The Initiators of the endowed professorship for Optical Technologies in the interview. (Images: Maik Scharfscheer)
The Initiators of the endowed professorship for Optical Technologies in the interview. (Images: Maik Scharfscheer)


An Idea with a Future

The new endowed professorship for Optical Technologies has been successfully launched. We interviewed Ralf Niggemann, spokesman of the Board of Trustees, Andreas Tielmann, Managing Director of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, IHK Lahn-Dill, and THM Vice President Prof. Dr. Klaus Behler on common goals and convictions.

W3+: Can you remember when and how the idea of an endowed professorship for Optical Technologies at the University of Applied Sciences in Central Hessen came into being?

Klaus Behler: There was a kind of initial spark in 2012 when Hessen’s Minister of Justice, Integration and European Affairs, Jörg-Uwe Hahn, visited companies in the region. Talking to entrepreneurs, he suggested that an optics professorship should be set up here. We readily picked up on this idea.

W3+: So it was politics who provided the actual impetus?

Andreas Tielmann: In a way, yes. The entrepreneurs and associations had been wanting to strengthen education and research in the area of optical technologies for some time. Together with Wetzlar Network and the THM we took the initiative to concretize possibilities for a professorship of this kind. Most significantly, we did it together and were therefore able to form the basis for broad support.

W3+: So the seed fell on fertile ground, you could say.

Ralf Niggemann: The saying: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” is not always true, especially when you consider that the optical companies in our region have different profiles and strengths and therefore quite different goals and visions. We talked to them all separately until we found out their requirements, which we then distilled into something like a common interest.

W3+: One common interest of the companies in an Optical Technologies professorship is the impending shortage of qualified staff.

AT: That’s true – the qualification of young professionals so urgently needed by the region’s highly specialized industries is indeed a key concern. Nowadays, companies are no longer only competing for the best products and technologies, but also for the best specialized personnel. Reputed group companies in the optical industry like Leica Camera, Leica Microsystems or Carl Zeiss Sports Optics are popular employers. The less well-known industrial optics businesses have a harder time finding staff, even though they often rank among the leaders of their particular sector.
So by setting up the endowed professorship we want to promote the next generation of professionals in our region, and also sharpen the awareness of students and graduates from further afield for the region’s optical competence. It would give local companies a tremendous edge in the competition for the best specialists if we could educate them at the THM and keep them in the region after they graduated.

KB: The cooperation between industry and academia is vital for the future of Central Hessen as a hub of technology. Apart from the focus on learning and teaching, the endowed professorship and the application center are also being set up with an eye to the future of the region and its innovation potential. Therefore, research will play a major role. The companies are expecting and expected to derive direct benefit from this arrangement.

W3+: There is a large group of supporters from the private sector. Did you expect such a positive response?

RN: The involvement of the companies is not surprising, but really phenomenal. Once we had the first donors on board, the ball started rolling. We are particularly pleased that our support is not coming from a generous few, but from a wide base of donors. Besides Leica Microsystems, Leica Camera and OptoTech Optikmaschinen, we’ve been able to persuade Schölly Micro Optics, Schmidt & Bender, Heraeus, Werth Messtechnik, Carl Zeiss Sports Optics, Schneider Optikmaschinen as well as IPG Laser and Minox so far. Meanwhile, the funds promised by the companies have reached a total of almost 200,000 euros a year over a period of five years. Other companies have already signalized interest, too – new donors are naturally still welcome.

W3+: The town and the state have also held out the prospect of financial support.

AT: That’s right. We have had important talks with decision-makers at local, regional and state level. Our initiative also has the express support of the Donors’ Association for the Promotion of German Science. All those involved have realized that the optics region of Central Hessen has ideal structural conditions for an endowed professorship. We will naturally be following up the positive signals from the Hessian ministries despite the change in government. At the moment, we are busy examining existing federal programs as well as programs and directives that will come into force with the beginning of the new EU funding period from 2014 to 2020. We are extremely optimistic that the great commitment demonstrated by the private sector will be welcomed and supported accordingly by the political authorities, too.

W3+: What’s special about the new endowed professorship?

RN: We want to merge academic research and education with the R&D competence of the region’s companies. The specialty of the endowed professorship is that it’s not a case of a single big business concern profiting from cooperation with the university – the smaller high-tech companies in the industry region benefit, too. The now common practice of a company or concern setting up an endowed professorship at a university has been successful in the USA for decades already. In our case, several companies of different sizes are making a combined effort to establish an endowed professorship together.

W3+: In these circumstances, isn’t it particularly difficult to define a competence profile for the endowed professorship?

KB: Our aim is not only to cover the whole spectrum of optical technologies, but also to forge ahead in the high-tech segment. To develop optical technologies further, you have to keep discovering and tapping new fields. This means that the endowed professorship is to be dedicated to basic physics that could become significant for application-oriented research. One of the main tasks of the endowed professor will be to steer this top-level research, which reaches far into the future, in cooperation with the competence centers of the THM and to act as its moderator in application-related projects with the companies. So the job profile will be complex and challenging.

W3+: You mentioned the existing competence centers of the THM – so will the new endowed professorship be virtually integrated into the current structure of the university?

KB: The competence centers for Optical Technologies and Systems, for Nanotechnology and Photonics, and for Material Sciences and IT provide ideal basic conditions for an Optical Technologies endowed professorship at the THM. The endowed professorship could focus the top level of this university research network even more on basic sciences as well as optical system technology, metrology and optics production.
A significant role will be played by the application center. It will be the heart of research activities and the central platform for technology transfer between the university and industry. Irrespective of the endowment model, the companies will be given the opportunity to conduct application-oriented projects here. We are expecting this to create a whole new dynamic, naturally associated with full discretion concerning the transfer of know-how between the university and the cooperating companies.

W3+: How and where is the application center planned?

RN: Possible locations for the application center are currently being examined as part of the university development plan of the THM. The majority of the donor companies are based in Wetzlar. The city has recognized the opportunities presented by the opening of the application center to make Wetzlar even more of a “City of Optics”. However, the project requires considerable investment. We’re talking about a total of around 4 million euros for the building and laboratory equipment.

W3+: What are the next steps?

KB: We will elaborate the competence profile for the professorship in consultation with the Board of Trustees in the spring and formulate an appropriate job advertisement. Parallel to this we will define the institutional framework for the application center on the basis of a concept project so that the endowed professorship and the application center can be fleshed out together at a later time. Its furnishing with technical equipment will then be the job of the professor and the university.

W3+: The endowed professorship and the donor commitment are intended to run for a period of five years. When does the clock start ticking?

RN: The clock is ticking already. The donors can hardly wait. On the other hand, this reflects the high status enjoyed by the new endowed professorship and the planned application center.

AT: All this naturally takes time. After all, this isn’t a project to build a memorial but to get a process moving. We’re putting great effort into this. At the same time, however, we want to be sure that this unique initial spark doesn’t fizzle out, but has a sustained effect – long after the initial five-year period. Only then can we achieve the desired effects for the companies, the university and the region as a whole.

Andreas Tielmann, Managing Director of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, IHK Lahn-Dill.
Andreas Tielmann, Managing Director of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, IHK Lahn-Dill.
THM Vice President Prof. Dr. Klaus Behler.
THM Vice President Prof. Dr. Klaus Behler.
Ralf Niggemann, spokesman of the Board of Trustees.
Ralf Niggemann, spokesman of the Board of Trustees.