Reinventing German Innovation | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 01.02.2005
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Reinventing German Innovation

A recent study into the "to be or not to be" of self-employment revealed a national reluctance among Germans to go it alone. But inventors are crying out for a chance to give the country a cutting-edge status.


An originial idea is hardly enough to power innovation in Germany

The study, conducted in the EU and the US over a period of five years, was conclusive proof that entrepreneurial spirit does not run through the veins of German society the same way as the desire for steady and secure work. While more than 61 percent of Americans expressed a desire to run their own show, the same percentage of Germans said they were put off the idea because of a fear of failure.

Yet, there is undoubtedly more to the picture than that, and given the current blot which unemployment is smudging over Germany's social and economic landscape, embracing the lesser known devil and striking out alone could be the answer to some people's problems.

DNA Analyse im Labor

Getting innovation taken seriously is a painstaking process

Heino Hanisch, a Berlin-based inventor and jack of many trades, has been out of work for several years. His continued attempts to get a foot back onto the employment ladder have been repeatedly thwarted by his age -- he's in his mid-40's -- and long-term jobless status. He is realistic rather than pessimistic when he says he may never again be gainfully employed.

"I see self-employment as the only way forward, but that's not easy either, because you encounter so many hurdles, financial and otherwise, to get there," Hanisch said.

A question of cash

For German inventors, the problem with getting out there and turning their innovative dreams into reality is intrinsically linked to a lack of funding. "As an inventor, you need more than just an idea. You need money to register the patent, ideally also money to employ a patent lawyer. You have to create a prototype which can be shown at exhibitions or trade fairs, and then, most importantly, you need money for advertising," inventor and engineer Peter Stepina said.

Essentially it all boils down to cash. And Germany's banks are not champing at the bit to hurl their money at independent creative minds. "There's no point in even applying for support from the bank unless you have a lot of your own capital," Hanisch added.

Stellenabbau bei der Deutschen Bank

Banks keep inventors at arms' length

Since very few do, many potentially lucrative inventions are stopped in their tracks. "Of course it makes a difference to us if an inventor is prepared to invest his own money into his idea, but we also want to see a thorough business plan and be sure that the inventor has done his market analysis," Christian Hotz, a spokesman for Deutsche Bank said.

Again, that's a process which the average inventor cannot afford. "It's a case of the cat biting itself in the tail," Hanisch lamented. But one new initiative set up by the Chamber for Trade and Industry (IHK) in the German city of Duisburg is blowing some fresh wind into the stagnant world of independent invention.

A new "Idea"

The project, aptly entitled "Idea" is an original attempt to help inventors towards their ultimate goal of turning their models into money. A pool of some 80 experts from all fields and walks of life work on a voluntary basis to assess the viability of designs and ideas submitted to them from the innovator on the street.

"The problem at the moment is that there is no financial backing available for individuals. If an inventor wants to access funding, the only way to go about it is to team up with a company. Even the government initiative for patent funding is out of bounds to the individual," IHK innovations consultant Rolf Berenz said.

Frische Spaghetti aus dem Automaten

A new invention for pasta on the go

Berenz hopes the project will establish a network of people who work together to promote innovation within Germany -- not only technological innovation but also in the realms of service and management. He calls it a one-stop shop in which clever ideas are analyzed, assessed and, where appropriate, the inventor gets feedback from a panel of experts.

What about "Me Incorporated?"

It's certainly a step in the right direction and a more structured move to support an often marginalized profession. At the moment, the only other possibility inventors have at securing external support is through a government-funded program called "Me Incorporated," which is designed to encourage the unemployed to start their own businesses.


The dog-walking machine hasn't yet taken off

But getting into the program requires more than a brilliant idea. "Candidates have to get their ideas analyzed by an expert to assess the likelihood of success," Ellen Queisser, spokeswoman for the Labor Office in Berlin said.

It's a vicious circle for the likes of Heino Hanisch, who believes it takes imagination to see just how a new product might succeed. "The experts who are supposed to check for viability are long-term employees who have no idea about being self-employed and no idea about what will or will not work."

Whether that is true or not, it remains a fact that German inventors are out there and feeling frustrated about being prevented from adding some dynamism to the entrepreneurial face of the nation.

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