BERLIN – Israel may be the start-up nation, but it’s rugged, high-risk and
high-payoff model is not the only one for taking innovation from the research
lab to the market.
In Germany, where the population tends to be more risk
averse than in Israel, innovation tends to happen under the umbrella of big
industry or government-funded research centers.
Perhaps the best known of
these is the Fraunhofer Society, an application-oriented research center based
With a nearly 2-billion- euro budget and 22,000 workers in 66
institutes, it is the largest center of its kind in Europe. Among the many
innovations that have sprung forth from its halls is the MP3, the
compressed-music file that altered the music industry and paved the way for
products like the iPod.
The Jerusalem Post
sat down with the “father of
the MP3,” Karlheinz Brandenburg, at the sidelines of the recent “Innovation
Days” conference in Berlin to ask what innovation meant to him.What is
the key to turning innovation into financial success, in your opinion?
vision, effort, persistence, but also luck. There are a lot of good ideas and
good work that do not make it. The issue is not about knowledge, but problem
It’s also important not to get mired down in your own work; look
at what others are doing, and don’t be afraid to incorporate it. You also have
to really listen to the market.
Early on, an MP3 codec we were selling
was leaked for free on the Web. We dramatically lowered the price of our
encoders, and it turned out to be a blessing, because suddenly everyone was
using MP3s.In Israel we have a lot of innovators that start their own
small companies, but your team developed the MP3 in a lab. Do you regret now
having gone out on your own?
On one hand, there’s the incentives; on the other
hand, the resources and availability.
There is a law here for inventions
that if the company licenses it, the inventors have to get a share of that
So for me that’s still an amount that dwarfs my professor salary.
I liked it the way it worked out very clearly. In Germany, the innovation
environment seems to work.
The system allows professors to pick their
research topics, which is what gave us the possibility of exploring something
people said was “impossible.”So what you’re saying is that the payoff is
good enough, but you had the advantage of resources. If you had gone out on your
own, you might never have been able to develop the MP3.
was a time after its success when I looked around for funding to go out on my
own. But without a good idea it doesn’t make sense. You still need people with
an entrepreneurial spirit; otherwise it wouldn’t work.
That’s the same
whether you’re in a start-up company or in an organization such as this
one.Did you know this would upend the music industry?
Yes. I still
remember that in 1994 a British entrepreneur called Riki Adar wanted to do music
over the Internet, and when he visited us and saw the demo, he said: “Do you
know that you will destroy the music industry.” Even earlier on, I did a
calculation of silicon storage of audio a la Moore’s Law, and it became clear
that there would be a time when music stored on silicon would be better than
anything else. There are six billion devices in the world that use this
technology. That blows my mind.How well do you think industries are
dealing with the influx of new media?
There is nothing new about new media. The
phonograph and radio were both considered game changers at the time they became
They hit the record industry by something like 80 percent, but
it survived. The same things happened to the news and cinema industry with the
advent of television. What are you working on these days?
hearing: how ears and brain work together. There are ways of creating an
illusion of three-dimensional sound from just one speaker.
on it is far from finalized. What we see is that what you hear depends on not
just what you expect but what environment you are in.
So the same signal
hitting our eardrums can change in different rooms.This article, edited
for content and space, was made possible by generous funding from the Goethe
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