This is the future: Scientists, startups and artists at Falling Walls Berlin

Falling Walls 2013
Falling Walls 2013

Falling Walls 2013

At one point, Cynora CEO Tobias Grab came close to giving up. “I was sitting at home on my couch and said to my wife, maybe at this point we should end,” he said. Instead, he paid a last-ditch visit to a contact to ask for investment. “I said to him – you can do it now or do it never because otherwise I’ll just put it down and find a job.”

Now, two venture capital rounds and two patents later, Cynora is the winner of the first science startup competition at Falling Walls 2013, a high-powered exchange of ideas held each year on 9 November, the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

This year, the event brought about 750 international guests to a revamped water pumping station near Berlin’s River Spree. The concept: invite the world’s most brilliant minds to discuss the “next walls to fall” in science, technology and society in talks of just 15 minutes a pop. Amnesty International’s Salil Shetty talked human rights. Nanobiosym‘s Anita Goel presented Gene RADAR, a mobile tool that can test for any disease with a genetic fingerprint “at a price a hundred times cheaper than anything else on the market today”. Child-like robots, artificial leaves that could be used to power fuel cells, video games that could help treat schizophrenia… 

“It’s too fast,” Cern Director-General Rolf-Dieter Heuer complained before his own explanation of the “god particle” Higgs boson. But how else to fit it all in? 

Art and entrepreneurship made it into the mix. In the first session, Ai Weiwei (via video link) and Olafur Eliasson unveiled new collaboration Moon, a vast, glowing digital chalkboard. “Creativity defies boundaries”, the website reads – unhappily emphasised when access to it became blocked in mainland China within 24 hours of launch.

To enter the startup competition, companies needed to be nominated by either an academic institution or a venture capital firm – 21 made the final cut, including 10 from Germany and two from Berlin (TissUse and artificial blood developer CC-Ery).

Cynora, nominated by Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, took the top spot for figuring out how to replace rare iridium – used in smartphone displays – with copper. One possible application: a material that could be wrapped around cans so a logo is illuminated upon opening. “We’ll break the wall of printed electronics and if we’re not able to do that, we’ll at least cover it with printed light,” Grab joked.

His talk led neatly to a presentation by Dan Schechtman, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2011 and has taught entrepreneurship at Israel’s Technion for 27 years.

Advising how to replicate Israel’s success as a technology startup nation is a tall ask. Schechtman emphasised a few staples: good education for everyone, government support for startups, a free market economy, freedom from corruption and an appetite for risk. “We have to teach them that failure is OK. Start again. By then you are an experienced entrepreneur – I trust you,” he said. 

Follow your goals with tenacity is a message from the event that applies across disciplines. In the end, what gives you the feeling of triumph is overcoming your fear,” Grab agreed. “I had fear to talk today but now I feel great.”

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Image credit: via Falling Walls

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