Interview with Sabine Brünger-Weilandt
A Fresh Breeze at FIZ Karlsruhe
By RICHARD POYNDER
Founded in 1977, FIZ Karlsruhe is one of the three partners responsible for the sci-tech online service STN International. The German-based not-for-profit organization also produces a range of specialist sci-tech databases and runs the FIZ AutoDoc full-text delivery service. Sabine Brünger-Weilandt, FIZ Karlsruhe’s new managing director, took office last May, returning to the online industry after a 10-year break.
Q: In the 1980s, you were head of sales at the German online service GENIOS. You subsequently worked in the insurance industry and as a consultant and then for Greenpeace Germany—where, as a member of the managing board, you were in charge of the communications and service department. Returning to industry after Greenpeace seems akin to a poacher turning gamekeeper. What does Greenpeace have in common with FIZ Karlsruhe?
A: To put it in context, I worked for Greenpeace for just 4 years in a 21-year career. However, the two organizations do have things in common. Both are not-for-profit NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and, since the product of Greenpeace is essentially information about environmental issues, the core component of both organizations is information.
Q: Your appointment at FIZ Karlsruhe is striking for two further reasons. Firstly, you are a marketing professional. Secondly, you are a woman. My perception of the German information industry is that it is full of men in gray suits and is run almost exclusively by technical people.
A: That’s true. Indeed, if you consider the 80 institutes that make up the Leibniz Association—the scientific association to which FIZ Karlsruhe belongs—there are currently only two women directors, and I am the first one in the Western part of Germany.
Q: In appointing you, then, FIZ Karlsruhe has shown itself to be a forward-looking organization?
A: Absolutely. Even perhaps a bit more attractive now. But seriously, I am convinced that our industry needs more people from outside with different perspectives. People with a business background, for example.
Q: For those who may be unfamiliar with FIZ Karlsruhe, how would you describe its product portfolio?
A: FIZ Karlsruhe is one of the three partners responsible for STN International, a partnership that was formed over 20 years ago, and which includes U.S.-based Chemical Abstracts Service [CAS] and the Japan Science and Technology Agency [JST]. STN offers over 220 sci-tech databases, including important database clusters in areas like chemistry and pharmacy, patent information, and engineering information (particularly materials science). The service can be accessed either via STN Express; our classic online host interface; or through our Internet product, STN on the Web.
Separately, FIZ Karlsruhe operates a full-text document delivery service called FIZ AutoDoc, which is available both through the STN service and as a stand-alone Web product, and produces sci-tech databases in a range of disciplines, including energy, nuclear research and technology, polymers, crystallography, mathematics, and computer science.
Q: And these databases are all on STN?
A: They are all available online, on CD-ROM, and in print. I would add that they are widely respected international sources. Our MATH database, for instance, is Europe’s leading mathematics database, and ICSD is the most important collection of inorganic crystal structure data in the world.
Q: Who are your primary customers?
A: Our key customers are still information professionals using products like STN Classic and STN on the Web. However, we are also keen to attract end users and developed our user-friendly Web-based service STN Easy with that aim in mind. We tend to focus on medium-sized enterprises in selected markets—enterprises involved in biotechnology, for instance. By doing so, we are better able to develop specialized tools and customized solutions—search assistants for biosequence searching, for example. Most of our users are located in Europe, the U.S., Canada, and Japan.
Q: You also recently launched STN Easy for Intranets. What is the strategy here?
A: STN Easy for Intranets is the next step in our end-user strategy. It allows us to deliver the high-quality STN content directly to the desktops of individual researchers in enterprises, scientific institutions, and universities via their own intranet. In this way, they are able to access the data more conveniently and through a user-friendly search interface.
Q: Who are STN’s main competitors, and what does STN offer that they don’t?
A: One example of how we are unique is that STN is the only service that offers both CAplus and the Derwent World Patents Index. Our main competitors of course are the other large hosts like Dialog/DataStar, Questel•Orbit, etc., who offer traditional bibliographic and full-text files. Then in the patent information market, we also now have the patent offices, who have begun offering their data directly over the Web for free. This is also enabling smaller information providers like MicroPatent and Minesoft to offer new value-added products based on the raw patent data.
Q: Large, traditional patent information providers like Derwent, IFI, and even CAS are clearly very worried about the activities of the patent offices. However, when I spoke last year to the CEO of Paterra, Alan Engel, he took the view that by providing their data free over the Web, the patent offices have broken a logjam and allowed into the market smaller players like Paterra, who previously would have found the entry costs too high. Are the activities of the patent offices good for FIZ Karlsruhe too?
A: They could be. We view it as a new niche, and we believe there are good opportunities for enriching the raw patent data with tools to allow users to analyze and visualize patent information. What is certain is that if database providers do not react in some way, the patent offices will become increasingly important competitors.
Q: Your predecessor, Professor Georg Schultheiss, headed up FIZ Karlsruhe for 11 years. How would you describe his legacy?
A: Georg’s motto was that you should always listen to the customer, and so his legacy is to have made FIZ Karlsruhe more customer-oriented. As a marketing professional, I am also deeply committed to the need to work closely with the customer, and I plan to build on that legacy.
Q: Customer relations aside, how important do you think marketing is for the information industry today?
A: Very important. Given the rapid technological development we have seen in recent years, the products of most information providers are now of an equally high technical standard. This means that customer buying decisions depend on more than technology alone. Moreover, due to consolidation, we are increasingly having to compete with large international players able to deploy professional marketing techniques. Marketing, therefore, is no longer a luxury but an essential ingredient to survival.
Q: And how well do you think FIZ Karlsruhe performs in that respect today?
A: Marketing at FIZ Karlsruhe is good, but it needs a fresh breeze. Doors have been opened, but there is much still to do. Not only do we need to become a lot more customer-oriented, but we also need to introduce professional customer-relationship-management tools. This is not meant in any way as criticism—simply to say that our future development must be in the area of marketing, and we must establish a more professional communications process with our customers.
Q: What other changes can we expect to see at FIZ Karlsruhe?
A: Our political mission is to support the German scientific community by providing them with high-quality sci-tech information. In order to do so—while also competing effectively with private players like Thomson, Elsevier, and Springer Bertelsmann—FIZ Karlsruhe is going to have to focus more on strategic partnerships and to cooperate more with other institutions. We cannot do it on our own.
Q: Of course, FIZ Karlsruhe’s main business is based on a partnership. Indeed, your STN partnership with CAS and the JST must account for around 90 percent of your business?
A: I am talking about additional partnerships with other organizations. We hope, for instance, to cooperate more closely with FIZ Chemie and to improve existing partnerships with FIZ Technik and TIB Hannover, the German national library for technical information.
STN, by the way, accounts for more like 60 to 70 percent of our business. Nevertheless, it is clear that we currently rely too heavily on the STN business, and so we plan to develop new business areas and new fields of activity.
Q: What kinds of new business areas?
A: One new initiative is to develop standardized “e-business modules” to assist small and medium-sized publishing houses who need customized publishing solutions. We have already successfully done this for the Thieme publishing house, for whom we designed and now operate the journal Web service Thieme-Connect. The next step is to create an electronic information system (including a publishing and archiving system, plus an electronic library), which we will offer as standardized modules that can be adapted to a customer’s specific needs and environment.
Q: There are also plans to create a new “E-Science” business. What is that?
A: Scientific organizations, libraries, and universities increasingly want to make their research freely available over the Internet, with the aim of preventing commercial publishers from restricting access to research by monopolizing content and making it accessible only on a for-fee basis. This growing interest in open access offers FIZ Karlsruhe a good opportunity to partner with scientific communities as a neutral platform, which we believe is our unique selling point, or USP.
Q: So unlike commercial publishers like Elsevier—which are surely threatened by open access—FIZ Karlsruhe could build a good business from the open-access movement, assisting research institutes and universities to create institutional archives where researchers can post their papers for anyone to access?
A: Exactly. By leveraging the competencies we have acquired from our activities in the fields of editing and distributing sci-tech information, we are in an excellent position to provide services where we do all the internal information-management work for an institution. We can also host their data if they wish.
We believe that as a not-for-profit service institution sponsored by the government, we are uniquely placed to provide such a service, and we are already talking to the Max Planck Society [an independent, renowned scientific community and nonprofit research organization in Germany that consists of 80 institutes, research centers, laboratories, and project groups].
Q: You say that FIZ Karlsruhe is a not-for-profit organization. Until recently, of course, the German government was pushing you to become fully self-funding and to behave more like a commercial organization. That has changed, right?
A: Yes. Until the late 1990s, we were being encouraged to become entirely self-funding. As you say, there has been a change of strategy. Indeed, I would describe it as a political paradigm shift.
Q: So what’s changed?
A: Our main sponsor, the BMBF (Federal Ministry of Education and Research) is very concerned to secure the supply of information to science and technology in Germany, which is vital both for the success of the national economy and for Germany’s image as a nation with a high level of scientific expertise.
Q: In a recent interview with the German information industry newsletter PASSWORD, you said, “Sci-tech information must not be put at the mercy of purely commercial interests of private investors, as recently was the case with a renowned German scientific publishing house.” Was this Springer you were referring to?
A: Yes, I meant the purchase of Springer Bertelsmann by the private equity firms Cinven and Candover. It is not desirable that research information should be entirely at the mercy of the private sector. Users do not want to be taken by surprise when certain services are suddenly discontinued or where rapid changes of ownership and subsequent strategic changes have a negative effect on information flows.
Q: Do you think that scientific research information should be distributed as part of a for-profit business arrangement, or should it be viewed as an essential part of the information infrastructure in which commercial considerations should not come into play?
A: It is a thin line. It is important to have high-quality scientific information. In order to get the necessary indexing and value add, you cannot do it all by means of nonprofit arrangements. However, I do believe that scientific research needs to be viewed as a very important economic and societal value, and governments need to ensure the necessary infrastructure is in place to better facilitate technology transfer and promote innovation. We have, therefore, to find appropriate solutions.
Q: When, in the 1970s, the German government initially created the 16 FIZes, it was precisely to avoid the monopoly threats we see today. The recent paradigm shift, then, is a return to that earlier position. It strikes me, however, that the government is trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted. With the exception of FIZ Karlsruhe, FIZ Technik, and FIZ Chemie, most of the FIZes have been closed, and there are now even graver concerns about information monopolies. But tell me, does the changed policy mean increased funding for FIZ Karlsruhe?
A: No, on the contrary. Funding from the government is currently under 20 percent, and we expect it to remain at that level. But that is positive. Previously, we were under constant threat of privatization, which made it difficult to plan ahead. The policy of the government today is that to compete better with the private players, the FIZes need to work together more, which is what we plan to do.
Q: So how does the future look for the “traditional” online industry in general and for FIZ Karlsruhe in particular?
A: We expect to see continuing consolidation. We also expect to see a continuation of the trend for content owners to become increasingly important players in the industry—not just commercial organizations like Thomson and Reed Elsevier, but patent offices too. To survive in this market therefore, it is essential to have a USP. As I said earlier, our ability to provide a neutral platform is a great strength here. We can offer our customers databases from competing information providers on a neutral platform, with a uniform design and accessible via one common interface.
Q: What is FIZ Karlsruhe’s longer-term mission?
A: Today, we are the number-one sci-tech information provider in Germany. The aim is to become the number-one supplier for scientific information and service in the enlarged Europe.
This article has been reprinted in its entirety from the February, 2004 issue of Information Today with the permission of Information Today, Inc., 143 Old Marlton Pike, Medford, NJ 08055. 609/654-6266, http://www.infotoday.com.