ECsens has won the 4TU Impact Challenge. The start-up from the University of Twente is designing sensitive sensors for a faster diagnosis of cancer. This year, for the first time, the technical universities in the Netherlands have organized a joint innovation competition where students can showcase their groundbreaking solutions to social problems. The winner will go together with representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a number of companies on a trade mission to the World Expo in Dubai.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance that we have got to take,” says Pepijn Beekman in response to his ECsens company’s victory. “It’s great that it was a success.” His aim with this start-up is to ensure that every patient can be given personalized treatment. A major elimination round preceded the final in the Zuiderstrand Theater in The Hague. The technical universities in Eindhoven, Delft, Twente and Wageningen had each held their own preliminary rounds last spring. A total of around 800 students took part in the competitions, 80 teams per TU. In the end, sixteen finalists made it through.

Impact on the lives of many

One of the reasons why the independent jury chose the Twente start-up was because their product solves a major social problem. It has the potential to have an impact on the lives of many people. Nevertheless, jury chair Esther van Someren, deputy general of the Dutch consulate in Dubai, admitted that it was a tough decision.

Each and every one of the teams has brilliant solutions for social problems. For example, from more efficient healthcare with eye tests at home, to the smart repair of coral reefs. The food industry and the impending food shortage are also popular themes. As an example, students researched the substitution of meat with insects as a way to get sufficient protein. Another team devised practical products with a clear goal. Such as a tool for recognizing PTSD symptoms in aid workers and care providers early on. This would mean that employers, for instance, could offer professional help at an earlier stage. Or a toy train that grows along with children as it teaches them programming in a playful way.

LoCoMoGo’s pitch, the play- and programming train © Cindy Langenhuijsen

Pitch boot camp

A few months ago, the students received pitch training so that they could present their story in a clear and concise manner. “The students had demonstrated in the preliminary rounds that their idea has potential in technical fields. But transferring that idea is a profession in its own right,” Pitch Academy trainer Nathalie Mangelaars told IO at the time. “To do that, students need to get out of their comfort zone.” The students learned to pitch in three different ways: for journalists, politicians and the general public during the final. At the end of the training, students stated that explaining the idea in a simple way is not always easy, but it is important.

You can read more about the pitch bootcamp here.

Visit to the Dutch parliament

Prior to the final e-pitches, a number of students handed over their ideas to the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the Binnenhof, the Dutch parliament building. “Rutte was open to our ideas and asked several questions,” says Beekman. Now there is hope among the technical universities that the Dutch government will actually invest more in innovation. According to Robert-Jan Smits, chairman of the Executive Board at TU/e, this will not nearly be enough. He would find it a good move if, for example, the government were to support start-ups through incubation programs.

© Cindy Langenhuijsen

“We want to remain at the forefront of innovation and technological development in the Netherlands,” says Victor van der Chijs, chairman of the 4TU collaboration. “It is essential to continue to invest in young talent and the innovations they come up with. The social importance of this is tremendous. Moreover, companies are eager to get in touch with young talent who are able to shape the future and who can work well together.”

Cooperation is the key word

Eindhoven University of Technology does this together with TU/e innovation Space, among other things. Student teams, start-ups and companies can meet each other and work together on innovative solutions for social problems through this community. Four teams from this community participated in the 4TU Impact Challenge. For example, Team RED is making a model for quickly providing insight into changes within the field of sustainable energy. Team CORE is building an incinerator that recycles metal which is becoming increasingly scarce. Intense Keyboards is designing a pressure-sensitive keyboard that helps to recognize stress-related complaints more quickly. And SpaceSea came up with a solution for the impending food shortage using seaweed.

Read more on TU/e innovation Space here.

Robert-Jan Smits is convinced that being part of a student team is a worthwhile experience within a study program. “I daresay that students learn more in one year in a student team than in two years during their regular studies,” he tells IO at the end of the event. He emphasizes that gaining knowledge is extremely important, but that students in student teams develop other skills such as presentation, communication and solution-oriented thinking.

In his opinion, these skills are also crucial when the students eventually start working for a company. This is one of the reasons why Eindhoven University actively involves companies in the creation of student teams. One of the partners is ASML. Herman Boon also gave a speech on behalf of ASML during the event, which focused on the start-up mentality they started out with. “It’s great that ASML still continues to show and cherish that,” says Smits. “Companies have to contribute to student teams because it is about their future employees in many cases.”

Things are looking good for that future. Smits: “Of the hundred ideas from students, perhaps only two or three actually reach the market. These are the companies that will really change the market and society.”

© Cindy Langenhuijsen

Broader 4TU cooperation

The 4TU Impact Challenge is part of the overall cooperation between the four Dutch technical universities. They are joining forces with a view to making optimal use of knowledge and creativity in the technology sector. They are doing this in the areas of education, research and knowledge valorization. This event is an example when it comes to the knowledge valorization category. The students transfer the knowledge that they have gained back to society through start-ups and student teams. Their products and services contribute to solving social problems.