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Eva Michely

"All my life I've concerned myself with transformation": Five questions for Dr. h. c. Thomas Sattelberger

A digital expert and publicist, Thomas Sattelberger has a particular interest in questions of innovation, transformation and research. He spent many years as a board member of various DAX companies. At Lufthansa, he founded the first corporate university in Germany. Sattelberger holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Siegen and he is a Fellow of the International Academy of Management. He supports a number of civil society initiatives, including various national STEM initiatives. Following his business career, he was a member of the German Bundestag from 2017-2022 and Parliamentary State Secretary in 2021/2022. At the research festival "CISPA loves IGB" in September 2023, he spoke about the potential for innovation and transformation in Germany. In this interview, he explains what role CISPA has to play in this.

Thomas Sattelberger, you are a very active publicist. As such, you participate in public discourse, particularly with regard to digitalization. Why is this topic so close to your heart?
Next to the printing press, the internet is the key innovation of the second millennium. Against this background, it is almost self-explanatory why I should concern myself with digitalization. This technology does not only permeate the economy, but also public administration as well as our private lives. And you can see that it changes people. People are not acting subjects here, but first and foremost they are shaped by this technology. That's why dealing with this is a key issue for anyone who is active in civil society, business and politics. If you consider the economy, which significantly influences our growth and social progress, then digitalization is the key source of value creation alongside the industry. Unfortunately, we in Germany have missed the train in relation to this second source of value creation. To give you an example: 7 percent of South Korea's gross domestic product consists of software. In Germany, it is just under 2 percent. We are lacking the big global players as well as the tech start-ups. That is a major shortcoming.


"Alongside the established, transforming SME sector, Germany also needs a deep-tech SME sector 2.0. This is why I put so much emphasis on spin-offs that come out of science and research."

In your opinion, why does the German economy need small, strong companies that emerge out of science and research? 
In the USA and in China, many of the business-to-consumer innovations in digitalization have already taken place and large digital corporations have long been conducting foundational research. It is due to our own sleepiness that there are by far too few companies in Germany that play an important and active role in the deep-tech sector, even though there is still a lot of potential for disruptive innovations in the business-to-business sector. According to Schumpeter, disruptive innovations are technologies that restructure the market by way of new products and services. Take, for example, GPS, smartphones or electric motors: Old technologies are replaced by new technologies. Schumpeter calls this creative destruction. It is a form of destruction that creates something new at the same time. This does not mean that incremental innovations are unimportant. But the big changes usually come from disruptive changes.
When I think about the future of Germany, there are only two ways forward for the economy: the transformation of established companies and the creation of new companies. However, the transformation of established companies is a difficult endeavor. Their DNA is geared toward legacy, the continuation of old successes and little willingness to experiment. Spin-offs, and I mean innovative, research-intensive spin-offs, are probably easier to achieve. Of course, they also often need industrial partners at a later stage, but first and foremost it is applied research that is transferred to the commercial world. Alongside the established, transforming SME sector, Germany also needs a deep-tech SME sector 2.0. This is why I put so much emphasis on spin-offs that come out of science and research.

In September 2023, CISPA launched its own Venture Capital Fund to support innovative start-up businesses. As a digital expert and former manager, what do you think is CISPA's role in promoting structural change in the Saarland and beyond?

Regardless of whether the research is done in academia or the private sector, a center like CISPA is the nucleus for a region's restart. Structural change basically means that the old economy is replaced by a new one. Saarland has been in the midst of this upheaval for a very long time. When we talk about CISPA spin-offs, it doesn't just mean that a new regional ecosystem for innovation is being created. Because if they really are fast-scaling start-ups, then we are clearly talking about a supra-regional impact. Especially in the field of AI and digitalization, good companies can quickly establish themselves internationally.
I always talk about three things: brains, capital and culture. CISPA's brains, together with the capital of the CISPA Venture Capital Fund, provide at least a foundation. The culture of transformation at CISPA and in the region acts as a lubricant. These three things come together: CISPA has great people, the brains are there. It has a great culture of innovation and it has the capital. I think the CISPA Venture Capital Fund is a key to scalability.

"CISPA has great people, the brains are there. It has a great culture of innovation and it has the capital. I think the CISPA Venture Capital Fund is a key to scalability."

In your keynote at the CISPA research festival on September 16, 2023, you said that Germany was in need of many CISPAs. Can you explain what you meant by this?

We need research hubs like CISPA in the field of genetic engineering, in the field of nuclear fusion, in the field of maritime technology, in the field of space flight and in many other fields as well. I read an interesting study in the American Economic Review that it is almost an automatic development for an innovation ecosystem to diversify. On the one hand, digitalization is a domain, something vertical, but on the other hand it is something horizontal that influences every other technology. I would estimate that Germany is in need of sixty or seventy such innovation hubs. Saarland itself is very digitally oriented. There is a good foundation there. There aren't that many lighthouses in this country, but CISPA is certainly one of them. A lighthouse needs an ecosystem around it. This includes the council, industry partners, start-ups, high-speed Internet and venture capital.

CISPA understands itself as an elite training ground for cybersecurity experts. You used to hold senior management positions at various DAX companies, where you were responsible for education and personnel development. What motivated you to found the Lufthansa School of Business as the first corporate university in Germany?

I always worked at companies that were no longer the old one and not yet the new. In other words, they were companies that needed transformation drivers. In my reading I came across the idea of the corporate university. I then took a look at the former Motorola University and at General Electric. None of this existed in Germany. I came to the conclusion that it is possible to design and establish social architectures that really are transformation drivers. I created a "bottom-up" habitat that also contained "top-down" training grounds. The interesting question is: Does top-down transformation actually work? In the large companies I worked for, I saw time and again that transformation was at the same time a bottom-up and a top-down process. The Lufthansa School of Business was intended as a transformation driver for Lufthansa, a combination of habitat and elite training ground. Basically, the same idea is behind CISPA. Lufthansa is a global company, CISPA is a research core with supra-regional impact. All my life I have concerned myself with transformation drivers. As long as I was pursuing an innovation idea, I went to a lot of trouble. That is similar in research.