Mr. Dietz, between 1985 and 1987 you worked as a project manager at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Information Technologies, which you also co-founded. What brought you to Steinbeis at the time?
The contact to Steinbeis was forged through the rector of the Furtwangen Technical College at the time, Prof. Dr. Johann Löhn. He’d been appointed by the then minister-president, Lothar Späth, to act as the government commissioner for technology transfer. Through the Steinbeis Foundation, he revived an organization that allowed ideas to become a reality. Working alongside Prof. Dr. Michael Schönemann in 1985, the opportunity came up to open the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Information Technology (TZI) in St. Georgen, which was one of the first technology transfer centers in Germany. It was a fascinating time, but also pioneering.
In 1987, the Steinbeis Enterprise became what is now called GFT Technologies, through which you successfully drive innovation in the software and IT industry. GFT now has a successful track record going back nearly 30 years. Which technological developments have had most influence on your work during this time?
When we started out with GFT there were no such things as “personal computers,” let alone the mass-use product. The only people who knew how to work with them had programming knowledge. The advent of graphical user interfaces to interact with computer systems (as simply as with an Apple computer) in the early 1990s was a technological milestone that also had a decisive impact on GFT. Our first product was released in 1990 and it was called GRIT. It was a programming environment for exactly such user interfaces. There was a similar impact with the start of the Internet age around the year 2000. The World Wide Web revolutionized the way we find and share information. It has massively simplified access to international markets and significantly accelerated the rate of innovation. For GFT, just as much as our customers, this meant that we had to keep on challenging our existing business model and keep it moving forward.
This is exactly what we’re experiencing at the moment with the digital change that is sweeping through our industry and society – just on a much broader scale. Everything can be networked with everything else. Companies have to recognize the threats and pick up on the opportunities by daring to do “something new.” Our aim at GFT is to run with you on the road into a new digital era.
The aim of your current project, which is called CODE_n SPACES, is to set up Germany’s first “innovation campus” in Stuttgart. This will allow you to achieve transfer through startups. Perhaps you can give us a sneak preview of this exciting project!
At the end of 2014, GFT moved into its new corporate center in the Fasanenhof district of Stuttgart. It’s a five-story building which has been completely refurbished and redesigned to meet our needs – so we have our own staff restaurant, a visitors’ center and high-standard event rooms. Parts of the building are intended strictly for GFT employees, but the rest will be completely dedicated to the topic of innovation, going by the name CODE_n SPACES. The area covers around 2,000 square meters (21,000 sq ft), with enough space and facilities for startups and innovation teams working to establish companies that will work together on the digital topics of the future. We’re creating an ecosystem for avant-garde thinkers, in which ‘The New’ can flourish. For example, for the startups, we worked with the designer Tobias Rehberger to come up with an architecture and utilization concept that matches the requirements of young, creative companies. It allows for spontaneity and improvisation, but at the same time it portrays a businesslike image. We also want to promote dialog on topics relating to future digital solutions, with panel discussions, lateral thinking events and workshops, with opportunities for startups to network with big companies and champions of industry, technology, design and politics.
The focal topic in Stuttgart will be what we call “Future Mobility” – i.e., travel and transport, working with partners like EnBW. But we won’t stop there. We’re also planning more CODE_n SPACES in cities like Barcelona.
Your CODE_n initiative has become a unique setup in Germany, something that has also caught people’s imagination outside Germany. What’s the underlying idea, and what’s the emphasis for 2015?
Businesses have to work on innovation at a much higher rate these days, just to keep pace with the dynamic nature of market developments. On an international level, there are so many exciting startups, continuously challenging the status quo with their creativity, daring and energy, and they can partner with established companies and add valuable impetus during the transition to a digital age. We first held an innovation competition for new companies in 2011, when we looked for the world’s most interesting startups. Since then, we’ve taken the top 50 entries with us to CeBIT each year. For five days, we have a 5,000 square meter hall (53,800 sq ft) to host a unique event complete with a conference program. It’s amazing to see the pioneering spirit taking shape when so many inspiring young entrepreneurs come together in one place for that length of time. And yes, the concept has been really well received. Last year, we hade 450 applications from 60 countries. There was media coverage on CODE_n in 50 countries. During the five days of the trade show, 17,000 visitors came to our hall. We hope to top this in 2015. This year the theme will be the Internet of Things (IoT) and digitalization of the industry and society. We’ve been working with the designers Clemens Weisshaar and Reed Kram to create an experiential world that really brings these topics to life in all facets.
A passionate entrepreneur himself, Ulrich Dietz is always on the lookout for business opportunities and new ideas. The engineering graduate founded GFT in 1987 as a driver of innovation in the software and IT industry, where he now oversees the central disciplines of strategic planning, marketing, communication, investor relations and internal IT.
GFT Technologies AG (Stuttgart)