“We are providers for structured inventing”

Tom Groth
Tom Groth

As a professional visoneer, you must have to take a critical look at the past. Why did so many visions burst along with the dot.com bubble?

Groth: In most cases, the business plans were too optimistic. Many visionary projects turned into flops because they were led by consultants, rather than genuine entrepreneurs.

And what became of the promise that IT and telecommunications would become seamlessly merged?

Groth: There’s no doubt this promise hasn’t been fulfilled yet. The telecommunications industry was obsessed with airtime for far too long, and was therefore more concerned with growth with regard to connection times, and less with boosting business through package-oriented services. This attitude really slowed down the merging of IT and telecommunications. Anyone who thinks the “third mobile communications generation” would now suddenly trigger a wave of innovation has not read the UMTS technical white paper. In it, underlying technical specifications remain open. The market is not developing, because every provider can work with their own standards. And at the same time, the word has got around that there will never be the mega-fantastic killer application to generate mass business. Only services that fit the life situations and role models of individual people, and therefore generate demand, will have a future.

What does that mean for technical development?

Groth: We must get used to the idea that the appropriate IT capacity will be provided depending on our location or situation, that is, on our environment. We will therefore have less to do with computers in the present-day sense, and much more to do with their function modules. This works on the “cafeteria” principle – a portion of memory here, the necessary processor capacity there, the appropriate interoperability in the form of touchscreens, voice input, keyboards, or whatever. In short, in the next development step, the good old PC will be taken apart and broken down into the independent components, like it used to be. Each IT segment will be controlled via a URL, which will lead to an explosion in internet address numbers. Protocols form the backbone and system of rules for the services. For example, we have developed protocols based on the leasing model, in order to support the spontaneous use of individual service components on an ad hoc basis. Our Java mobility system, a software framework for mobile devices, and which can be used spontaneously with simple logon, will be able to run on this.

How important are web services in this context?

Groth: At the moment, web services are our main priority. This relates to protocols that automate the use of services, that is, without the active participation and attention of people. The next development step relates to networks of “embedded things,” that is, devices and other things that are embedded in the IT components. This includes auto-ID and RFID, and also many different forms of sensors.

What about even further into the technological future?

Groth: In the next five to ten years, research and development will be particularly successful in the field of nanotechnology, in fuel cells and energy storage. Innovations will include printable batteries and even whole computers for polymer electronics. Thus it will be possible to produce electronic components more or less in the same way as a newspaper or book using web offset printing machines, and the items are then cut out, as if from a book of patterns. The trend towards services dealing with spontaneous local network use, usually for a limited period, will continue. Following on from networks using embedded, that is, implemented IT, we will be seeing a network of things by around 2015. The IT components will then be as small as a grain of sand, or perhaps even smaller. These will be available mass-produced as substrate and it will be possible to mix them with everything that occurs in the physical world. Autarkic IT components the size of grains of sand or specks of dust, known in the industry as eGrain or Smart Dust, produce techno-social structures. This means that the IT particles mixed with the materials connect with each other of their own accord. Depending on the program, they organize themselves and assign themselves functions: some measure, others feel and react, others are responsible for identification and localization.

Has any part of this vision already been realized?

Groth: In development laboratories, we have come a big step closer to the miniaturization of chips. We can produce tiny chips that stick. We are not using contact pins on the processors, and have instead applied a chessboard pattern in which each “square” is the size of just a few atoms. These chips can simply be stuck together with adhesive, without any platinum. We have already got the basic patents for this. In addition, our newly developed chips do not have the negative properties of their predecessors, because they consume a fraction of the previously required energy. In production, too, they are much more cost-effective. Previously, faulty chips had to be scrapped. Soon, we will be measuring each finished chip and those with poorer performance can still be configured for certain uses. This leads to extremely good conditions. Everywhere that chips are used, we will see a huge drop in prices. We expect cost savings of 90 percent in processor production.

What methods do you use to turn visions into marketable products?

Groth: We see ourselves as proactive trend scouts and providers for “structured inventing.” We use a total technology development as our systematic basis (see graphic). We promote creative processes with TRIZ, a method of inventive problem-solving which was developed by the Russian Genrich Altshuller in the 1960s. In this method, the precise description of a problem often leads to creating problem-solving. The TRIZ method places great importance on the analysis of the problems in the invention process. Once these analyses have been carried out, the existing fields of conflict are solved individually according to certain rules. As a result, two day-long meetings are often enough to get up to 150 new ideas, of which two or three are usually patent-worthy.

How does collaboration work between research and marketing?

Groth: Germany has an extremely innovative research and development environment. I will just name two research and development institutions: The German Aviation Center DLR has three and a half thousand patents, the Fraunhofer Society twice as many. However, there is one serious disadvantage. Even though the results from research institutions and development departments are among the best in the world, the commercial exploitation is very poor in comparison. America does this a lot better. For this reason, it would be ideal if the Germans were to research, but make and market the resulting products together with the Americans. This synergy would be unbeatable, and I am working towards it. One example is the application center that we have founded with DLR and the state of Bavaria as an incubator for products in the field of satellite communication, navigation and earth observation.

What is your personal motto?

Groth: Creative ideas can be systematically produced. Think first – than act!