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The eye of the tiger

Lions, giraffes, tigers, rabbits, bears, rhinoceroses and even owls can go blind from cataracts. But as AFP’s Deborah Cole reports, an eastern German firm has an answer: custom-made "contact lenses."

The eye of the tiger
Photo: DPA

The procedure is delicate, to say the least, and requires special training for veterinarians. But it has propelled tiny S & V Technologies, founded by Bavarian chemist and entrepreneur Christine Kreiner in the former communist east, to global leadership in a highly specialised field.

The acrylic intraocular lenses are implanted into animals’ eyes when their vision has clouded to the point of total impairment, and are fitted for various species, from cat-eye-sized to fist-width for rhinos.

“Cataracts generally means blindness for animals, unlike for humans,” said the head of the company’s veterinary division, Ingeborg Fromberg. “And because animals have short life spans, it means losing quality of life in a greater share of that life.”

Since its launch in 2008, the firm has fielded calls from Sea World in San Diego (a sea lion who had trouble performing his tricks due to severely blurry vision), an Australia nature park (a blind kangaroo) and a Romanian zoo (a visually impaired lioness).

The German lenses have helped turn the lights back on for dozens of house pets, racehorses, circus animals, guide dogs – literally preventing the blind leading the blind – and even wild creatures roaming nature reserves. Special lenses that absorb UV rays can also be used to help horses afflicted with “head shaker syndrome,” an excruciating and ultimately life-threatening ailment.

Although the expense of such an operation and subsequent check-ups can run into the thousands of euros, the procedure is often worth it for animals that have gone blind – and for their owners.

“When something is unsettling for an animal, when they don’t have a good sense of their surroundings, they can begin to get aggressive or unpredictable or withdrawn,” Fromberg said. That can mean the pricey investment in training an animal is wasted.

Helping bears’ libidos

Impaired vision can also blunt the sex drive, stopping animals from reproducing. The World Wildlife Fund, for example, has paid for lens transplants for brown bears in a preserve in China.

“Of course that is only one side of it – some are pets and seen as members of the family and worth any expense,” Fromberg said.

She said the trickiest part of treating big animals such as elephants and rhinos is the anesthesia.

“If larger animals lie for too long on one side during an operation then it puts too much pressure on the heart. That makes things a bit harder,” she said. “With a giraffe, for example, its head may never be lower than its heart. Every animal has its peculiarities that you have to contend with.”

CEO Kreiner, a 64-year-old from Munich, chose to set up her unusual firm in Hennigsdorf, a sleepy riverside town that has become a high-tech haven in the 20 years since the Berlin Wall fell.

On the capital’s northern outskirts, Henningsdorf also made smart business sense because the European Union and the German government both pitched in to provide one-third of the startup costs.

Kreimer has founded five different firms in her years in business and said she was drawn to Germany’s ex-communist east in the heady trailblazing mood of national unification in 1990.

“I thought at the time that it would be better to go to a poorer part of Germany rather than stay in Bavaria,” the prosperous southern state, she said. “The thinking was that it would be less bureaucratic in an eastern state, and that the subsidies would be better than in the west. It was the right decision.”

Her various enterprises blossomed and evolved over the years, culminating in the founding of S & V Technologies in January 2008. The company now even has a US subsidiary in Salt Lake City.

S & V posted turnover of nearly €2.5 million ($3.5 million) last year and Kreiner expects it to grow by one-third this year based on lens sales but also a thriving anti-wrinkle products division – for humans. She employs 32 people with another five to join this year.

“There are no global players active in this area that are able to crush medium-sized firms with a major marketing operation,” Kreiner said, adding that her few competitors – in Canada, France and the United States – were all smaller than S & V.

The main limit to her business’s growth is a lack of vets able to perform the implantation procedure, which is why she now organises training weekends for animal doctors from around the globe.

Participants have come from as far as Australia, Brazil, Japan, Taiwan and the United States to learn the procedure in the company laboratory on eyes harvested from animal cadavers.

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WORKING IN GERMANY

7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

Taking the decision to go it alone and freelance in Germany can be a daunting prospect. But, if you do it right, it can be an exciting and liberating path. Here are some of our top tips on how to survive.

7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

1. Get a tax advisor

The German tax system is complicated, even for Germans. All the associated paperwork uses the Amtsprache (authority language) which is more like legalese than ‘normal’ German, and mistakes when filling out tax forms can cause you, at best, a massive headache and, at worst, a costly fine. So it’s best that you employ someone who knows what they’re doing to help you out.

That person is called a Steuerberater (tax advisor) in Germany. They will help you register with the tax office, correspond with them and submit your tax declarations.

Be aware that, in Germany, different deadlines apply for tax returns depending on whether you employ an official tax advisor or not. If you are doing the tax return on your own, the deadline for submitting your annual tax return is earlier than if you use a tax advisor’s services. 

READ ALSO: What NOT to do when you’re freelancing in Germany

When looking for a tax advisor, a top tip is to use your network to get recommendations. Ideally, you want someone who will do more than just fill in the forms for you, but who will actually advise you on how best to manage your business finances so that you can make tax savings.

2. Keep your accounting in order

The better you keep your own accounts in order, the easier it will be for your tax advisor to compile your tax declarations and therefore the cheaper their services will be.

As a freelancer, there are a lot of costs you can deduct from your taxes – from train tickets, working materials, to meals out – so it’s best to keep hold of all your receipts and to keep them in good order.

2 euros and 50 cents lie on a receipt in a beer garden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

In Germany, you’re obliged to keep hold of receipts for two years, in case of a tax inspection, so it’s a good idea to photocopy the type of machine-printed receipts you get from restaurants so that they stay legible for a long time.

There are also a few things to be aware of when writing your own invoices. Firstly, make sure that you include your tax number. This isn’t the 11-digit Steueridentifikationsnummer that everyone gets when registering in Germany, but the 10-digit Steuernummer you get from the Finanzamt after registering yourself as a freelancer. 

Most companies won’t pay you if you don’t have this on your invoices so make sure you include it.

You should also make sure that you number your invoices properly – ideally in ascending order so that you can easily keep track of them. You are not allowed to issue two invoices with the same number and if you do so and the finance office notices, you could face an inspection of your whole accounting system.

There are numerous great accounting software programmes you can use to help you, such as Lexoffice and Sevdesk and, even if you have to pay for them, the costs will be tax deductible!

3. Find out if you’re eligible for financial support

In Germany, there are several opportunities for freelancers to gain financial support and to cut their outgoings, and its worth finding out if you’re eligible for them.

If you’re claiming unemployment benefits under ALG 1 and are thinking about becoming a freelancer, the employment office offers a special type of financial support to help you to get your freelance business off the ground.

Called the Grundungszuschuss (“foundation grant”) the payment is a six-month grant equalling your monthly entitlement under ALG 1 plus €300 towards your insurance costs can be applied for those in receipt of this unemployment benefit.

READ ALSO: Will freelancers benefit from Germany’s €300 energy allowance?

If you are engaged in some form of artistic profession in Germany – which can include journalism to pottery – you may be entitled to membership to the Kunstlersozialkasse (artists’ social insurance).

Being a member of the KSK means you only have to pay half of your health insurance and pension contributions, and the KSK will pay the rest.

4. Work out how much you think you will earn

As with starting any business, you need to have some idea of your expected earnings from the outset.

If you’re just starting out as a freelancer, or have some freelance gigs on the side of an employment position, then it might be worth considering registering yourself as a Kleinunternehmer (“small business”).

As a Kleinunternehmer, you can currently earn up to €22.000 per year without having to charge VAT and having to submit only yearly tax declarations. 

An income tax declaration form lies on a table. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hans-Jürgen Wiedl

Be aware that if you are registered as this kind of freelancer, you must include the following sentence in your invoices: ‘Gemäß § 19 UStG wird keine Umsatzsteuer berechnet’ which means ‘In accordance with Paragrah19 of the German VAT law, no VAT has been added to this invoice.’

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about your German tax return in 2022

If you think you will earn more than €22.000 per year, you will need to pay Umsatzsteuer (VAT) and will have to submit tax declarations in advance and more often. Depending on how much you earn, this could be every month or every quarter. 

5. Get your insurance in order

In Germany, it’s a legal requirement to have health insurance.

If you’ve just made the move from employment to being a freelancer and want to keep the same health insurer, you should get in contact with your health insurance provider straight away to tell them about your change of circumstances. They will ask you to re-register and to tell them your projected freelance earnings for the year, so they can amend your monthly fees.

If you don’t keep your health insurer provider updated, you could continue to be charged the higher rate that you had from your previous salary.

The insurance cards of the health insurance companies DAK, AOK, Barmer and Techniker-Krankenkasse TK lie with euro notes under a stethoscope. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Daniel Karmann

It’s not just health insurance you need to think about as a freelancer. It’s also wise to think about protecting yourself from any sort of claims that could arise as a result of any working mishaps. 

If, for example, you lose your laptop which contains confidential client information, you need to be protected against claims.

That’s why it’s good to have both Betriebshaftversicherung (business liability insurance) and Rechtschutzversicherung (legal protection insurance).

6. Plan your time wisely

All of these bureaucratic obligations take time. So it’s really important that you take account of that when planning your time. For example, planning half a day a week to deal with your invoices, filing, emails to clients, and conversations with authorities can be really beneficial when scheduling your working time. 

7. Grow your network

As a freelancer, networking is absolutely crucial to success. 

Keep an up-to-date profile on websites like LinkedIn and German equivalent XING and keep in contact with anyone you’ve ever worked with, no matter how brief the contact was. 

Having a network is not only about getting more clients, but also about building a support network in your field to exchange advice, tips and generally for your own enrichment. 

Participating in workshops related to your field, going to seminars, and meet-ups, can be great ways of broadening your network. 

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