Things could easily have turned out differently for Dortmund. It lies in the Ruhr Valley, which played a central role in Germany’s emergence as an industrial power in the 1800s because of its abundant coal and iron ore.
But the region began a steep decline in the 1970s. Dortmund’s last coal mine closed in 1987, and the last blast furnace used in steel making shut down in 1998. In some cases, the plants were dismantled and shipped to China for use by the same companies that put the Dortmund mills out of business. Even the city’s breweries, once among Europe’s largest, fell on hard times.
Local political leaders took action well before the mines closed. The government built a technology park, which offered office space to fledgling companies, and provided entrepreneurs with start-up capital.
An early tenant of the tech park was Elmos, a maker of specialized semiconductors for the car industry that was founded in 1984. Back then, surrounding fields were still used to graze sheep. Elmos, now the world leader in chips used in parking-assistance devices for automobiles, employs 750 people in Dortmund.
“There was early investment in the right industries,” said Anton Mindl, the company’s chief executive.
To ensure a supply of highly skilled workers, the State of North Rhine-Westphalia expanded the Technical University of Dortmund, which is now among Germany’s largest universities, with 34,000 students.
It has spawned start-ups like RapidMiner, a maker of so-called machine learning software — software capable of teaching itself to do things. Founded in 2007 by alumni of the university, RapidMiner employs 30 people in a local office, where the conference rooms are named after closed coal mines.
“There is a good start-up culture,” Ralf Klinkenberg, one of the company’s co-founders, said of Dortmund.