Failure is the price of innovation
“You have to accept failure. If every project from your innovation department is a success, you are not bold enough in your endeavor to innovate. You are minimizing risks and playing it safe. Failure is inherent to innovation.”
We are sitting in a conference room on the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven and speaking with Jaap Lombaers, Director Knowledge Management and Partnerships at TNO. The room is situated in a modern, open-spaced building with large windows everywhere. Behind Jaap, there is a view into the laboratory. Researchers in white coats and safety goggles walk calmly and decisively from machine to machine under a maze of pipes reflecting the bright ceiling lights.
Applying new science and finding a market
A background in industrial design is not overly common for those working in a laboratory but when I mention this to Jaap, his eyes light up and he smiles. “I am inspired by all the things that go on inside this lab. I can tell the story of every machine in this room and why it is important to the progress of solar energy and of innovations in electronics. This lab is the merger of science and application.
You are right, industrial design is integrative rather than specialistic; during my studies, I learned to combine different fields of science and apply them to find new solutions. And this is what we do every day here at TNO.
What we try to accomplish at TNO isn’t just about science. The primary goal is working with large, multidisciplinary teams to create functional and economically-viable solutions. It’s a team effort in which we combine fundamental and applied science in order to create innovative solutions for the market.”
Combining strengths and creating a boost
“TNO is always on the lookout for partners who can amplify the abilities of our own organization. This is one of the reasons we supported the Eindhoven Engine initiative and even became a shareholder.
We appreciate that our partners, TU/e and Fontys, really are different from us and therefore complementary. Where we are trying to apply science, universities are pushing the frontiers of science itself and developing the new talents that industry and research organizations need.
These are bottom-up organizations with students, PhDs and scientists who are conducting new research. This creates a reservoir of young, keen minds which can provide a fresh, new perspective in ongoing projects. TU/e and Fontys are also connected to a vast network of companies, especially in the region of Eindhoven. Just like TNO, they frequently cooperate with large and well-known companies as well as smaller ones which do not have the luxury of extensive R&D departments.
In Eindhoven Engine, we combine these assets. We create multidisciplinary teams of research partners and students, unite them in one location in order to increase collaboration and give ongoing innovation projects a boost.
“If you want to make a leap
in your innovation project in just a couple of years,
Eindhoven Engine is the perfect platform.”
Not every innovation project is suited to Eindhoven Engine. If you want to do in-depth research, you just give scientists a large amount of time and resources to get to the bottom of it. But if you want to make a leap in your innovation project in just a couple of years, Eindhoven Engine is the perfect platform. At the moment, we have a team working on the development of a heat battery, for instance. This is an established program to which Eindhoven Engine adds an extra layer to accelerate the progress. In another project, we are developing solutions for flexible manufacturing (smartly combining the skills of operators with those of robots) alongside Fontys and multiple companies in a field lab on the Brainport Industries Campus (BIC).”
We just started
This kind of coordinated, multidisciplinary and systematic way of doing research is built into the genes of TNO. “We have gained considerable experience over the years in cooperating with different partners and consortia. This experience is what we can add to Eindhoven Engine. But don’t forget, Eindhoven Engine just got started last year. The paint had just dried in the Eindhoven Engine building when the corona pandemic engulfed the world. So, we have to give it some time to see what works well and what has to be improved.
There are still things we have to figure out. How to make smart use of co-location? I would recommend that the teams be situated at the best location given the nature of their projects. I would say that a team working on solar panels, for instance, should situate itself here at Solliance. In this building, we have a whole laboratory equipped to do research on thin-film solar cells. For those teams not permanently located at the Eindhoven Engine co-location, this location could be used as a clubhouse of sorts: a place to visit regularly and where cross-pollination between the different teams involving multiple organizations can occur. I am convinced that we can learn a lot from each other.”
In the Eindhoven Engine project SmartTwo+, KPN and TU Eindhoven collaborate on maverick telecom technologies for the societal challenges of mobility, safety and smart cities. This is where Nico Baken feels at home: as a professor in TU/e’s Electro-Optical Communication group, he’s also spent almost 40 years carrying out fiber-optic research for KPN. In this article, he discusses what Eindhoven Engine’s multidisciplinary approach means to the project.
The need to build bridges
“KPN formally had a lab of their own. In the sixties, there were over 600 people,” begins Nico. “KPN had the UMTS [Universal Mobile Telecommunications System] auctions in July 2000 and discovered in late autumn that they had made a huge mistake and were bankrupt. On 1 January, they sold the laboratory to TNO for one euro. That had quite some consequences. First, we didn’t get an influx of new people from the lab to the operational organization. Second, the connections with the universities were much less strong – there were only a few people left who could even communicate with them.”
This difficult situation led to the formation of Flagship Telecom in 2017, a partnership between KPN and TU/e on areas like software, data analytics and AI. This actively seeks out collaboration and was also the origin of predecessor project SmartOne. “I’m trying to build bridges between KPN and the university, but also inter-faculty,” Nico explains. “One of the points of the Engine is that you get interdisciplinary connections – whether these are between sectors, faculties or companies. Maarten Steinbuch believes in this.”
Mr. Smart City
Another key alignment is Eindhoven Engine’s focus on accelerating the technology-readiness levels of potential applications. “It would be nice to have senior researchers from TU/e in combination with senior people from companies,” continues Nico, “and I hope that the PhDs will be able to make the whole more than the sum of the parts. A lot of contact is needed for that. That’s why it’s good that you have room where all these PhDs come together.
“One of the points of the Engine is that
you get interdisciplinary connections.”
In the ongoing pandemic, Eindhoven Engine’s trademark co-location has often had to move to the virtual world, but Nico sees a positive side to this: “KPN could have done any advertisement campaign for Zoom but it wouldn’t have worked as well as corona. That’s a big change. When it’s over, many more people will work from home.”
Alongside ad hoc meetings, the project members hold KPN-organized plenary meetings each quarter and an annual general meeting which includes TU Delft. Regular contact within the project is vital as it provides greater empathy for different perspectives, as seen in disagreements on the smart city element. Nico: “The students regarded me as Mr. Smart City but the first question I asked is do we really want to live in cities? They didn’t like that! The tipping point is 2060, when the world population will decline. We still have some 40 years to think about how we truly want to live.”
Breaking out of silos
A final ingredient is challenge-based learning, in which knowledge is gained by tackling real-world issues. One of the project’s two PDEngs, for instance, is titled Traffic flow modeling and control in a smart city environment and has led to a spin-off mobility project with Utrecht municipality. As the SmartTwo+ network continues to grow, Nico sees opportunities to further revolutionize its methods of collaboration.
“I hope to give the participants more than content: awareness of the integral systemic impact they can have. Of course, the technological developments will need to contribute to sustainability and comfort for all people. But the difficulty at KPN is finding people who have a passion for being a coach to PhDs and PDEngs. You need continuity, so why not reverse the formula? Money and coaches are now coming to the university from KPN, but we could also get some professors for half a year. That’s really forming bridges. If humankind doesn’t make it, it will be because we stayed in silos.”
Another step forward for Eindhoven Engine: Fontys University of Applied Sciences and TNO have joined TU Eindhoven as shareholders. “It’s quite a statement,” says Ella Hueting, Director of Fontys School of Engineering and chairman of Eindhoven Engine’s Advisory Board. “I don’t know of any other initiative where all the knowledge centers in the chain are the shareholders and work together with companies in the region.”
Sharing the load
In some ways, this development has been a long time coming. “Eindhoven Engine is about involving students with companies in the Brainport region, which Fontys has done for a long time, especially with SMEs,” Ella explains. “It was very natural for us to get involved.”
By becoming equal partners, she hopes to send a message to the Netherlands that Brainport’s success also lies in knowledge institutes working with both companies and one another. “In engineering, for example, Fontys has almost 1200 students working on projects from about 300 companies each year. When it comes to smaller companies, knowledge is not so available. Should we use robotics, for instance? It’s important for both big and small companies, so we can work on projects where high-level theoretical knowledge comes from TU/e and TNO and Fontys can apply it in smaller companies. It’s very complementary, I think.”
“The projects are even more important than before. Businesses really have to innovate right now.”
A new NatLab
One such example is SmartMan@SME, a Fontys-led project which brings together TNO, VDL and VBTI as partners in OpenCall 2020. This aims to improve factory efficiency by optimizing production processes for SMEs. “It’s not one fixed research project but rather smaller projects which we work on together,” notes Ella. “It’s a question of the company itself, which asks us to help them apply a new technology. We then work on it together with a couple of students. TU/e students have a high theoretical level and some of them really want to apply this too, so all our knowledge is now connected. It’s wonderful!”
Success in SmartMan will be measured in terms of the economic value of improvements per project and company but could also represent the start of something bigger. Ella: “With Eindhoven Engine, I think Maarten [Steinbuch] wanted to achieve a new NatLab. This could be the first step. I’m really enthusiastic about this project, which I think is unique. Now we’re started, I think we’ll achieve big success – particularly in this corona time.”
Opportunities and exposure
In keeping with the forward-thinking nature of Eindhoven Engine, Ella prefers to view the ongoing pandemic in terms of new possibilities. “The projects are even more important than before. Businesses really have to innovate right now. In Brainport and the Netherlands, we need to be challenged to work together and quickly bring new technologies to the market. This might be an opportunity because it’s something we’re good at, and it could give us a big advantage compared to other countries. After all, we have a lot of international students who know that this region is the place to be. Eindhoven Engine creates exposure for what we can do.”
“It was very natural for us to get involved.”
In the last week of August, Eindhoven Engine and MEDICAID (e/MTIC) participated in a PDEng challenge week of TU/e.
How to measure Quality of Life?
A group of four PDEng students with different backgrounds were challenged with the question ‘How to measure Quality of Life?’ – a complex topic on which the group worked for five days.
Besides working on the problem, the students followed courses in brainstorming, design thinking, system thinking (by Walter Baets, Eindhoven Engine Academy) and teamwork.
The challenge was concluded with an excellent presentation which will serve as a basis for follow-up projects on Quality of Life. Huge thanks to Georgio Mosis for his contribution as co-case owner, to Lukas Dekker for his valuable input on this topic and to the group of PDEng students: Song, Suyash, Wan-Yi and Sukrut.