The charitable foundation of Germany’s richest man wants to make sure that Europe has its own homegrown answer to OpenAI, as the region seeks to establish technological sovereignty in an era of rapid AI advancement.
The Dieter Schwarz Foundation — founded by the billionaire businessman and former CEO of global supermarket chain Lidl — has chosen leading German AI company Aleph Alpha as a strategic partner for a planned AI innovation park in the city of Heilbronn in southwest Germany to help the company supercharge its research and give it all the resources it needs to develop its technology. Aleph Alpha makes its own large language models, similar to OpenAI’s GPT-4.
“From a company structure level, Aleph Alpha is similar to OpenAI, but it is just not on the same scale,” says professor Reinhold Geilsdörfer, the foundation’s CEO. OpenAI has more than 1,200 employees and has secured $12.3bn in funding, while Aleph Alpha has 61 employees and has raised $141m.
“This was the reason we decided as a foundation to support Aleph Alpha over the next 10 years and give the business a chance to be a competitor to OpenAI,” he adds.
In addition to supporting education, the foundation has been plugging serious cash into creating an attractive startup ecosystem in the city of Heilbronn — though it does not invest in companies directly.
It has also poured a reported $2bn into building the aforementioned AI innovation park, known as Ipai, which will accommodate 5,000 brains by the time it is constructed in 2027. Researchers from Aleph Alpha will work there on-site in the future too, but the foundation is coy about whether or not it is financially committed to the company.
The region of Heilbronn-Franken, a short train ride away from Heidelberg and Stuttgart, is known for its large — and often not very tech-savvy — players in the automotive, chemical and logistics industries, which need to adopt new technologies like AI to ensure they don’t get left behind. The economy in the German Southwest grew stronger in 2021 than in Germany as a whole; accounting for 15% of the country’s total economic output, according to the state statistical office.
The Dieter Schwarz Foundation is heavily investing in AI, cybersecurity and quantum computing, as these sectors are key in ensuring Europe’s long-term competitiveness, says Geilsdörfer.
To ramp up research efforts in the region, the foundation has assembled a number of institutions on the university campus in Heilbronn, including the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and research organisation Fraunhofer, to encourage further cooperation between different ecosystems across Germany.
And it hopes that one day, universities such as Stanford, Oxford or ETH could have a presence on the campus too.
Attracting international students and companies will involve making Heilbronn as attractive as the tight knit and multicultural ecosystems of Munich or Heidelberg, says Geilsdörfer. He cites TUM, where 44% of students come from abroad.
“We want to be the place that a person from Eastern Europe or the US would think of if they wanted to study and improve their research and access resources.”
Research isn’t the only thing Europe as a whole should be focusing on however: “it’s important to actually publish the research and build companies out of it too,” says Geilsdörfer.
“In Stanford, they don’t talk about how many papers they've written that five people probably understand, but how many startups they’ve founded. And this is the step that now needs to happen in Europe,” he adds.