“We want to revolutionise electronics.”
Prof. Dr. Gerhard FettweisProfessor Fettweis, in 1994 you moved to Dresden from Silicon Valley, the Mecca of electronic communication. Were you perhaps looking for adventure in the sticks? And did this turn into a love affair?
I can answer that relatively simply. I came here 18 years ago, and that is the longest I have ever lived in one place. So yes, you could say that it has become a love affair. I like the city and its surroundings very much. When I first arrived here, it was of course... So in retrospect I have to say I was totally crazy, but it has been worth it.
Was it a bit like the first settlers reclaiming America? Only in the opposite direction?
You could say that. I had to find out whether I could survive in this environment. Just how crazy this environment was, I only discovered after I had arrived. But it's nearly always the case that a job turns out to be bigger than you first thought. I arrived at a university where the buildings looked as though they ought to be torn down or at least refurbished from the ground up. One was assailed by a very typical odour, which came from the formaldehyde that seeped out of the pressed wood panels.
Was there also a clash between two academic cultures?
I had colleagues for whom international publications meant something completely different to my own experience. They did indeed publish internationally, but only within Eastern Europe. Over time the two regions have grown together, and in this the West has clearly been dominant. We have to be totally honest about that. My East German colleagues had to catch up with researchers from the West. Building up that relationship required a little help. I was 32 years old and I had to help 40-year-olds write proposals.
But you still have to do that. You have a reputation for being the best writer of funding proposals in Dresden, your most recent success being the Excellence Initiative.
Yes, that may be the case, but I'm now fifty years old.
How is it that Dresden in particular has made such an advance?
It's a combination of different things. We had an extremely clever State government that developed the ‘Dresden Spirit' as it is known today. And it's something that really does exist. It is very similar to Silicon Valley, where you find the ‘Silicon Valley Spirit'. There, just as here, people rarely meet without raving about both the region and the academic culture. People are thrilled to live and work here. And of course the city has lots of history to offer, much of which has now been brilliantly restored. The population of Dresden is still growing by several thousand a year. Economic growth attracts new residents and they in turn generate further growth, so we have an upward spiral.
What is at the heart of this Dresden Spirit?
An important part of the Dresden Spirit is working together instead of defending your own little kingdom. In all my projects I have tried to bring in various other colleagues. And in Dresden this works exceptionally well. I'd be the first to admit we've fought some hard battles, for example with the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. That came about because the University decided to go down a different route than the one the Fraunhofer had in mind. The result of these confrontations is that today we work very well together on an equal footing.
You are very active in developing spin-offs and bringing one company after another to the market. What about this do you find so exciting?
I lived in Silicon Valley, and there everyone is infected with the start-up bug. When I first arrived here there were very few companies in the mobile communications sector I could work with. So I just set them up myself. Establishing such new ventures was one of my demands when I arrived, both as regards the university and the sponsors of my Chair. And I never encountered any opposition; on the contrary, it was warmly welcomed! If nothing else it is all about stimulating the local economy. We are in the business of educating postgraduates and undergraduates, and they shouldn't have to go fifty kilometres away to find a job.
You also encourage colleagues and students to start up their own companies, and you have established the HighTech Startbahn incubation project that provides support for start-ups. How successful is it and at what point did you realise that there was a need for something like this?
We are currently raising our own venture capital fund. Specific plans for this initiative were drawn up a couple of years ago, but the idea had been there for a long time. But first of all we needed sufficient start-up experience and entrepreneurs who were willing to have another go. And despite its initial success, it will take a while before we can say that the incubation project has generated scores of start-ups.
The TU Dresden has been successful in the Excellence Initiative, thanks in no small part to your involvement. What will change now it is an ‘elite university'?
Everything will be optimised. And there are now things that we couldn't have done without this initiative. You mustn't forget that even though we have a very strong micro-electronics industry here, up to now we have not had a concerted, leading-edge research programme on the part of the State government that relates to all aspects of electronics. This is a political blunder on the part of the Free State of Saxony that can now be rectified.
Does it mean that it will be predominantly those university departments that are already strong that will be the ones to benefit?
In order to answer this question I need to provide you with some background information. Electrical Engineering, which is one of the most important faculties here, particularly with regard to industry, has over the past few years been cut by more than a third. Of the original 36 professorships, only 24 remain. With the Excellence Initiative we are able to reverse this trend. The cluster has given us a very solid starting point. For a start there will be nine new professorships and up to twelve research team leaders. We hope to attract up to twenty talented new researchers to Dresden, to form new teams. This is a great opportunity for all the faculties involved.
You are talking about the new Cluster of Excellence for Advancing Electronics that you are coordinating. Will you be able to make use of the experience you gained from the Leading-Edge Cluster "Cool Silicon" in this project?
Several years ago I was successful in getting the industry to join forces in the Leading-Edge Cluster Cool Silicon. It was my trial run, so to speak, to see how good I was at putting together huge teams and motivating them to work towards a common goal. At Cool Silicon, however, where my colleague Thomas Mikolajick eventually took over my role of coordinator so that I could concentrate fully on the Excellence Initiative, we are talking about an application-oriented affiliation. This new Cluster of Excellence is all about cutting-edge research. There is a lot we want to do, we want to pursue new topics and extraordinary new ideas. Whenever the subject of the electronics of tomorrow crops up, we want everyone in the world to say, there's that cluster in Dresden! We want to be one of the five leading sites in the world in this field.
The name ‘Center for Advancing Electronics Dresden' already has this vision in its title. Are you going to revolutionise information technology?
In this cluster we indeed want to revolutionise electronics. In ten or twenty years time, today's technology of complementary metal-oxide semiconductors (CMOS) will reach its saturation stage because we'll eventually come up against atomistic limits as we continually reduce the size of the structures. Then we want to be able to present approaches which encourage progress. Now we have that window of opportunity. The industry must of course continue to focus on CMOS. This is completely understandable and correct as industry is not concerned with what happens way in the distant future. But as a university we have the task of looking ten, twenty years ahead. And that's really exciting.
What sort of approaches are these?
We are pursuing several different ‘research paths'. I will give you just two examples: today we have electronic systems in which electrons move either two or three-dimensionally within the material. But in both carbon nanotubes and silicon nanowires, electrons flow in just one direction, either forwards or backwards. Here electronic systems behave completely differently. Within this one dimensional electronic system we want to develop solutions that go beyond anything we know today. We are exploring how we can re-programme these electronic systems, how biomolecules can be attached, how we can make sensors from them and so on. Another example of our visionary approach is that we have taken a look at nature, at how ‘electronic systems', in other words information processing in biological cells, work there. Molecules arrive at the outer walls of a cell and the cell responds to this great mix of information. It is highly complex. This information processing is highly energy-efficient and non-linear. In electronics, we currently always work with linear systems as we have problems building stable non-linear ones. Nature, however, builds extremely stable systems that are non-linear. Can this lead to a completely new way of constructing systems? This is something we are currently exploring with systems biologists from the TUD and the MPI.
You are the coordinator of the “Highly Adaptive Energy-Efficient Computing” (HAEC) Collaborative Research Centre. This is also part of the cluster. Is the CRC to be merged in it or will it remain independent?
It remains independent, but it is fully integrated as one of the research paths.
Don't all these management responsibilities keep you from your research?
Frankly, I rarely have time to get into the lab anymore, but I do have time for research in my office through discussions with postgraduates and colleagues. You need a fairly structured timetable to be able to do that. Apart from anything else, I like to delegate responsibility to team members. It gives my team the chance to put themselves to the test. It also teaches my students to take on responsibility and management roles. It means they get to discuss things with eminent professors themselves. Every now and then things go wrong and then I have to step in and act as coach. But all in all it makes us much more effective.
Thank you for the interview.