“Now we’re moving into the fast lane.”
Prof. Dr. Karl LeoProfessor Leo, you've been in Dresden since 1993. Was the city a science hub when you first arrived?
I came to Dresden in 1993 following my appointment at TU Dresden. I had previously worked at the RWTH Aachen, and in America before that. For me, Dresden was completely new territory. Before I submitted my application, I came to visit the institution for a day and I saw that there was still much to be done here. It was still a time of great flux after the fall of the Berlin wall, and the city was just one big construction site. The university infrastructure had also suffered; the roof of the building leaked, for instance, and so many laboratories had to be abandoned. But I also met people who wanted to make waves; I saw the gleam in their eyes. And despite such difficult conditions, they did good work. It was then that I knew we could make something of this - and over the next twenty years, Dresden evolved into an incredible technological hub.
You also previously spent some time at the legendary AT&T Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey, so you're in a position to make comparisons. Would you say that when it comes to high technology, Dresden has replaced the large and often privately run research institutes of the twentieth century - like the Bell Labs?
That thought has actually never occurred to me, but there's some truth to it, particularly regarding the once famous Bell Labs. When I left the Labs in 1991, the problems that had always been apparent there were looming ever larger. Their downfall ended up being so complete that there is virtually nothing left of the Bell Labs' legacy today.
What do you need in order to nurture a flourishing science hub?
You always need two things: adequate basic conditions and people. And don't forget: the people were already in Dresden. After all, Dresden was the centre of the East German microelectronics industry. They had terrible equipment and leaky roofs, but the Dresden scientists were extremely competent, nonetheless. When they got better opportunities later on - all thanks to the state of Saxony's clever manoeuvring - there was no stopping them. That's why everything developed so quickly here.
Was it plain sailing from there on or were there also setbacks?
There were actually very few out-and-out failures. Qimonda's insolvency was, of course, unfortunate, but it is nevertheless quite astounding just how quickly the industry bounced back. Indeed, Qimonda's employees were absorbed by the growing private market and this failure by no means had any lasting effect.
For a few months now, TU Dresden has been officially dubbed an “elite university” following its recognition as an outstanding institution under the German Excellence Initiative. How does that make you feel and what consequences has it had for your work?
First of all, this is a very significant achievement. We really worked hard for this, and have a fair few failed attempts behind us in trying to earn this mark of excellence for the university as a whole. Now, of course, this is prompting us on to finally move into the fast lane. It has to be said that this success is especially important for us now that the Solidarity Pact is now coming to an end and funding for the new German states is drying up. However, with this elite status we can adopt a totally different stance in negotiations.
You're referring to the underfunding of TU Dresden, about which the university rector Hans Müller-Steinhagen complained some months ago?
I agree with the rector of TU Dresden in that this university is structurally underfunded; we rank poorly in terms of the amount of state funding we receive per graduate. On the other hand, we do very well in securing private funding, so I can't really complain about my department's funding - but the disparity between what we receive from the state and what we have to secure in private funding exists nonetheless.
Dresden prides itself on the cooperative nature of its scientific landscape. Does this culture of collaboration really work in practice? And what other benefits are there to moving to this city?
Yes, I would say that networking and interdepartmental cooperation are particularly successful here. I'm also still Director of the Fraunhofer Research Institution. I know from other locations that there is this constant friction between research institutes, but that isn't the case here in Dresden. The university's links with the industry are also very strong. This is probably because of the size of this location, where virtually everyone knows everyone. What's more, Dresden is probably the most attractive city in Germany if you can overlook its poor transport links. Indeed, it's hard to beat the city's cost and quality of living, and it has excellent schools and universities.
Back to the cooperation between the university, non-university research institutes and the industry - you could be considered the very personification of this reciprocity; after all, you are a TU Dresden professor, Director of the Fraunhofer Research Institution (COMEDD) and the co-founder of a number of companies and initiatives such as Novaled AG and Heliatek GmbH.
This is the perfect description of my situation. I research and teach at the university. Meanwhile, the Fraunhofer Research Institution acts as a bridge between science and industry. There, applied research goes hand in hand with the kinds of facilities that you would never be able to operate as a university for financial reasons. This cooperation is highly successful, and indeed, many employees at the Fraunhofer Institutes are, themselves, formerly of the TU Dresden. There are also joint working groups, which enable students to have an early introduction to these research institutes. The same can be said of the various start-ups with which I'm involved. Many of the start-up employees - right up to members of the board - were previously linked with the university, which makes cooperation very easy. But we also maintain a very close working relationship with companies created externally.
The success of this cooperation is clear; just a year ago, you - together with company founders Jan Blochwitz-Nimoth (Novaled) and Martin Pfeiffer (Heliatek) - were awarded the German Future Prize. Why exactly did you win this award?
We were awarded this prize for the development of efficient organic components, or more precisely, for the development of efficient organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) and solar cells. Over the past few years, we have proved that it is possible to manufacture organic light-emitting diodes which are more efficient than fluorescent tubes and around six times more efficient than light bulbs. On top of this, we've manufactured organic solar cells, which are not yet as efficient as their silicone-based competition, but which are nonetheless very well-designed and have an efficiency factor of approximately 10 percent. To achieve this, we had to prove that the conductivity of organic semiconductors can be increased by a factor of one million through the addition of a certain special molecule.
Have your findings already been integrated into the manufacturing process?
Yes, all Samsung devices equipped with OLED displays use our technology. This is Novaled's business.
How is your competition shaping up?
In terms of industrial application, our strongest international competitor is South Korea. Of course, we also supply our competitors, since the display technology industry is concentrated in Asia at the moment, so we make money as suppliers, too. South Korea is also a leading competitor in the OLED lighting sector. Competition in the solar cell sector is more diffuse; there are very active companies based in the USA, for instance. Of course, these technologies are being researched around the globe. However, with over one thousand employees, the Dresden organics cluster is the largest of its kind in Europe.
What could your technology be used for in the future?
Thin organic semiconductors have the advantage that you can apply them like a dye to virtually any surface, from glass and plastic to metal foil and paper - or even fabrics. As a result, it is very easy to manufacture flexible components; roll-up displays or roll-up solar panels are now quite feasible. But transparency will also have a greater role to play in future developments. Indeed, we can now manufacture solar panels and light-emitting diodes which are virtually see-through.
When do you think that these products will hit the market?
The flexible solar cells are almost ready for use. Heliatek will have its first products on the market very soon. Flexible displays, on the other hand, are quite complex, and I would therefore think that it will be a few more years before they're ready for mass consumption. There are already prototypes, though.
Do you have a favourite concept for the future of organic components?
Yes. In the future, we might cover windows with transparent OLEDs through which you can see during the day, but which would transform into luminous surfaces at night with the simple push of a button. We've actually already built a small-scale model. The effect is truly beautiful: almost as if it were daylight. If this installation could be combined with transparent solar cells, then energy generated throughout the day could be consumed at night.
Organic electronics is the main competitor for conventional, silicone-based microelectronics, but do the two fields ever work together sometimes?
Of course! I have good friends and colleagues in silicone microelectronics, Thomas Mikolajick and Johann Bartha, for instance. We are currently working on a joint project for the study of new sequestration methods. Under this project, we're using a wafer-thin coating technology used in silicone microelectronics to encase organic components and protect them against oxygen and water vapour. This quite neatly demonstrates how synergies are created; simply through knowing the right people.
A final prediction: how will Dresden evolve as a science hub in the near future?
Today, we are already spearheading developments in Europe's high tech and information technology industries. Grenoble is also an important centre, but Dresden outstrips the French city in terms of sheer numbers, and has a much more diverse scientific landscape. I think that Dresden is likely to continue reinforcing this strong position. The biotechnology industry is also gaining in importance, and we are currently working on combining this discipline with microelectronics. We do, however, have two challenges to face. Firstly, we will fall on hard times if TU Dresden has to survive on its current - or an even further reduced - level of funding. Secondly, Dresden, like all cities in the former East German states, has failed to attract large corporations, and the topic arises time and time again in conversation: how can we lure a large corporation to the city?
So, how would you go about it?
In my view, we have to create one ourselves. However, this is not easy in Germany, whereas in China a new large corporation is founded every few weeks. I sometimes wonder why we can't get something like Google off the ground. Dresden would be the ideal location for a venture like that.
Perhaps you've already founded a large corporation and you just don't know it yet?
That really would be something!
Thank you for the interview.