ups in the three core areas of smart cities, energy and ehealth;
  • To provide the facilities for a technology and start-up center;
  • To generate venture capital funding; and
  • To serve as a research center.

Ten start-ups at a time are selected to participate in a free six-month crash course in getting their businesses up and running onsite. The only criteria: The startups must host apps online; they must be technology-based; and the team must be fluent in either German or English. Partners provide financial backing to keep the doors open. Those include Dell EMC, eex, Porsche, KPMG and HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management, and 19 other organizations.

We visited with companies in each of the core areas.

The first was to Rhebo, a SpinLab success story, that addresses “industrial network continuity.” Although you might look at the technology developed by Rhebo as a security offering (since it does network monitoring for anomaly detection), the sweet spot is really helping companies identify when productivity levels aren’t hitting targets because the technology has identified deviations from the manufacturing specifications, said Stefan Sebastian, a company executive in charge of Product and Strategy.

Rhebo appeals to corporate customers seeking to remove variation in their automated processes through deviation identification.

Next up: e2m, which refers to itself as a virtual power plan. This aggregator doesn’t generate its own energy; it manages the energy produced by non-conventional means, primarily renewable sources such as solar and wind. When a solar panel gets placed on a rooftop or a set of turbines is set on a farm in the hills, for example, the land owner who put it there can be a provider of that energy through e2m. According to Kai Becker, head of “Business Development in Germany and Foreign Markets,” a third of the power produced in Germany is generated this way. And, in fact the grid is required to pull in available renewable energy before conventional power. In the future, predicted Becker, “energy won’t have value.”

Then we visited the Innovation Center Computer Assisted Surgery (ICCAS), where we watched two demonstrations. The first was a “smart” surgical center, where the prototype showed how systems can work together to speed up and improve the accuracy of surgical procedures. As Thomas Neumuth, ICCAS Vice Director, explained, the set-up works like a car navigation application; it tells the medical professionals what to do next. For example, when the prep work is done and the actual surgery is about to take place, the lights automatically go down to signal to those in the operating room to pay attention because the show is about to begin. “All the technology,” he said, “is used to assist the surgeon” by removing any aspect of the work that isn’t “value adding.” The system can even handle the billing so that all aspects are tracked automatically. This one is five years down the road, said Neumuth, because of the certification process the equipment needs to go through before it can be used on live patients. The second demonstration by ICCAS showed how a robotic arm can be used to gain precision in certain procedures, such as for placing a needle inside a patient.

This smart surgical center uses automation to optimize surgical procedures akin to a car navigation system letting you know when to take the next exit.

The last company we visited in Leipzig was eex, the 15-year-old European Energy Exchange, which provides live trading for electricity around the continent. Its mandate: “to establish transparent and fair market prices.” e2m, previously mentioned, is one of about 500 trading participants in 60 locations worldwide that use the exchange to either buy or sell energy. In 2016, a total of 4000 terawatt hours were traded, six to seven times the annual electricity consumption of Germany itself. A quick tour of eex’s market operations department, tucked away in a secure space and considered the “heart of the company,” is where buyers and sellers are matched up. The tedious detail work is handled automatically by software; however, a core staff is on hand to help with customer questions. For good reason, the people in that room are the only humans who see the live trading take place. There’s a “safety guard” of 50 minutes before any of the information in that room can be shared.

eex’s super-secret trading room. (These screens have been anonymized so we can’t really tell who’s buying and who’s selling.)

Next, I’ll cover Dresden.