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“Transfer has to interpret and understand research findings and know the needs of companies”

A TRANSFER interview with Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Johann Löhn, Steinbeis founder and honorary trustee of the foundation

When a man born and bred in the north of Germany uproots and moves to the deepest corner of the Black Forest, that’s true commitment. Something that without an iota of doubt applies to Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. mult. Johann Löhn. It was the early 1970s when Löhn first came to the Black Forest to study at the former Furtwangen University of Applied Sciences. From 1983 until the middle of the last decade, his nickname in Baden-Wuerttemberg and beyond became “Mr. Technology Transfer.” In honor of the achievements of the former chairman of the Steinbeis Foundation and Baden-Wuerttemberg Government Commissioner for Technology Transfer, in 2004 the foundation introduced the Steinbeis Foundation Transfer Award – the Löhn Award. Since then, another 15 years have passed. Reason enough for TRANSFER magazine to ask the restless bedrock of the Steinbeis organization for an interview.

Hello Professor Löhn. In your function as Government Commissioner, you’ve worked on and assessed countless projects. Since 2004, you’ve also been the chairman of the jury for the Steinbeis Foundation Transfer Award and had to evaluate the projects of Steinbeis Enterprises and their project partners and judge the standard of the transfer process. Looking back over this time, what were the trends and what direction are things going in now in terms of the project partnerships that science and academia enter into with business?

Could I start by saying that in almost 25 years as a Government Commissioner, I must have signed more than 20,000 expert assessments. Gaining that signature was a prerequisite for companies to receive state funding, especially for innovation, introducing modern technology, or setting up new companies.

Over the course of 15 years, the jury of the Steinbeis Foundation Transfer Award has assessed several hundred successful transfer projects, all of which were conducted by Steinbeis Centers with business enterprises. It’s astonishing how intensely the projects are focused on, how deep they go and how much detail they go into. I’ve visited many countries all around the world over the years. The thing I’ve come to realize is that when it comes to busy gadgeteers, the Germans are Weltmeister.

It’s only logical that tinkering around with things will result in inventions that haven’t yet found a market. But that’s better than it being the other way around: a big market but little to offer in the way of products. Being a bit “heretical,” I’d define an inventor as someone who doesn’t ask customers first and then start cursing when no-one wants his invention. There are two natural talents – inventing and selling – which it’s rare to find in the same person. An entrepreneur has to pave the way for synergies between the two poles within one system.

How have things changed over the years? Lots of questions that used to be answered during the transfer process now aren’t even asked anymore. Meanwhile, companies do have the right skills. In the old days, companies would come along thinking “we need to do something about this,” whereas now they turn up with a specification list. What’s remained and, if anything, is becoming more pronounced is the need for companies to turn to research findings.

One of the most memorable phrases you’re known for is “Innovation – there’s enough of that. We need to implement things!” Where do you see the stumbling blocks within companies – why is there still so much potential to transfer things out of development departments into the market?

Germany has a kind of “value chain” not seen anywhere else in the world. It’s fundamental research – applied research – transfer – industry – manual trades. It’s why 30% of our gross national product comes from industry, or manufacturing, including industry-related service provision and the manual trades. That’s a totally unique competitive advantage. Research just has to produce results for their own sake without any compulsion to think about transfer. Otherwise, it would be the end of all progress. Transfer has to interpret and understand research findings and know the needs of companies. That’s fundamentally different from acting as an intermediary. It’s even better if transfer applies the findings of research and develops products and processes out of them. That’s what Steinbeis is about – it was the first organization in the world to choose transfer as its core competence.

Coming back to your question about further potential: In classic terms, in many areas the manual trades are simply industry or manufacturing. The starting point in terms of the questions they ask is always a product or a problem. This has been my experience over 30 years as the jury chairman for the Seifriz Award (the German skilled trades and science award). During this time we’ve assessed more than 700 applications. Where’s potential? The manual trades still have to be guided more systematically into the transfer process. (Big) manufacturers allow a lot of innovations to lie fallow because they don’t fit in with their defined portfolio. This is where more interaction through transfer would help.

You can’t simply order people to be innovative. What do you believe are the prerequisites or framework conditions that are needed for a company and its workers to go beyond day-to-day business and innovate, or look forward with a vision?

People have different talents; it’s in their genes. But “activating” this, especially when people have the same talents, depends strongly on the environment. An example: I know a really successful business leader who started out as a toolmaker. Even today he sits hour after hour with a cigar or a glass of red wine in front of a machine and mulls over the things he could make better. He would never have been successful as a regular worker in a company. So talent seeks the environment that fits best – hopefully. Another example: A former student was made responsible for seeking out ideas within a corporation. I asked him what the procedure is for him. He makes a remark. He has to take this note to his next up in line and then walk up through the hierarchy. So by the time an idea has made it to the top, there’s usually not much left of it. A former senior manager at IBM once told me that they had a search machine at the company long before Google came along. They wanted to sell it to customers, but nobody wanted to pay for it. The project was halted – until Google turned the tables on them, gave away the product for free and made money on advertising revenues. Everyone knows what happened next.

I know as a physicist that potential energy isn’t the same as kinetic energy. People keep trying to “flick the ON switch” with innovation. An example of this is the term they’ve been using for some time now: agility. In simple terms, this is about delegating processes and sometimes goals. What’s good about this is that the term is creating awareness. But asking people to do something is always easier than actually doing it. Things like this aren’t something you can just get on with in a world of hierarchies where people are kept in line by instructions. I can think of another example: When I was a young man I suffered a meniscus injury playing soccer and had to walk around for weeks with my leg in plaster. When the doctor took the plaster off, he smiled and said, “Now stand up and try to walk around.” Of course I couldn’t, not right away.

Digital technology is nothing new, but the change it’s bringing about is increasingly wielding more and more influence. How does this change compare to the structural changes that helped shape the 1980s? And what influence will digital transformation and rapid technology convergence have on future technology transfer?

I’m an optimist, and there’s a good reason for that. Just grab the newspapers from the early 1980s and substitute the word “microelectronics” with “artificial intelligence.” If you look at the majority of publications in those days, it looked like we were about to go under. What actually happened? We were successful. There can be no question that just like then, qualifications need to adapt. Now, just like then, technology transfer also plays a key role. The structural change that comes with all this in terms of training or qualifications actually started some time ago. People are becoming entrepreneurs within the company with profiles that are adaptable. We also have to think about the fact that people are now on a completely different level when it comes to IT. People these days have grown up with it. It’s not like it used to be, where something like an auto repair shop introduced its first PC and hung a big sign over it saying “Computer Center.”

You built up Steinbeis around your self-management afnd problem- solving method, the Lohn Method. A key part of its success is the so-called “dynamic synergy of opposition” – two influencing factors reflecting interactions between systematic methods and randomness on the one hand, and decentralization and centralization on the other. You will continue to work with Steinbeis as an Honorary Trustee of the Steinbeis Foundation. What things will you focus on in particular?

Could I start by saying that without the Lohn Method, I would never have been able to set up Steinbeis the way I did. It’s true to say that the dynamic synergy of poles (DSP) proved to be extremely successful as a maxim for the things we did. It’s good that my successors have taken this on board. And there’s one particular synergy I’d like to point to: immediate decision-making versus strategy. There are often times when you have to react quickly and “shoot from the hip.” That’s all right. But you also have to keep an eye on the strategic decisions. An example: The chairman of our Board of Trustees plays an important role. He can control us and push us to think in a more narrow-minded way, or he can get us to think broader. The former chairman, Prof. Dr. Hans-Joachim Förster, was head of development at Daimler. He was already around when I started in 1983. He was gruff, but in a positive way and he had very strong principles when it came to moving Steinbeis forward. If you want to change existing structures on the inside, which of course was what I wanted, you need protection on all sides. That’s what he gave me, and that was crucial.

When he left in 1990, it was time to appoint a successor. There was a real danger that a chairman would come along from the Ministry of Economic Affairs, a kind of “puppet on a string.” This was where the strategy was crucial. I was convinced that Prof. Dr. Max Syrbe – who was president of the Fraunhofer Society at the time – was the right person for us. The only thing was, I wasn’t responsible for making the decision. So I simply sent my suggestion to the ministry, plus a copy to the Minister of Economic Affairs, Hermann Schaufler, who was a friend of mine, and said, “Please, you must say ‘yes’ if the suggestion lands on your desk.” What actually happened? We got a good trustee board chairman again.

Then came the next stage. Long before Prof. Syrbe left, I approached Dr. Vilser and asked him if he could imagine being our chairman. He didn’t say no. So he became my “sleeper.” Bottom line, we now have another good trustee board chairman who’s doing an excellent job supporting the long-term strategy.

Finally, if you could gaze into a crystal ball, from today’s standpoint, what developments do you expect to happen in knowledge and technology transfer in the coming years?

Every now and again you have to do a brainstorming session with all the employees and really make sure that people also suggest “nonsense.” We did it once in Switzerland in the 1980s during a company outing with people from head office. A couple of years later most of the suggestions had become reality. But one thing that’s really important is that there’s an atmosphere that allows people to feel safe enough to suggest something without the fear of “sanctions.” Otherwise, you might as well forget it. If you get it right, you can adapt renewal as part of a continual process, in ways that we can’t even conceive of at the moment.