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Start-ups drive innovation
New ideas from Germany's entrepreneurs

Almost one in ten German start-ups is in the information and communication technology sector.
Almost one in ten German start-ups is in the information and communication technology sector. | Photo (detail): © Adobe

Germany may not have its own Silicon Valley, but it has still developed into an international hub for innovative start-ups. Medical apps in particular are blazing new trails, and benefiting both investors and the health care system.

By Johannes Zeller

It is the modern dream – to earn your first million in your early 20s. A normal 9-to-5 job won’t cut it though. The only real options are the right lottery numbers, a large inheritance, or a truly fantastic idea. That idea then needs to be realised, which is exactly what the Nitsche brothers Maxim and Raphael from Berlin did. They spent three years developing the Math42 learning app bought by US-based Chegg for around 20 million euros in autumn of 2017. The two are still in their early 20s, and their app has already been downloaded more than three million times.

Math42 is like an electronic tutor that takes users through equations and differential calculus step by step. Some users apparently find it easier to learn from an app created by their peers than from the teaching methods used in schools or other learning programs. Chegg plans to launch a new product based on the Math42 concept soon, and will be looking to the Nitsche brothers for some assistance.

Math42 is just one example of the innovative ideas coming out of Germany right now that start by helping users, then go on to line their inventor’s pockets.  What makes the Math42 success story so amazing is the inventors’ tender age. The start-up scene is famously young and dynamic, but at just 19, Raphael Nitsche was just half the age of the average German start-up founder. Really though, age is not the decisive factor here. A start-up’s success depends on two key considerations: the innovative potential of the idea and the amount investors are willing to put up. The market is booming right now with around 2.1 billion euros in risk capital investment – funds invested in financially risky projects like new companies – during the second half of 2017. Almost one in ten new start-ups is in the information and communication technology sector, an area with great future potential where the players are constantly outdoing each other with exciting new innovations.

From a start-up to a standard treatment

“Made in Germany” start-up innovation are causing an international stir in almost every sector, from desk sharing (Teamviewer) and hotel price comparison (Trivago) to foreign exchange product trading (360T). Germans often lead the innovative pack in digital health care applications, and total investment in eHealth was over 150 million euros in the first half of 2017 alone. The benefits both the entrepreneurs involved and the health care system as a whole.
 
In 2012, when 34-year-old Jörg Land founded Sonormed in Hamburg, his goal was to develop an app to treat tinnitus. Over three million people in Germany live every day with a constant, unrelenting hum or ringing in their ears. Land and his team hoped to provide suffers with a new treatment method via their smartphones. The Tinnitracks app was released in 2015. It uses the latest findings from neuroscience to optimize users’ favourite music to a frequency that calms the overactive nerve cells in the brain’s auditory centre that cause tinnitus. It has become a widely recognized treatment option, and most health insurance companies will cover the manageable costs.
 
Sonormed worked with headphone-maker Sennheiser and the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Medical Technology. The company recently made the cut as one of the top 100 innovators in digital health listed by the Journal of mHealth. Jörg Land and his co-founders Adrian Nötzel and Matthias Lanz had to win others over to their idea to achieve this level of success. Even before Tinnitracks was complete, Sonormed was recognized as the most innovative start-up in the health care sector by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology at the South-by-Southwest Conference in the USA. Though it was still in development, the concept swayed the award’s initiators and jury. This international attention made Sonormed attractive to investors and grant programmes, which gave the Tinnitracks success story the traction it needed.

Better code for the world

Entrepreneurs and investors are not the only ones keeping the start-up world spinning on its axis. Without code there would be no apps, and software development is a billion-euro market in no small part because of the start-up boom today. If you consider that programmers spend an average of about half their time on repetitive tasks – like manually rewriting code after removing a bug – the time-saving potential is obvious. This is where the Munich QuantifiedCode start-up comes in.
 
Founded in 2014, the platform for analysing and automating code was adopted into the Microsoft Accelerator start-up program the following year. The open-source software aims to provide users with better code in less time by assisting programmers in finding problems and fixing bugs. It learns as it goes too, using past experience to optimize future performance. Time savings increase as the program evaluates massive amounts of data to improve its own operations. Today more than 20,000 programmers worldwide have gotten involved, and their numbers are growing.
 
Germany may not have a Silicon Valley, but pioneering trends in medicine, open-source projects and million-dollar deals with US corporations are driving its development into an internationally respected hub for start-ups and innovation. 

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