Meet the Speakers – Florian Ullrich, Ph.D. is Business Developer at InnovationLab, based in Heidelberg, Germany
InnovationLab is a world-leading specialist in printed and organic electronics and covers the whole range from research through development to industrial production of individual functional print products.
How long have you worked for InnovationLab, why did you choose to work there and what’s your current role?
I have been part of the InnovationLab team for a relatively short time as I only joined last October. Back then I was looking to move into business development and from my studies I knew that InnovationLab is a great company with great infrastructure and a lot of potential. After studying for a Ph.D., I wanted to work on applications that were more concerned with real-world problems and was looking for a position in which I could use my scientific knowledge, but didn’t have to dive too deep into details. The role as a business developer is very versatile and involves growing our brand and building relationships with new and existing clients worldwide. I’m really enjoying it.
How would you describe InnovationLab in terms of its structure?
The concept is rather unusual as we are primarily a joint venture (our shareholders are the University of Heidelberg and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) on the one hand and the leading companies SAP, Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG and BASF on the other), but at the same time also an independent company. Originally, we were founded in 2008 as a research and development platform to promote cooperation between science and industry, but know we offer a complete solution through our R&D and manufacturing infrastructure. Recently, we were able to expand our industrial production capacities through a second production site which has been built by our partner Heidelberger Druckmaschinen. In addition, we also started offering consulting services to allow as many customers as possible to benefit from our in-depth expertise about materials, processes, printing technologies and the market development.
Your background is in research – can you tell us where you studied and are you still involved with this?
Actually, I’m physicist by training. I completed a BSc and MSc degree at Heidelberg University with a focus on solid state physics and organic electronics – by the way, this is where I had my first contact with InnovationLab – nine years ago. Afterwards, I completed my doctoral degree primarily at the University of Darmstadt and in part in the US at Princeton University. My thesis concerned basic research on organic solar cells. Now, I am no longer directly involved in research as I am focusing on business, but I do have a lot of contact with our scientists and engineers. And it’s certainly helpful or even necessary to understand in depth what they do as there are a lot of touch points with my role. I need to know exactly what we’re capable of and have to be able to explain their work to our customers.
Is Germany particularly advanced in printed electronics and how much potential do you see in this sector, particularly with sensors?
Printed electronics is definitely an area in which Germany is strong, with specialised businesses and major universities such as Heidelberg, Braunschweig, Karlsruhe and Darmstadt located here. In terms of potential of printed sensors, the opportunities are vast. Pressure sensors are the most widely used, but there’s also an increasing demand for temperature, humidity and other sensors. At InnovationLab, we focus on tailoring sensors and sensor systems to the particular needs of our customers and this means we are often involved right from the initial concept. A crucial step is also the embedding of the printed sensors into cloud systems. This is where I see enormous potential.
What sectors does InnovationLab target?
There is a large variety of fields of application, including automotive, healthcare, retail and logistics. We also expect a growth in areas like textiles – for instance, we are currently creating lightweight heated jackets and work with printed batteries that are both small and rechargeable. With the growth in IoT and industrial 4.0 applications, there is a rising demand for affordable sensors.
It was announced recently that InnovationLab has made retail safer by producing a social distancing ‘smart mat’ – can you provide the details of this?
The sensor foil itself was something we had already developed. But with the pandemic and the need to support people in complying with the social distancing requirements, we adjusted it in a way that has actually proved to be extremely useful and timely. The printed electronics mat is easy to install –rolled out very quickly and operating with a simple traffic light system. If someone is standing on the mat the light switches from green to red, signalling to the next person to maintain the required distance until the light is green again. It uses around 8,000 sensors at 1 cm intervals. A further benefit is that it does not involve a camera-based system which is a clear advantage in terms of personal privacy.
How has InnovationLab coped with the COVID-19 situation, were people able to work from home?
Yes, the majority of our staff did work from home and it went very well. Yet, we needed some people on site as we had deliveries to clients, which we were able to manage safely. Overall, everyone quickly adapted to the challenges. Although it is good to be able to slowly return to normality at the workplace, it is also good to know that we are able to work effectively, even when working at the office is not possible.
Can you provide us some details on your presentation and also, do you think that virtual events are going to become increasingly popular?
I’ll be covering the topic of printed and organic electronics, what it means to print electronics and how this can be done in a cost-effective manner and, most importantly, how printed electronics will be beneficial for topics like digitalization and industrial IoT. I’ll illustrate the latter statement in more detail with some use cases, including how sensors are transforming a large warehouse into a digital system with autonomous inventory and stock and picking control. And for such systems, the number of needed sensors is tremendous. However, as we operate with a second manufacturing site together with Heidelberger Druckmaschinen now, I am confident that we will be able to cover the demand – already today we can print the area of a complete tennis court within an hour and that’s not even close to the theoretical limit.
As for virtual events, the pandemic has demonstrated how valuable they are, even though they will never be able to replace “real-world” events with all the benefits of personal connections.
How do you manage to switch off from work?
I love sports, whether running, mountain biking or skateboarding. Being active and outdoors is the best way to free your mind from any work-related pressures.