Forschung in Hamburg - © mit Dr. Arik Willner (CTO / Leiter Technologietransfer und Ausgründungen, DESY) - © Christin Apenbrink

"A la carte" problem solving possible at DESY

European XFEL creating new opportunities for commerce - experts to help start-ups build protoypes

The third edition of “12min.COM – Cap’n’Collars” saw Dr. Arik Willner, Chief Technology Officer Director of Technology Transfer and Spin-offs at DESY, take to the stage on Tuesday (September 19, 2017) and ask the audience: “What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of DESY?” As one of three 12-minute keynotes held during the “InnovationsCampus” by the Chamber of Commerce Hamburg (HKIC), Willner focused on how commerce can profit from the recent opening of the world’s largest X-ray laser European XFEL in Hamburg-Behrefeld.

“Particles,” says someone in the back row while somebody else in the front shouts “Behrenfeld“. Willner stops the guessing, saying: “When I play this game, people usually say: ‘you do something with the universe.’” The answers are not wrong, says the physicist: “At DESY, our foundations are rooted in the question where we actually come from. What did the universe look like immediately after the big bang? How did today’s components of nature i.e. particles develop?“

Understanding atomic level of systems

Most of DESY’s research in high-energy physics with elementary particles has been underway in Hamburg-Behrenfeld since 1960. Researchers use large-scale facilities to explore the multifariousness of the microcosm – from the interactions of tiny elementary particles and the behaviour of new types of nanomaterial to biomolecular processes that are essential to life. “As physicists, we try to understand the atomic level of systems in order to manipulate them.” However, the everyday work of scientists at DESY is often quite abstract. Now, companies face the challenge of using fundamental research to their advantage.

After about eight minutes, Willner seizes a wooden box to demonstrate DESY research’s objectives. “To ordinary people, this is just a crate, but for a scientist, it is something exciting.“

European XFEL – a new era in X-ray light

X-rays are done at DESY to demystify the “secrets of wooden crates” among others. “We accelerate particles in electric fields to nearly the speed of light and bring them to a magnetic course. That makes the particles roll…. electrons radiate light when they roll. We send that light through the box.” Algorithms make the object and contents visible. An imaginary duck proved the hidden treasure in Willner’s box – and gave the audience an idea of far bigger secrets now unveiled at DESY. “We can uncover how mechanisms function in our nanocosmos,” Willner explained.

A new era has dawned with the recent opening of the European XFEL. “We can take photos and shoot films of the nanocosmos with European XFEL. That means that for the first time we can show how a chemical reaction proceeds.”

“Problem solver” for many sectors

Mathematicians, physicists and biologists as well as technicians, engineers and mechanics work on such tasks at DESY. “We offer companies the perfect ecosystem because we are a problem solver à la carte,” said Willner. DESY has already forged alliances with many sectors including life sciences, logistics, the automobile and chemical industries. Aviation is just one example, said Willner, adding: “If lightweight but stabile material is need, we dissolve the nano structure and see what can be removed without endangering the stability of the material.”

Experts in prototype building

Industrial challenges are likely to be more important at DESY. Willner noted: “New firms emerge at DESY from our problem-solving attitude.” And the research institute is also open to fledgling companies. “Start-ups often have problems developing a prototype suited to their ideas. We are experts in building prototypes,” he added.

However, time is up for Willner now that the stopwatch has ticked down to zero. As interested members of the audience gather around him, his speech has obviously struck a note.

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Speeches at last exactly 12 minutes. The hit event that originated in Hamburg in 2013 has spread all over Germany and beyond meanwhile. The rules are simple – each participant talks about a random issue for 12 minutes maximum. A bell sounds loudly to signal the end. Then the audience has 12 minutes maximum to ask questions. Three talks per evening are held and the intermission leaves plenty of time for networking. is increasingly popular and attracting fans and in Munich as well. Six other cities including Budapest host the free events, which anyone can attend. The organising team does not make a profit, as the series of events is the reward.

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