Text: Tim Schröder
The Max Planck Society conducts basic research. That is its task. At its institutes scattered throughout Germany, astronomers listen to the echo of the Big Bang, anthropologists try to understand the growth of the Homo erectus brain, and materials scientists, crack propagation velocity. The researchers get to the bottom of things. They want to explain the world, and sometimes they unearth findings that change our view of the world. “Free and independent” is how their work is to be. That is what the Statutes stipulate.
And indeed, some research projects appear to be so free, independent and, at the same time, so far removed that they seem almost ethereal, like the cosmic dust clouds in which new stars are born – which, incidentally, is likewise a topic for the Max Planck researchers. But that is just one side. After all, the Max Planck Society produces more than just concentrated knowledge. It also produces numerous patents and inventions with practical value, as well as ideas that drive business development and form the basis for new products that benefit many people.
What is probably the most impressive invention of this kind has since reached a ripe old age: a patent application for Flash (Fast Low-Angle SHot) was filed in 1985. At the time, the publication and patent application struck manufacturers of magnetic resonance imaging scanners around the world like a thunderbolt. These devices, abbreviated MRI scanners, excite hydrogen atoms in the body and, based on their echoes, calculate images of the organs. In this way, diseases can be identified from outside the body, without an operation.
Back then, the usual instruments took more than an hour to image individual sections of a patient’s body. Thanks to a new measuring method, the Flash technique cut this time down to just a few minutes and was so fast that, for the first time, it was possible to capture moving images of the heart – a true sensation.
“This development was so dramatic that, from then on, no manufacturer could live without it,” says Jens Frahm, head of the former Flash team at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, “and of course that was an exceptionally good market position for us.” But it would be years before the scientists would reap the rewards of their development. They first experienced their very own business whodunnit with Flash.