Creating an exhilarating vibe to develop technical solutions with a social impact
Eindhoven Engine: creating an innovation powerhouse
Second section of a two-part interview. Read here the first section.
“The scientific and technological scenes in the Netherlands grew too much apart. There are now three worlds which almost coexist next to each other: industry, universities and institutes like TNO. In order to take theoretical discoveries from universities and turn them into applied technical solutions for the market and industry, these three worlds should ideally work closely together with each other. Due to several causes, there is too little symbiotic merging of cooperation, although there are a few examples in which it is organized in an excellent way. This general trend is problematic because you need a seamless transition from TRL 1 to TRL 9 in order to successfully innovate. I am convinced that Eindhoven Engine is an essential solution to this dilemma.”
It’s early spring. The weather shifts through all seasons at a rapid pace. Tucked in our winter coats, we take shelter under the broad canopy in front of the main building of Eindhoven University of Technology. Jan Mengelers is quite familiar with this scenery: until mid-2019, he was president of TU/e. He is now one of the initiators of Eindhoven Engine and served as a supervisory member of our board until 1 March 2021. We took this opportunity to ask him how he came up with the concept of Eindhoven Engine.
Multidisciplinary teams bridge the gap
“During my presidency of TU/e, I found that multidisciplinary student teams like the Solar Team Eindhoven can solve challenging problems. Just let them create a team of excellent students, organize funding, lower organizational barriers and challenge the team with inspiring ‘moonshot’ goals combined with nearly impossible deadlines. This way, you can create a ‘vibe’ in a team, an unforgettable experience which they will talk about for years.
“This is how I myself was part of the team that built the Volvo 440. We created a team which was solely dedicated to designing a new car. They operated out of some old barracks in England, far from the main organization, far from the organizational rules. This created an atmosphere of ‘us against the world’. They managed to creatively solve all technical problems and create an inspiring product and an everlasting team spirit.
“I wanted to implement this concept of multidisciplinary teams according to the concept of student teams in order to bridge the gap between the university and industry. Give teams of brainiacs from both worlds a big hairy problem to sink their teeth into. Challenge them with a nearly impossible deadline to come up with a meaningful solution that society can benefit from in everyday life. “The thing that was missing was a name. We ‘borrowed’ the word ‘engine’ from MIT and we added the word ‘Eindhoven’ as we are stationed here. That’s how the plans for Eindhoven Engine saw the light of day.”
A running start
“So, when the Dutch government granted the regional deal and Brainport Eindhoven received its investment of 130 million euros, we had already done our homework. We could just send in the plans for Eindhoven Engine. We got the approval and were able to start executing.
“I envisioned an eleven-story-high building here on campus. The building would not only contain office spaces and labs but also apartments for short-stay residence. Every floor with its own scientific topic and project. “This idea has not materialized yet. But as you know, Eindhoven Engine has found a perfect home in the MultiMediaPaviljoen on the campus, where multidisciplinary Eindhoven Engine teams work on finding technical solutions with societal impacts. And maybe the big dream of the eleven-story-high building will be realized when the Eindhoven Engine has become an enormous success.”
Finding the right people
“An inspiring place to work is important, but our concept stands and falls on attracting competent and inspiring people. That’s why I am so excited that Maarten Steinbuch and Katja Pahnke agreed to join Eindhoven Engine. Maarten has the ability to recognize potential ideas which can be developed for the market and has the suave and intelligent manner needed to make connections between science and industry. Combined with Katja’s ability to structure concepts and arrange an operation smoothly, we have an ironclad team which can make Eindhoven Engine a success.
“Also, the partnerships with Fontys and TNO are a tremendous asset. Although our students at TU/e are well-equipped to formulate a research and development goal, they also need people who excel in executing and developing that goal. This makes the students of Fontys a perfect match. The expertise of TNO is in creating continuity in research programs. This key expertise is what is needed to overcome one of the hurdles that Eindhoven Engine will have to jump in the years to come.”
The challenge of creating continuity
“The challenge is to create continuity in the program as well as in funding. It is hard to create continuity if there is no basic funding from the government. To keep these kinds of initiatives afloat, you need thirty percent of your revenue as a structural grant from regional or national governments just to pay for your indirect structural costs.
“Continuity in the program is also quite difficult. It’s in the nature of researchers to shift their focus after finishing a project and follow their interests. Besides that, it’s hard to give it your all for three or four years. You can preserve the vibe, but it is hard. When the Volvo 440 team finished the task, we wanted to inject their spirit and vibe into the main organization. It did not succeed. Their success brought them to ‘a building with marble stairs’; they wanted to enjoy the reward they had earned and became part of the regular organization again.”
Eindhoven Engine international
“If Eindhoven Engine succeeds in building a continuous research program with their stakeholders (shareholders, industry and government) and keeps the course they have planned out, I am convinced that they have the ability to blow the competition out of the water. I always dreamt of taking the concept of Eindhoven Engine to an international level. Imagine what kind of powerhouse we could build if we created a European Engine with our partners among the EuroTech Universities.”
“Imagine what kind of powerhouse we could build if we created a European Engine with our partners among the EuroTech Universities.”