An era ends—Reinhart Poprawe retires

Reinhart Poprawe with some of his 200 PhD students.
Reinhart Poprawe with some of his 200 PhD students.
(Courtesy of Andreas Thoss)

An era ended on Sunday night, June 23, 2019, when Reinhart Poprawe was celebrated in Munich for his lifetime of achievements. He retires from his positions as director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, Germany, and from his Chair of Laser Technology at RWTH Aachen University. The Fraunhofer ILT, with its staff of more than 540, is now Germany’s biggest and probably most important institute for industrial laser technology. And Poprawe has shaped it over the past 23 years.

Bringing high tech to industry effectively

A recent interview with Poprawe presented him as a very broad-minded person: A philosopher, a poet and painter, and a family man, but also a gifted teacher and a strong leader. Accordingly, the speakers at the farewell symposium on the eve of the LASER World of PHOTONICS trade fair tried to focus on just some of his major achievements.

The most obvious achievement was certainly at the Fraunhofer Institute. While the sheer numbers were impressive, it was a financial spin that made the audience think: The annual value-added tax payments of the 40-plus spinoff companies from Fraunhofer ILT is about four times the public funding for the institute itself.

With one or two exceptions, these startups were successful from the beginning and do very well today. This leads to Poprawe’s second notable achievement working with his staff and students at the Fraunhofer ILT: Bringing together research and industry in an effective way. Have you ever seen a scientific/engineering institute where companies pay to rent a small lab in its experimental hall? Within the Fraunhofer ILT, this has been daily business for many years.

But within the last decade, Poprawe raised this idea to a new and unprecedented level by successfully applying for funding for two new and connected R&D centers—one for teams from small and large companies, plus a second building for researchers. The labs in the industry building were rapidly rented when the center opened in 2016.

Part of the research team is a group with an even larger vision: At the Integrated Interdisciplinary Institute (I3), researchers from 17 institutes across six faculties of RWTH conduct research on the use of the unique physical properties of photons for technologies of the future.

This may seem daunting at first, but the fact is that technology development in the 21st century is complex, and the ideas realized in Aachen represent best practice on a global scale. The vision works and with an annual funding of 2 million Euros for up to 15 years, it has time to evolve further.

Thinking beyond: Teaching values

The main focus of the farewell symposium was actually a different one: it was about how to transfer today’s knowledge to the next generation. Poprawe excelled in this field as much as he did as an institute leader. By decision of the students, he received the Award for excellent teaching at RWTH four times
(see figure). After setting up a “Double Master’s Program” with Tsinghua University in Beijing, he was awarded an honorary professorship there.

As for what is next for Poprawe? Raimund Neugebauer, president of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, noted that Poprawe has resisted several temptations to extend his Fraunhofer engagements. New projects, such as his own vineyard, may take more of his time in the future.

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