From coal to cool

Thanks to its excellent university, international transport links and super bright, skilled workforce, this former mining city in Germany’s Ruhr valley has been transformed into a hive for hi-tech firms.


  • Dezember 2009


  • Jens Sundheim

When pop-singer Herbert Grönemeyer wrote a song about his hometown Bochum a few years ago, he said the city was “no beauty, all grey from work”. But today, this former mining town in the ruhr valley, western Germany, is the greenest city in the region and a cultural, service and research hub buzzing with hitech companies and six universities.

The city’s highly trained brain pool makes it a natural place to develop all sorts of things from solar-powered cars – world-leading expert Professor Friedbert Pautzke is based here – to pharmaceuticals and smartphones.

New firms have emerged here, such as Scienlab, which produces batteries for electro-cars, and satellite technology firm VCS. Vaillant Geosysteme develops cutting-edge systems for producing geothermal energy. The start-up was founded in 2008 as a joint venture between a university spin-off and heating companyVaillant.

Research in motion (RIM), the firm behind BlackBerry, started a research and development facility in Bochum in early 2008, taking over about 90 staff from a Nokia production plant that had closed down.

“RIM came to Bochum because of our excellent labour market with lots of skilled staff stemming from quite a tradition in telecommunications industries including brands like ITT and Graetz,” says the city’s head of business development, Heinz-Martin Dirks. “But mainly they came because of the university.”

The Ruhr-Universität, which is one of the country’s biggest and strongest in terms of research, is the prime reason why Bochum made the leap from coal and steel to smartphones.

“We benefit from the city’s promotion of future technologies as well as Bochum’s central location in the middle of Germany, which gives us access to a big market,” says Sven Lange, Vaillant Geosysteme’s CEO. The atmosphere is attracting major companies of all sorts: GEA Group, a global solution provider for food and energy processes with a revenue of more than €5.2bn in 2008, moved its headquarters to Bochum in 2005, creating about 1,000 jobs. And

when aral merged with BP, the new company’s head office also was relocated to the city.

It also helps to have two major airports nearby, at Duüsseldorf and Dortmund. But instead of the big city life, many of Bochum’s designers and technicians mingle with students as they walk to work on a leafy campus. “The area around campus almost looks like parts of Switzerland,” says Bernhard Krausse, who runs the RIM offices.