Thyssenkrupp recently made the headlines for the multibillion-euro sale of its lucrative elevator business to a private equity syndicate. Shortly before this transaction, the global engineering conglomerate’s head of IP shared with us his insights into how IP works at Thyssenkrupp, and on the company’s numerous innovations.
Leaders League. Could you talk us through some of the different technology Thyssenkrupp is developing?
Stephan Wolke. We build chemical plants, fertilizer plants and cement plants; submarines and surface vessels; stairlifts, and elevators that move not only upwards but sideways – under our MULTI brand. These enable you to use much less elevator space in very high buildings; you’re not limited by the rope. You can go higher than a kilometer in one elevator.
Another example is our emissions-free cement and steel production. We use any gases produced to produce chemicals as well as more steel.
There’s also our oXeanseeker, a mini-submarine that looks into the sea to see what fish are swimming in a particular area, and transmits the information to fishing boats so they can catch the right fish – avoiding any potential penalties for catching the wrong fish. The fishing data can also be used to create more comprehensive maps of the oceans, which can have many uses – for the military, for instance.
Finally, we have shock absorbers for cars, which could be very useful rental car companies – they could use data from shock absorbers to build an impression of how a given car has been used.
"Our job is to create the IP using in-house patent lawyers or external IP law firms – whichever is more efficient"
How do you decide what IP is most important to protect, and how do you form strategies to protect it?
It’s not the decision of the IP department but of the business units. I set in place an operating process – every three months, the head of R&D and the head of marketing and sales of a given business unit sit together for two hours and decide from a technical perspective which inventions they want to protect, and in which jurisdictions. Our job is to create the IP using in-house patent lawyers or external IP law firms – whichever is more efficient.
What trends have you noticed in terms of the validity and infringement of tech patents in Europe?
We are not in biotech, semiconductors or 5G, so it’s a little quieter on the infringement side for us. But as a company we are moving towards much higher digitalization across all areas, during which we must ensure we don’t infringe the IP of other players in the digital world, but also that we participate in the right IP pools – Avanci, for example.
Do you have much insight into the current climate for both investment and disputes regarding innovation in Europe?
Regarding investment – not in detail, since we are not a venture capital firm. But there is quite an active scene – we get quite a lot of ideas from startups, and are active in the EU’s Beyond Horizon initiative.
When it comes to disputes, though I can’t go into too much detail, we’re engaged in a lot of infringement disputes in China. We’re having to get more and more active to sue those infringers.
What predictions do you have for the next five years in innovation?
For us, there’s the use of AI for generic tasks, and transportation between and within cities. We’ve been making forecasts and predictions for these kinds of logistics solutions not only for the next five years, but for the next 30 years.