Alumni-Spotlight - Edeltraud Leibrock, Fraunhofer IFU

"Future is a good Word” - Dr. Edeltraud Leibrock, Alumna of Fraunhofer IFU

© Privat
Dr. Edeltraud Leibrock is "proud to be part of the Fraunhofer Community, because Fraunhofer uses innovation and cutting-edge technology to move forward."
© Privat
The former Fraunhofer Institute for Atmospheric Environmental Research IFU is conveniently located for skiers and mountain enthusiasts near the Kreuzeck and Alpspitz mountain railways. Today it belongs to the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology KIT as Campus Alpine.

She loves opera, mountains and a range of sports, and this physicist has been helping businesses with her IT expertise ever since she was 16 years old. It all started with a holiday job working on programs for capturing production data and analyzing cement at a lime manufacturing plant near Regensburg. For her doctoral dissertation, the triathlete swapped Regensburg for the Alps, so that she could perform atmospheric research work at the Fraunhofer IFU in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. After that, she was appointed to the executive board of KfW Bankengruppe as CIO, where she was responsible for IT. But as a Fraunhofer alumna – and now also the 1,000th member of the Association of Fraunhofer Alumni – it is only natural for her to ask - #WHATSNEXT. Since 2016, as partner and managing director of Connected Innovations, a digital and KI consulting firms co-founded by her, she advises enterprises across all sectors on the complex issues concerning digital transformation. And she has launched "Der Utopische Salon", to discuss social impacts of digitization, artificial intelligence and globalization. She also sits on the supervisory and advisory boards of two fin-techs, Accelerest und Loanboox as well as Suntrace, a company that is introducing solar power to developing countries. Despite all of these responsibilities, she is still finding the time to network at the 2019 Alumni Summit in Berlin.


Ms. Leibrock, IT runs like a thread through your enthralling biography – but the mountains repeatedly come to the fore. Is there a peak you could describe as your favorite?

Yes, of course. And in an Alpine context it's an extremely unspectacular one. At 1,452 meters high, the Great Rachel in the Bavarian Forest National Park is more like a mountain for taking walks on. But it has a quite special significance to me. As a child, I frequently went hiking with my dad, and standing there on the Great Rachel we'd often look across the Iron Curtain towards Czechoslovakia. "How this clearing appeared over there, and look there’s a house – did someone live there?"; these were some of the things I wondered about at the time, and I thought I'd never find out the answers. Even the binocular we always had close to hand didn't help much. And then a miracle took place. The border was opened up and we simply hiked over there, just like that. Unbelievable! So much has changed since then. But the traces of forest die-back and the bark beetle are still very evident. The deep, green mysterious forest of my childhood no longer exists, but it's being succeeded by new, vital and varied types of flora. A line by the group Passenger invariably springs to mind: "Don’t cry for the lost, smile for the living …" – and the kobolds have definitely survived, of course!


The National Park administration has left the forest to its own devices since the 1990s, accepting that thousands of trees would die – they were disrupted as it’s called today. The fact that new life repeatedly emerges between the tree stumps, creates a nice image for a landscape of innovation, but is there really enough new growth taking place in Germany?

I think that we are actually much better than we always tend to believe. We have a huge amount of innovative strength, great ideas, expertise and implementational skills. But we have become a little too fearful. "Future" was once a good word – and, also today it is not yet the scarce resource that we would sometimes deem it to be. So, we shouldn't worry so much about what could possibly go wrong, but instead help build the future of mankind with verve, enjoyment and optimism. Of course, there's always a risk in this, but anyone who merely wants to conserve what has already been achieved - as impressive as it may be – is bound to fall behind. Progress simply doesn't work like this. What does worry me is that here is Germany, the land of startups and engineering, there is an increasingly broad skepticism about technology spreading among us, often without any real basis in fact. It is indeed true that worldwide, we are confronted with great challenges, such as climate change or the question of society models in a digital and AI-controlled world. The world's need for energy will continue to grow, and there's no stopping artificial intelligence. These are just two examples, but they show that we need sound technical solutions and there's nothing to be gained from sticking our heads in the sand. If we here in Germany and Europe want to continue to assume a leading role, then we have to accept and shape this stewardship. I am proud to be part of the Fraunhofer Community, because Fraunhofer is doing exactly that, using innovation and cutting-edge technology to move forward. This is something that attracts fantastic young people and is also appealing to the best scientists from all over the world – a true locational advantage. We have a great deal more to offer than simply becoming the world's most picturesque industrial museum!

© Privat
"Don't moan about it, just do it. Instead of waiting for politicians to roll out the red carpet, just shoulder the responsibility yourself. But who should do this, if it's not us, and when, if not now?"
Like the IFU in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the measuring station on the Zugspitze belongs to the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (IMK-IFU/KIT) as an Alpine Campus since 2002. Edeltraud Leibrock supervised atmospheric measurements there and on the Wank during her time at Fraunhofer as a doctoral student.
Like the IFU in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the measuring station on the Zugspitze belongs to the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (IMK-IFU/KIT) as an Alpine Campus since 2002. Edeltraud Leibrock supervised atmospheric measurements there and on the Wank during her time at Fraunhofer as a doctoral student.

Numerous experts in the Fraunhofer Alumni Association are currently working for innovative enterprises.

Yes, I believe it is the joy in researching, experimenting, in engaging in inter-disciplinary thinking, connecting loose ends, constructing better solutions that unites us as Fraunhofer people – whether it be in a major corporation, in small and medium-sized enterprises or in startups. In every segment of industry, we have fantastic companies here in Germany, leading the way in their fields, and market-leaders some of which are the very best in the world. Entrepreneurship and a startup spirit are part of this, regardless of whether the business was established one year, ten years or a hundred years ago. Can we maintain this advantage? Yes! Policymakers have to create the right framework, but ultimately the world of politics is also merely a reflection of society itself. And here I come back to the point I made previously - don't moan about it, just do it. Instead of waiting for politicians to roll out the red carpet, just shoulder the responsibility yourself. Who should do this, if it's not us, and when, if not now?


Otherwise, we are in danger slipping from being the world's leading exporter to becoming an industrial museum?

Well, I don't want to tempt fate, but we did not only take good decisions in the past. Take renewable energy for example. In 2017, the developing and emerging economies for the first time overtook the industrial nations in renewable energy growth. On the one hand, this is highly pleasing – viewed from the perspective of global development. On the other hand, there is no excuse for falling behind and not making use of our technological know-how. We must not dismantle every technology in which we are leaders. This is not the way to stay world champion. That's not the way to stay on top.

It tells us a lot, moreover, that China is still listed as an emerging economy in these statistics, but this view has long become obsolete, arrogant and dangerous. The world has changed a great deal in the last 30 years, and China is on the way to becoming the new technological global power, our most important trading partner and, at the same time, a new competitor on the global market. The weight has shifted quite some time ago.


Is there sufficient space for innovation? Should there perhaps be public assistance for innovative enterprises?

It's not about the State itself becoming a direct investor, but it can be responsible for creating a beneficial or less beneficial framework. This begins with education and training, and with an innovation-friendly, entrepreneurial climate. This is where tax relief schemes and other forms of funding can contribute to promoting citizen participation and cooperative models. Institutions such as Fraunhofer definitively play a significant role too, acting as a link between university-level research and industry.


What should enterprises do to ensure they avoid being broken by the next storm?

Always stay tuned! Right now, there's not a single sector or business that doesn’t need to engage intensively with the issues of data integration, automation and artificial intelligence, and with the question of how to shape their business models of tomorrow? Engagement does not mean constantly implementing the latest hyped, but you need to be in a position to make informed decisions. It's no longer enough to perform a new strategic study every five years; this has become an ongoing process. Everyone is affected, from the automotive supplier, who is continuously confronted by global competition in any case, to the traditional commercial bank, which used to be able to operate somewhat more conservatively – or they thought.

The Zugspitze with its 2962 meters altitude offers good conditions for weather observations. However, Germany's highest mountain is less inviting for work. The average temperature is minus 4.8 degrees.
The Zugspitze with its 2962 meters altitude offers good conditions for weather observations. However, Germany's highest mountain is less inviting for work. The average temperature is minus 4.8 degrees.
Apart from KIT, other institutes also conduct research on the mountain. The German Weather Service, for example, is monitoring the weather automatically since 2018.
Apart from KIT, other institutes also conduct research on the mountain. The German Weather Service, for example, is monitoring the weather automatically since 2018.


Through your previous positions as a member of the executive board of KfW and as CIO of BayernLB, you come with a great deal of experience from the world of finance.

The automation of processes is currently a major issue, particularly in the banking sector. And theoretically, this is quite a simple thing to achieve, with the emphasis being on "theoretically". Banks, but other companies too, often still run a large amount legacy IT along with numerous manual interfaces. Banks were early starters in building their own IT systems, for payment transactions or loan processing operations, for example. Because these are key systems in operation, it's no easy task to replace them with new software. In addition all inventory data has to be migrated. And by doing so, you are taking existing data models from old silo structures and importing these into new systems. This is like expensively repainting an old house, when it really needs to be renovated completely, or rebuilt. It doesn't really make sense. And there are much more intelligent approaches available today, and not just in the banking sector. With the assistance of graph databases, we can integrate and organize data without losing its context, and without having to physically migrate it from the source systems. Using data mining tools, we can analyze the real processes and data flows, and identify exactly where inefficiencies lie. We strongly recommend performing such an analysis before every IT renewal project. It helps to avoid unpleasant surprises. We can bridge manual interfaces simply and cost-efficiently by using software robots, or we automate entire process groups with expert systems. Neural networks solve optimization problems and help identify patterns in data, such as detecting fraud, for example. At Connected Innovations, we help companies in every sector master this transformation process, and not just from the perspective of processes and IT, but also organizationally and culturally.


So how did you get into IT?

At the age of 15, by chance I got hold of a Basic programming manual from Siemens, and I was really intrigued. I worked through it with pen and paper. I hadn't yet got a computer at that time. But then a little while later, I got the chance to apply in practice the things that I had learned, namely in a lime and cement plant, where I was more or less the IT department, really incredible! I wrote my diploma thesis in physics and biology on the subject of nuclear magnetic resonance. And for my doctoral thesis, I went to the Fraunhofer Institute for Atmospheric Environmental Research IFU in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Today it's known as the IMK-IFU, and it’s part of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology KIT. My project was the mass spectrometric analysis of ozone precursors in air. This was the dissertation with which I was awarded my doctorate from the Technical University of Hamburg in 1996. As a post-doc at NOAA in Boulder, I constructed an ion trap mass spectrometer, and I used it to take air measurements from an aircraft. Even though all of this work was primarily focused on measurement-technics, the analysis of complex data would be inconceivable without IT.


As a mountaineer, this must have seemed like paradise to you – for back then, there was still the research station located on the Zugspitze mountain.

Yes, I must admit – the location of the IFU in Kreuzeckbahnstraße in Garmisch was indeed extremely appealing! From my office window, I had a wonderful view of the mountains. And if ever I found it difficult to make progress in the lab, a quick uphill run helped me gather my thoughts. After that, I always knew how to get things going again. Apart from the station located on the Zugspitze, there was also one on the Wankgipfel mountain peak. I took numerous measurements up there. Of course, we transported our measuring devices and equipment there by cable car, but running up that mountain to get to work, was tremendous!


What did you take with you from your time working at Fraunhofer?

It was a fantastic time for me! I learned an incredible amount, and all the time knowing that we were working at the cutting edge of important environmental and climate-related issues, so we were making a significant contribution to society as well. I was able to apply my methods while on various measurement campains, including in the Black Forest and on the Polarstern Expedition in 1996. It's precisely this combination of theory and practical application that I always found so exciting. And with my outstanding colleagues, it was simply a great community. Those are unforgettable memories. And Garmisch-Partenkirchen became like a second home to me, because it was at the IFU that I met my husband, Bernhard Mayer. He's a native of Partenkirchen, and while at the IFU he worked on detecting and modeling radiativ transfer through the atmosphere. He wrote his doctoral thesis on the subject. He's a physicist too, and continues to work in atmospheric and climate research, and is holding a chair at the LMU in Munich. And, of course, both of us still love to visit Garmisch-Partenkirchen as often as we can.


But your next steps were outside of the world of research.

Yes, after my time at the IFU and in Colorado I joned Boston Consulting Group where my focus was on IT strategy. Those projects were also extremely exciting, and one of them took me to Beijing for a few months. Many of my projects were in the banking area, working directly with banks or their IT service providers. After almost ten years in consulting, it was a logical step to move to the operational side of things, first as CIO with BayernLB in Munich, and then as a member of the executive board of KfW Bankengruppe in Frankfurt. As now things have come full circle with Connected Innovations, first because this is a place where we combine new technologies, consulting and application, but also because the north-south connection - having an office in Hamburg, but my private life centered in Munich - has proven to be a very successful arrangement!


Let's come back to your hobbies again. You are interested in paleoanthropology and love the opera.

You’re really well informed! Yes, you're right. I'm fascinated by paleoanthropology. I think we have to understand our origins as human beeings, where our roots are, and why we are the way we are, this enables us to take better decitions for the future and to see things more calmly and more rationally.

As for the opera, it's like immersing myself in another world - a colorful place of senses and imagination. I can forget everything else around me when I'm there. My favorite opera is Mozart's Don Giovanni. The music is simply brilliant.


Thank you very much for such an inspiring interview, Ms. Leibrock.