A liberal economist with a keen interest in biotechnology, Germany's sole Minister for Innovation has deep pockets and ambitious goals for his state .
An energetic forty-eight year-old man with short, hedgehog-like hair and a firm handshake, Andreas Pinkwart is a banker and economist by background but he has a soft spot for science. In fact, as a schoolboy, he finished second in the "Jugend forscht" chemistry competition in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). By the age of 20, while still a student, Pinkwart became a member of the Free Democratic Party and later headed the party chairman's parliamentary group in the German Federal Parliament. There he developed his staunchly liberal views, which in Europe stand for individual liberty, for government "as limited as possible and as extensive as necessary" and for low taxation and minimal state intervention.
After becoming a banker at Dresdner Bank he studied economics in Münster and business economics in Bonn, where he also obtained his PhD in 1991. Pinkwart's academic focus was on entrepreneurship, turnaround and new public management, but he kept a keen interest in politics and became chairman of his party in NRW in 2002. In the same year he was elected to the Bundestag where he remained until his appointment as innovation secretary in 2005.
His innovation policy has three intertwined elements: funding, freedom, and competition. Pinkwart hopes to create an environment in NRW that will attract the brightest people. "To accomplish this goal," he says, "we need an innovation initiative, and we have set ourselves ambitious targets. By 2015 we want to be the German state with the biggest investments in research and development." He immediately spotted a considerable obstacle: "Investments in R&D in NRW in 2003 were well below the federal average." The natural response would be to simply spend more money, but not for Pinkwart. "First of all," he says, "innovation needs freedom, not red tape and paternalism by the state."
This doesn't mean that Pinkwart is not spending money. In 2008, universities in NRW received€500 million more than they got in 2005, and the funding of innovation grew by 25 percent to almost €600 million. Four areas—biotechnology, nano- and micromaterials, energy research, and medical technologies—will each receive €100 million in funding, while another €50 million has been earmarked to create networks between science and business. "If you want to increase knowledge to create innovative products, it is wise to focus on already existing competences rather than funding broadly," Pinkwart states. One example is in medical biotechnology. "In this area, we are focusing on neuroscience and dementia," Pinkwart says. 'We tried hard to win two new research institutions to be set up in NRW, and we succeeded." The Max Planck Society will set up its Institute for Biology of Aging in Cologne, and the Helmholtz Society will base a new German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Bonn.
A strong believer in competition, Pinkwart has designated a considerable part of NRW's research funds be spent on contests. The BIO.NRW competition, for example, offers €25 million for white biotechnology products. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as well as universities/research institutions setting up industry collaborations located in NRW are invited to submit proposals.
Reform of Germany's inflexible university laws has been another target. "We were losing all our world famous researchers to the US or Singapore as soon as they had reached their retirement age. They were simply kicked out of their positions in Germany and were offered great posts abroad," says Pinkwart. "Can you imagine my shock," he continues, "when I heard that a Nobel laureate in this country not only was forced into retirement, but had to work as a €400 jobber sorting the mail of his successor to be able to keep keys and access to his former institute? That day, I swore this has to end."
Universities in NRW now have full autonomy over budgets, the election of chancellors and appointment of professors. In fact, it is one of the most liberal set of university rules in Europe, according to Pinkwart. He stresses that it is also aimed at promoting excellence among young researchers. "This is a particularly important area," he says. "At present, 25 percent of all German students are studying in NRW. While we want to increase this number, we also care about the quality. We fund exceptionally gifted young people and outstanding young researchers. And we want to bring in more people from abroad, students and scientists both."
Last but not least, innovation needs capital beyond funding provided by the government. While Pinkwart admits that NRW lacks a cluster of venture capitalists, he stresses the readiness of the state's big companies to invest in innovative start-ups via corporate financing, venture funds, or other vehicles. In addition, there are private investors and seed funds of the state-owned NRW bank and local banks.
Ultimately, that's where Pinkwart's passions meet: Science to develop new ideas, money to move things around to new products, and an environment that can make it all happen.