MotionLab.Berlin – Hardware Innovation Hub & Makerspace

Talking hardtech with Larissa Zeichhardt

WHY ARE WE HOLDING BACK?

We’ve all wondered what the future of mobility could and will look like. We have and still continue to endlessly speak about it and maybe you’re like me and are tired of hearing about this topic. Not because I don’t think it’s important but rather because I am eagerly awaiting the results and hence do not want to talk about it anymore. 

 

Rather, I want us to move from talking to doing. I want us to drive innovation and create impact. 

 

Therefore I was all the more pleased to have had the chance to talk to Larissa Zeichhardt, who alongside her sister, is the Managing Director at LAT Gruppe and supervisory board member of Berliner Wasserbetriebe. A woman who not only “just gets things done”, but who is also at the forefront of the mobility movement. 

 

In our interview, she talks about 

In the interview series “talking hardtech* – tell us how you’re going to change the world!” I have the opportunity to talk to people who – just like us at MotionLab.Berlin – work on or with innovative hardtech solutions. Our conversations are open and lead to all sorts of interesting discoveries and insights. You never quite know what you are going to get but one thing is certain: hardtech will play an important role in our future and it is all the more exciting to see how decision-makers in this field are driving and supporting hardtech innovation

* Hardtech: Hardware component combined with an innovative technology.

Talking Hardtech Larissa Zeichhardt
Interview May 2021

Larissa, nice to have you here. Let’s start with a short introduction. Can you give us a short description on what LAT Gruppe is and the topics your company focuses on?

We are a family owned, over 50 years old business and we work in and around the rail tracks on everything that involves electricity and signaling lines, but also on the digitalization of the train tracks. We work in the transport carts themselves – so in trains, trams and busses, where we implement safety surveillance systems like CCTV, passenger announcements and displays. We basically work on all the hardtech you can see in the vehicles.

You mentioned that you have a strong focus on digitalization and innovation. So I’m assuming that hardtech plays an important role in your industry? What impact do these hardtech innovations have on your industry?

Yes, we are definitely a hardtech business! We had a significant shift in our industry going from analog to digital, which involved a change of network capabilities and the physical exchange of a lot of components. It started about 10 years ago and the transmission is still in progress. For us, the field of work has changed. To keep up with new tech, many of our employees had to have further education. The shift to lifelong learning keeps us on our toes, which helps. But it definitely was a lot of work to simply exchange those systems.

>>THE MOBILITY SECTOR HAS GONE THROUGH A REVOLUTION, A POSITIVE ONE<<

What do you think are the next big opportunities in your industry and within the digitization process of trains?

Let’s go back to what we’ve changed already and how that has been documented, because that has a really big impact. When we talk about logistics and mobility, all infrastructure changes need to be documented, in case of a system failure or a broken cable. On our building sites we document everything with an app in real time. We also install surveillance devices for predictive maintenance, definitely a growing field of business.

 

It‘s fascinating that these systems know exactly what is happening with the hardware. We press one button and insert real time data in our documentation, then we can assess the operating system. It speeds up everything, because we have a predictive factor attitude and know exactly where to look at when something breaks. That makes it a lot easier to follow through with the maintenance work on site or in the vehicle.

What impact does this have on the user?

For the passenger, everything is becoming more punctual, also more predictive, more user friendly. You know which connections you can take, and you can travel more modally. You do not have to decide to just use the train or just the bus, you can change within the city, from your shared car to a shared bike, to the bus. And in an ideal world, you should know the timing of all possibilities and your connection should improve. This would be a really connected city. And I think what we do right now and where the influence of hardtech plays a key role, is that we change the system to make it happen. Open data transfer suddenly becomes possible. Before, in an analog world there wasn’t much data to exchange. So in essence, that means that data is becoming a key player. Because now we have it and we can use it.

>>NEW PLAYERS IN THE INDUSTRY INCREASE THE PRESSURE AND MAKE US TRY HARDER!<<

You mentioned that feeling of a revolution in your industry. What do you see as something that still needs to be improved?

I think we have to change the way we think. And the way we use and try out new things. At the beginning of our little positive revolution, everyone was against everything. It was the main thing to just say “It won’t work, let’s not even try it.” And that’s slowly changing. And I think it is thankfully to new players, because they increase the pressure. So when they come in, and they grow to a critical size, they increase the pressure in a positive way. They make us try harder. Especially the big operators like Deutsche Bahn or BVG in Berlin, but also all the other public transport operators are becoming much more innovative and experimental. Not in the sense of risking security, but in the way how to try new things, and that they are ready to experiment to reach better results.

>>IN HARDTECH THE CHANGES ALWAYS TAKE TIME, BECAUSE YOU ACTUALLY NEED TO BUILD SOMETHING<<

To be honest, it actually feels like there’s so much more going on than I expected. I always had the feeling that the train industry is rather slow in adopting or evolving since it is rather an old industry.

In hardtech the changes always take time, because you physically need to build something. So from the outside, the industry might look slow. But they are also huge systems we’re looking at. Look at Deutsche Bahn for example, they operate a network that covers an entire country and connects to multiple others. It’s not so easy to change things, because they have to cater many stakeholders and think longterm. And that’s why sometimes it takes more time. But we are also learning that we can experiment in little fields, we don’t always have to rethink the whole system.

>>I LOOK AT COUNTRIES WHERE DATA IS HANDLED DIFFERENTLY. MORE FREELY<<

When you look at other countries, is there anything you would like to adapt to?

One thing that is different in Germany to many other countries, is the way we handle data and the laws around the way we can handle data. Especially when we’re looking at new technologies like video surveillance, the access and handling of data can sometimes slow down the process and it is also not very attractive for companies and startups that want to try new systems. I look at countries where data is handled differently. More freely, where we have the room to experiment. One also has to understand that of course the laws we have in Germany are designed to protect us. Unfortunately they are not in line with technological progress. I believe in things like privacy by design for example, to incorporate the concept fully, we need to revise our regulations.

 

When we talk about modernizing hardtech, we have to think about test areas that work in public transports, not only in closed systems. And we need a good internet connection. There are some good developments for example, in Kenya they provide very good WiFi throughout the country, because they started to work with Loon Balloon. And we do not even look into that technology. And I’m saying that, while working in a company that puts cables into the ground. But our ground can’t be the only option. The sky’s the limit, right? So why are we holding back? 

 

I also admire how third world countries do it. I know it sounds ironic, but they look at modern technologies to make data flow possible. And they don’t hold back on integrating it.

That’s a really cool way to see it. What do you see as a reason for this slow adoption?

Sometimes we’re so full of ourselves thinking we live in a modern world, that we don’t look at other countries and how they fix things. And in fact, we can learn a lot from countries that have problems and that need to solve these things right away. Because they don’t have the luxury of making slow choices that we are used to. And when it comes to data connectivity: Loon is one of my favorite examples, for sure. I am a big fan of some of the uncomplicated ways mobility has been solved in other countries. And then I always look to developing countries, because, as I said, they don’t have the luxury to hold back. 

>>I GET INSPIRED BY COMPANIES THAT ARE NEVER SCARED TO ADJUST THEIR BUSINESS AS SUCH<<

So now we have been talking about other countries, but I am sure there are also certain companies or people that you draw inspiration from in your work?

MotionLab.Berlin!

Haha that’s great to hear! Anyone else? 

If we look at companies that inspire me, it’s usually those that change their business model completely. Even if I think it’s tougher to be an old company and reinvent yourself over and over again. But of course, it is also tough to start something completely new. I really admire that.  

 

One in my industry that really inspires me is KONUX. They keep making their product better and better. And they had a really tough time getting into the German market. Andreas Kunze the CEO of KONUX for example, when you tell him that something won’t work he comes back stronger and stronger every time and he will make it work or find a way around. Even big companies had to wake up because of them. They’re moving around the giants just by being so great. 

 

I also like FLIXTRAIN, because they challenged the way train operators traditionally run and this is pretty brave in my industry! And everyone said to them for years: “You’re not gonna have trains on track, that’s not going to happen, because the regulations are tougher than in the bus world.” But the same thing here: They just kept going. They’re never scared to adjust their business as such. They’re ready to sacrifice everything and keep changing the idea to achieve their key goal.

Talking Hardtech Larissa Zeichhardt

>>MOST OF THE TIME WE ARE SO BUSY SEEING ALL THE REASONS WHY SOMETHING MIGHT NOT WORK, THAT WE DO NOT SEE THE CHANCE IN FRONT OF US<<

Thinking of the whole train or rail industry in Germany, you said that one always has to think nationally, but you learned to think in small steps, and that it doesn’t have to be everything all at once. That you start to break things down and simply solve the respective problem. Can you give me an example?

Yes, that’s true. I learned that while working with Nicole Grummini, Bereichsleiterin/ Division Manager U-Bahn from Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVG). I told her that I want to see privacy by design in the underground and passenger counting via videos. And her idea was that we could use the shortest subway line we have on our map (U5) and we just try it out there. She knew it was not necessary to solve the whole problem in one project. Picking the shortest line on the grid allowed us to test and try, we even got the financial support of a great BMVI initiative, the mfund

>>IT IS ALL ABOUT INSPIRATION AND THE CHANGE OF PERSPECTIVE<<

Since we are talking so much about startups, let’s jump to our startup section! 

 

When you became a member of MotionLab.Berlin you wanted to enable rapid prototyping and product development as well as encourage innovation and out of the box thinking. How else do you support these innovative thoughts?

Let’s start with MotionLab.Berlin. When I first came here, I fell in love with the place and I thought: “This is what I need as inspiration, the cultural shock for everyone in my company to see how different other companies work.” Besides this, the spirit here is very positive. I wanted to catch some of that spirit for my team and I wanted them to feel it.

 

It is super beneficial in two ways: 

  1. They come here, and they always have to acclimatize first. But then it’s a good bridge to new technologies. 
  2. And I think it is all about inspiration and the change of perspective. 

You need new impulses and you can thrive from someone else’s thoughts. It is about disruption but not in an excessive way. Just to get some other thoughts, other views, other ideas on how to solve things. I think that’s really good. It is the power of diversity. That’s why every team needs to be set up with completely different people. Even though they might never be the group that hangs out after work, they’re definitely your most productive group at work.

>>IT JUST TAKES A SMALL CHANGE TO BE ABLE TO INTEGRATE PEOPLE FROM ALL AROUND THE WORLD<<

Do you see a change in the way people work together in your industry?

Yes, it is very new to our industry. General mobility, but especially when you come to the train track, it used to be white men, 60 years plus, no diversity. But also 15 – 10 years ago, with the same change from analog to digital and from the technologies we used to work with to new hardtech parts. Suddenly, there was an awareness, maybe even because of the collaboration with younger companies that they got the idea of: “We need to focus on the user and to even understand what the user sees. And therefore we need to have different people in our team.” For a few years now, Deutsche Bahn recruiting is talking a lot more about diversity. Not only about gender. But also about nationalities. They didn’t even have English as a company language. Come on! It just takes a small change to be able to integrate people from all around the world. And it has a positive effect even on us smaller construction companies, where you definitely have the old male traditional role. I’m definitely an exception. But it did catch on, because we saw how successful they suddenly were with their teams and how much better we worked together. I’m a big fan. I don’t think it works in any other way!

>>WE MAKE SURE TO LEARN FROM THE STRONGEST LESSON YOU CAN GET: FROM A POSITIVE EXAMPLE<<

Is there something that you do to keep your team diverse?

We started very early on, when I started working in this company. I am an electrical engineer, but I came from packaging production. So when I first entered the mobility sector, I had a lot of challenging situations and my thoughts were like: “Am I the only woman?“ I had no network. And that’s how a network started. It came by chance. I met some other girls and they started women in mobility and I joined it. And I think that played a big role in the industry that showed that even in trackwork women play a key role. 

>> WE OFTEN CHOOSE TO MISUNDERSTAND DATA AS SOMETHING THAT CAN BE USED AGAINST US<<

To jump back to startups and train tracks. Are there any big challenges that you’re currently facing that could be solved by startups? Or are you looking for an innovation that needs to be developed?

Haha, good one. I have a lot of challenges!

Well, that’s the beauty of mobility, it’s never done, right? So we can always optimize it. As I said I am a little bit worried about the whole data topic. I’m very fond of open data. And I think we often choose to misunderstand data as something that can be used against us. The different modes of transport don’t want to share their data in Berlin because it’s infrastructure related and it could be a target. I’d like to look on the other side, the beneficial side. And I would really care to solve that. To actually share data without fear of misuse. That’s why I talked about privacy by design before. It would be great if we could interlock data from the personal. It would be nice to just know how many passengers leave a train to enter the bus at the next stop. And that has nothing to do with who you are, we just want to know how many. So if we could focus on how we could interconnect data from the personal and use it more freely, that would be a huge benefit. 

>>STARTUPS SHOULD LOOK MORE INTO THE TOPIC OF DATA EXCHANGE, PREDICTIVE MAINTENANCE AND SUSTAINABLE BUSINESS SOLUTIONS<<

So for all the startups, reading your interview, what would you say are the most trending areas to look into at the moment?

I mean, we all have the same problem, right? We need a strong data infrastructure, a reliable network connection. And I don’t think cable in the ground will be the solution, as much as I love that as a business model for us.  It’s not the only way to solve that problem and we need to start really thinking out of the box. It can’t be just up to Elon Musk and his team to play with satellites and give us some data connections. There’s smarter ways to solve it. I don’t know why Loon hasn’t made it to Germany. (Oh no I do. Actually, it is related to our laws), but startups should definitely look into that area. That’s a huge field and everyone talks about data at the moment. The second one is predictive maintenance. We’re still trying to solve problems in many complex ways and simple tools for predictive maintenance might be a big one in mobility. And also in “connected tools’. There are so many parties involved in the maintenance process. And it’s not just the company that operates, but also different owner parties and different people who fall out of the whole construction work. 

And then of course everything that makes our life more sustainable, especially the energy part is worth looking at. There must be such high stakes in that.

What criteria do you use to select startups for cooperation?

Ironically, it’s mostly on a personal level. I like when teams are able to work together and when there is a fit with my team. Also trust is a big thing and I like positive energy. I do love nothing more than when someone talks about their idea! If someone is just so tired, because it’s the fifth startup and they’re just doing it for the exit, then it’s not so much a fit for me. But if I am certain of a person, that I would believe in them even if I don’t know if the technology is going to make it. That is probably the higher bid for me. When we choose people to work with us, they have to stand behind their product and they really have to believe that it is going to change something to the positive. We have promised each other in our company that we only work with sustainable companies. No drugs or weapons or anything like that. And it’s easy to laugh at that. But those are huge industries and people invest in them. But we don’t. It is a simple rule, we want to make the world a better place, not the other way around.

That’s a great way to see it! So for all the startups that want to become your partner. What is the best way to get in touch with you?

Great, I’m looking forward to it. Email is definitely the best way!

>>GETTING FUNDING IS SOMETIMES
HARDER AS A WOMAN<<

Is there any hot upcoming startup that you have your eye on already?

Well, we have invested in a few startups and my favorite is Lindera. They are a female founded healthcare startup and they created a movement analysis. I really like their vision and how fast they are growing. I love how the founder (Diana Heinrichs) puts her team together, because she has never been scared to employ people that are better than her, which is amazing. She used to work for Microsoft, but she never got the credit for being a tech girl. But she totally is!

I try my best to support female founders in getting funding. I know that sometimes it is harder as a woman. They face questions that have nothing to do with the business plan, like: “What happens if you become pregnant?” And I really ask myself: Yes what? What happens? Your organizational skills improve and your team gets to take over for some time.

In the past investors would rather not go for female founders, but it is changing. I am a fan of the work VdU is doing to connect female founders with female investors. 

You’re the managing director of LAT and you are active in a lot of different fields that have a lot of impact on the public, or on the people that are working with you. How are you using that influence? What is the message you want to send out into the world?

I’m really lucky, because I have a motivated, great team that always has my back. So I am just the messenger. I’m also fortunate, because I work with my sister and I only have time to talk about what we do, because she does it! And that is a very critical combination. I think that’s one of the key things: You have to be authentic and actually live up to what you ask from others. You can not ask your team to do things you wouldn’t do yourself.

>>YOU CAN NOT ASK YOUR TEAM TO DO THINGS YOU WOULD NOT DO YOURSELF<<

Can you give me an example?

Sure. We just moved to another office. And everyone had to help. But then if the team is helping out on a Saturday, then that means I’m carrying things too. And it comes down to very little things like that. If I see that the floor is dirty, I will clean it. And it’s not about doing that job every day, then you’re incapable of leading, but when it needs to be done, everyone has to be ready to do it. Maybe it comes down to the fact that you appreciate everyone no matter what their job or background is. No one is a better person, just because of their education.

>>YOU CAN SOLVE EVERYTHING WITH EDUCATION. EVERY WAR, EVERY FOOD PROBLEM WE HAVE. EVERYTHING STARTS WITH EDUCATION<<

If you had all the resources in the world, what would you innovate?

I would innovate something in the field of education. I love what Verena Pausder does with „Wir für Schule“.

With education, you can solve everything. Every war, every matter, every food problem we have. I am convinced: If we solve the problem of education, we solve the problems of the world. But we forget that a lot. And it isn’t necessarily about innovation. It is more about organization. 

Before we come to the last question, I’d love to ask you something personal, because that question came to my mind the second you entered MotionLab.Berlin. How do you keep your energy this high? The moment you enter this big space, you are so present. It’s fun to talk to you. It’s inspiring. Is there a secret? Maybe a long yoga session in the morning?

Haha I wish! Thanks for the compliment, first of all, but I don’t know. I guess I have good charging stations, it’s very important that you rest and that you do sports. I exercise a lot, because I need to get my mind free. But I have low points too. And I think everyone does, that’s just human. And sometimes at the end of the day, I just collapse and I need a whole bar of chocolate to even just get to my bed. So it’s a good mix of everything. I’ve learned with time that I need to calculate those breaks ahead of time and not when I’m completely burnt out. Also I am taking a lot of inspiration by talking to people that are inspiring. From discussions. 

 

And besides this it’s fun to walk in here. I mean, it’s very hard to come into MotionLab.Berlin and to be uninspired. You walk in and it is bursting with energy. So for me, it’s very easy when I am here. I guess I am able to suck that energy up. I see that energy and for me it’s magical and I can recharge all my batteries immediately.

>>I WISH I COULD MAKE MORE OF US SEE EACH OTHER ON EYE LEVEL<<

That’s so good to hear. Maybe we should appreciate that more. 

 

The last question for today is already hidden in the title of the interview. 

Dear Larissa, would you please tell us how you’re going to change the world?

That’s a tough one, I mean the world is a big place and I wonder if I can change it. But for sure in my little ecosystem. I do think that appreciating the ones, who do the hard work, is important. The unskilled workers. I would love that to be more of a topic. They need more presence and need to be seen and appreciated, because they do a lot for us. They get work done. And sometimes in our society, I feel like they’re forgotten. I think we have 70% of our workforce that we don’t see, because they’re unskilled. But they are doing important jobs to keep our world moving. Maybe if I could make more of us see each other on eye level. Because it doesn’t matter where you come from, or what you do to you have an appreciation for an available skill set. And it’s less about Math or German or if you had good grades in school. It’s more about what you do. Just because I see a lot of wrong comes from it. Someone wears a suit or drives a big car and feels great or better than others. It’s not about that at all. 

 

And I’d like that change for my industry, because the people that make the trains work, are the ones that put the trek on the ground! And everything else comes after! It is the same with great digital solutions. They are only possible, when you have the high tech in place. Everything should be appreciated equally, not one more than the other but equally.

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