The gap between fundamental research and industry

“Eindhoven Engine is based on an essential need in the research and technology landscape. I worked thirteen years at TNO, of which I was chairman of the board for six. As such, I came to the conclusion that TNO is a crucial research organization in the Netherlands. In 1932, TNO was founded to take theoretical discoveries from universities and turn them into applied technical solutions for society and industry.

“There is a missing link in the technology development scale from brilliant research idea to market introduction. From proof of principle through to proof of concept and from a science prototype to a developed prototype ready for production for the market.

“Institutes of applied research, like TNO, can bridge that gap and complete the full chain of technology maturation. The relationship with the universities and the transfer of knowledge is essential in this case. If that process of knowledge transfer (in which TNO can play a key role) had been better developed, Eindhoven Engine would have never seen the light of day.”

“Eindhoven Engine is based on an essential need in the research and technology landscape.”

It’s early spring. At the time of this interview, the wind is picking up, gray clouds race overhead and it’s starting to drizzle. This didn’t stop Jan Mengelers – a member of the Eindhoven Engine board until 1 March 2021 – from showing up. A few minutes earlier, he passed the rectangular pond and strode across the grand square surrounded by the towering glass buildings of Eindhoven University of Technology. Very familiar surroundings for him because he was president of this university until mid-2019.

We settled ourselves at the bright yellow picnic tables under the canopy of the main building. “I think this job was actually the job in my career I did best,” he says with a sigh and a slight grin while pointing at the entrance behind me. “This position was the crown of my career. I was finally able to combine all the experiences of previous jobs and put them to good use with more wisdom in this job.”

Obtaining finesse

“When I was thirtyish, fortyish, I was quite different, very eager to achieve ambitious goals with a lot of drive and hard work. I recognize this now in younger generations of the same age. Just like them, I was all ‘sturm und drang’. I missed finesse, diplomacy and thoughtfulness. The older I got, the more it became clear to me that my style had to change. You learn to be more patient, with more understanding of the context of things, and to respect different opinions. Achieving a compromise is not a failure but rather showing respect to the other stakeholders in the process.”

Three worlds co-existing

“We digress; your question was why Eindhoven Engine exists. In the past, the overlap in research between universities, institutes like TNO and industry was greater. Philips NatLab, for instance, did equally good fundamental research as most universities. The transfer of knowledge into marketable solutions was organized in the company itself. But as industry reduced their funds for fundamental research, departments like NatLab reduced substantially and became extremely focused. On paper, institutes like TNO could fill this void. Of course, the researchers of the university and TNO are acquainted with each other, but there is too little symbiotic merging in cooperation.

“In reaction to the 1996 policy of minister Maria van der Hoeven, universities had to also deliver valorization of their knowledge in addition to excellent education and outstanding research. Universities therefore started organizing Technology Transfer Offices. In order to prove the worth of their research, they tried to apply it in practical solutions. This way, the activities of the universities showed an overlap with institutes like TNO. Across universities, a new type of business development was created to bring technologies from curiosity-driven research to application-driven solutions. They started creating and maintaining patents and establishing start-ups. Nevertheless, the universities found it hard to create a smooth transition for technologies. The universities realized that it is not in their nature to build applications. They excel at creating fundamental research and sharing their knowledge in publications, but not in tinkering with a prototype and reproducing it over 35 times until perfection for market introduction. “Three worlds started to exist next to each other: universities, industry and institutes like TNO.”

In need of a NatLab 2.0

“As industry reduced their budgets for fundamental research, they recognized that the brainiacs at the universities produce the most ingenious solutions. The trouble was that these ideas stayed at the universities. There was too little effort to develop them further in order to bring them to the market. I think it would have been best to rearrange the whole research and technology landscape of the Netherlands just to optimize the route of new technologies to the market. It is possible, but you will probably need a good crisis. The solution-driven cooperation between scientists and manufacturers in the recent worldwide COVID-19 crisis is proof of that. “As long as there are higher stakes, no real crises and money to earn with existing proven processes, nothing will change drastically.

“The Engine closes the gap between fundamental research and the market by creating teams of scientists out of the three worlds”

“We therefore came to the conclusion that we need a NatLab 2.0 embedded in the industrial ecosystem of Brainport. An organization that picks up promising and inspiring fundamental research at the universities and turns it to meaningful solutions that society can benefit from in everyday life. Together with Maarten Steinbuch, we started making plans and we came up with Eindhoven Engine.

“The Engine closes the gap between fundamental research and the market by creating teams of scientists out of the three worlds (universities, industry and institutes) and letting them work on innovations with inspiring ‘moonshot’ goals, preferably co-located in one building. I think that we have successfully created a concept which mends the flow in the progress of technology maturity levels so that it can be a fluid continuum again.”

Two years of Eindhoven Engine

The kick-start of a self-running engine

All is well at Eindhoven Engine. It’s been two years since this joint venture of Fontys, TNO and TU/e saw the light, as part of TU/e’s Strategy 2030. The ‘innovation accelerator’ is going strong. Already, more than 150 people and 15 projects are working on exciting innovations accelerated by Eindhoven Engine. And if you ask directors Katja Pahnke and Maarten Steinbuch, there’s much more to come.

“Eindhoven Engine is one of a kind,” says Maarten. “Nowhere else will you find something like it. At Eindhoven Engine, we provide the possibility to work together in new forms of collaboration. We share knowledge, bring people from different backgrounds together and challenge them to look beyond their own discipline and beaten path. Through that we accelerate innovations that can truly change the world. In these first two years of our existence, we are proud to have already worked on 15 projects. It is so inspiring; people are beginning to think differently, act differently and work in new ways. The Engine formula works.”

Co-location, co-creation

Co-location and co-creation are key-words in the way Eindhoven Engine works. The Engine facilitates a perfect environment for creative professionals with the urge to transform their ideas into innovations that offer answers to social issues we face as a society.

It offers researchers and scientists the opportunity to come into contact with like-minded innovators, ambitious students and professionals from industry, each with their own knowledge, expertise and life experiences. Together, they can team up and let the energy flow.

How? Katja: “Once a year, we invite consortia consisting of industry partners, universities and other knowledge institutes to submit project proposals to our OpenCalls. Already, many consortia have found their way to us. Through inspiring network meetings, creative workshops and courses organized by Eindhoven Engine Academy, we give them the opportunity to meet each other.” The results of the current OpenCall 2021 will be published before summer 2021.

“Our ultimate goal,” Katja continues, ” is for an important part of the projects to be carried out at our location in the MultiMediaPaviljoen (MMP) on the TU/e Campus. There, people can really meet each other, work together and co-create. Corona made that difficult, so we did a lot of things online over the last year. That was challenging, but we still managed to keep a lot of very special projects going and intensify the cross-over interactions between the projects. And Corona also has an upside: in times of crisis, the need for innovation acceleration increases. Furthermore, it helps us to ‘rethink’ and adapt faster to this virtual world.”

Diversity in projects

Katja and Maarten are very proud of the projects that are now being carried out within Eindhoven Engine. “Each project has to have something to do with the Brainport Region”, Maarten explains. “That means we don’t do projects in the field of water management, for example. Currently we have projects in the fields of mobility, medical technology, smart cities, vitality at work, health and energy. It’s very diverse.”

A small selection of current projects mentioned by Katja and Maarten illustrate this diversity of Eindhoven Engine: “Together with TNO we are working on reusable isolation gowns and face masks. With that, we can hopefully put a stop to the millions of masks and isolation garments that are thrown away each day. TU/e, Fontys and companies work together on vitality in  the workplace under the project name POWEr FITTing: FITTing Persons’ vitality and optimizing their work environment. Carbyon DAC is also involved and works on direct air capture of CO2 from the atmosphere. What’s also very special is JUNO: the development of a prototype for a perinatal life support system, an artificial womb for babies born at 20-24 weeks. The two women involved, are already thinking about how they can bring that artificial womb to the market while they are still in the research & development phase. Talk about acceleration of innovation…”

Into the future

Eindhoven Engine is becoming well-known in this ecosystem. Goals are being reached, people are being connected, and they are working passionately on their projects every day. More and more people are joining Eindhoven Engine and becoming ambassadors, like the recently joined new members of the Advisory Board and Supervisory Board Jan Haagh (TU/e Business Development Manager) and Elke den Ouden (TU/e Fellow).

“People are beginning to think differently, act differently and work in new ways.
The Engine formula works.”

What is there to wish for in the near future? “We are very happy with how it is going,” says Katja. “It gives us so much energy. We are accelerating ourselves; it’s almost like a self-running engine. People that work on projects at Eindhoven Engine, are developing new ways of working. They are stepping into their own future with new skills and greater professionalism. And for TU/e, Eindhoven Engine is a great asset as well, serving as a platform for new collaborations between knowledge partners and companies and for the valorization of research and creation of new collaboration models. Our core values are entrepreneurship and out of the box thinking and our people are open-minded, creative, value-driven and easily accessible. One of the goals of Eindhoven Engine was to connect 500 people to the Engine by 2030. At the pace at which we are now going, we will reach that goal in 2025 already. We are very proud of everyone at Eindhoven Engine and are looking forward to all that is still to come.”

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Photo is taken before Corona.

Eindhoven Engine, the perfect instrument for creating impact

“I have the nicest job in the Netherlands,” says Sonja Vos-Poppelaars. “As director of TU/e Participations, I represent TU/e as a shareholder of 54 companies, mainly start-ups. One of the participations is Eindhoven Engine, a joint venture from TU/e, Fontys and TNO.

Every day, it’s a delight to cooperate with inspired people who want to accomplish their dreams. The researchers are very smart, much smarter than I am. I like the fact that they are driven not by money but by an intrinsic motivation to innovate and create impact. As a representative from a stakeholder, I try to advise and challenge them with simple, provocative questions to keep them on track.”

Quick, result-driven work

Sonja started on her path at Nyenrode Business University and graduated as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) on the subject of KPIs.  “I simply love numbers. They don’t lie and are never vague. They help you to measure your performance.

That’s why I like to work with KPIs and that’s what I appreciate when I work for SMEs. These entrepreneurs want to work swiftly and are result-driven. I recognize this same attitude at Eindhoven Engine. This inspirational organization seeks to accelerate innovation by combining science, people from industry and students to create solutions with impact within a deadline.” A recent example is the artificial womb project. This started as fundamental research but, with the help of Eindhoven Engine, is now connected with two young entrepreneurs who in turn have involved students of business administration.

“Every day, it’s a delight to cooperate with inspired people who want to accomplish their dreams.” 


Involve people to generate speed

“In my work with start-ups, I’ve noticed that the projects which involve and activate their network the most achieve their goals more effectively. That’s why I like the formula of Eindhoven Engine so much. They pull a team together from different backgrounds to work together on projects to solve social challenges or to create disruptive innovations.

They compose their teams of people from industry, SMEs, scientific staff from TU/e, TNO, Fontys and students of all kind of disciplines. This way, the team approaches the challenge from many different perspectives. And when these teams present their work across projects, it makes the formula even stronger. I have experienced this approach in smaller projects and know that it works.”

Respect, trust, openness

“In start-ups and R&D projects, it’s very important to create an environment of openness. There has to be trust and respect for each other. The pace of innovation is dependent on the freedom to speak your mind. Some critiques can be blunt. I know I can be blunt, but you have to be able to ask a relevant question or present an alternative view because beating around the bush takes up valuable time. That’s why it is so wonderful that we can operate in the Brainport region. It’s an informal network with very close ties and with the same attitude to constructive feedback. The mixture of three knowledge institutes alongside small and large companies, such as ASML, NXP, Signify and VDL, provides a unique ecosystem where innovation can accelerate.”

Translating basic research into meaningful solutions

“In this ecosystem, Eindhoven Engine is the perfect tool for projects to create breakthroughs.It fits perfectly with the main goal of TU/e: to translate basic research into meaningful solutions. We want to create responsible innovations and contribute to societal challenges in tight-knit collaborations with society and industry. That’s exactly what Eindhoven Engine does.”

“In this ecosystem, Eindhoven Engine is the perfect tool for projects to create breakthrough.”

Sonja Vos

Goal monitoring

“When Eindhoven Engine was initiated by TU/e in 2018, I assisted them in developing a financial model and put the governance in place. Since the end of the initial phase, my role as stakeholder has decreased, as it should. Now that the foundation is in place, I follow them from a distance. Together with co-shareholders Fontys and TNO, we are monitoring the strategic goals.”

Treasure the fun

“What advice would I give Eindhoven Engine right now? Keep involving as many complementary people in your projects as possible. The combination of TU/e, Fontys and TNO, together with the strengths of Brainport’s industry and the willingness to cooperate, creates an excellent, fertile ground for overcoming societal challenges. I’ve found that I work best with people from different walks of life who possess complimentary skills and also . . . simply have fun. A lot of start-ups begin with team members who are friends. There is a lot of excitement and plain fun, and this contributes to the speed and success of their endeavor. So, whatever you do, treasure the fun!”