Connecting, networking, and sharing ideas are all essential in kicking off a successful start-up. The same can be said about developing a solid region-wide innovation system, as universities can link up similarly to discuss ideas and start fruitful collaborations.
Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) and Tilburg University (TiU) organized their first joint Startup Night on April 3. The event further strengthened the collaboration between two of the leading academic institutions of the Noord-Brabant region while also being a moment to inspire students and entrepreneurs with success stories.
Several speakers took on the TU/e’s auditorium stage during the event, sharing insights and advice with an audience full of alumni and – possibly – entrepreneurs in the making. With the initiative, the universities help their graduates to bolster their network – particularly if they want to make their innovative projects a reality. Cas Verstappen and Bob van der Meulen from Round One Ventures were the hosts of the night, introducing and interacting with the keynoters and the panelists.
Investment in young entrepreneurs
The two universities’ willingness to collaborate and stimulate young entrepreneurship in the region is backed by actions. The night’s good news was that the TU/e and the TiU are investing €100.000 in Round One Ventures, a student-run venture capitalist fund. The fund focuses on students’ start-ups at the very early stages, supporting them in pursuing their ideas.
If universities step in, they can attract further funding too. “As soon as we knew that the TU/e and TiU were investing in Round One, we wanted to be in as well with double the amount they were giving,” said Marc Jansen, Head of Capital at the Brabant Development Agency (BOM). BOM is investing €200.000 in Round One, as the fund announced that it bagged a total of €400.000 from the three public investors.
The value of cooperation
The two rectores magnifici of the universities took on the stage to share their views on how bringing the two institutions together can be fruitful for the region’s and its companies’ success. Complementing the expertise of the two in their different knowledge areas can create the right mix for success.
In Tilburg’s rector Wim van de Donk’s view, cooperation, and mutual trust are intrinsically part of the region’s background. “It all started after the Second World War, when materials and resources were scarce, and people chose cooperation and mutual trust instead of competition. Trust is cheap, and it grows when you use it,” he said.
Whereas the TU/e achieves excellent results in conducting scientific research and creating technology, making business is a different story. “Business people make a difference in bringing deep tech to the next level. That’s where the value of our cooperation lies,” underlined TU/e’s rector magnificus Frank Baaijens. His Tilburg homolog stressed how behavior and multidisciplinarity positively impact young companies. “Law, business and even philosophy graduates can have an impact in tech,” added van de Donk.
In creating a breeding ground for ideas and entrepreneurs, Baajiens underlined the role of challenge-based learning and student teams. “A few years ago, while having dinner with ASML’s CTO, he boldly said: ‘All your students must be part of a student team.’ In his opinion, it is a good way to teach people from different backgrounds to work together on a specific project. It’s no different than what happens in companies,” Baajens stated.
The photonics ecosystem set an example
Ewit Roos by Photon Delta – an end-to-end value chain for photonic chips – gave a presentation on the development of an ecosystem of integrated photonics. In his keynote, he explored all the stages from the organization’s first steps until today. “Having a vision on developing the ecosystem is important to set up goals and a clear mission. Being able to produce your technology is essential, but you need to be as up to date with all the potential applications it can have,” he stressed.
Eight years after its establishment, Photon Delta established an ecosystem with over 60 partners, recently being funded by the national government with over a billion euros. He believes creating such a successful model wouldn’t have been possible without being in Eindhoven. “Science is key for deep tech. Transformational technologies can’t evolve without it, and here, we are lucky because there is a continuous influx of it,” Roos remarked.
Furthermore, in giving further advice to young entrepreneurs, Roos emphasized the importance of hitting the market. “To get technology out of universities, you must reach the market as fast as possible. Customers ask you to solve a problem and to do that, you have to cooperate,” he added.
From university to the market
Another presentation was given by Boudewijn Docter, co-founder of EFFECT Photonics, which also falls under the umbrella of Photon Delta. The firm produces transceivers and optical chip components that transmit and receive light. As a TU/e alumnus, he shared the experience of his company, born out of his work as a Ph.D. in Eindhoven.
“EFFECT photonics came out of my research project. After winning a student challenge – where I could test and refine my idea – we founded the company. We started from the university labs, where we could build some hardware and show the potential of the technology to the customers, which helped a lot in our growth process, ” recalled Docter.
Talking about his journey, he also brought to the audience the developments of photonics in the last decade. Comparing it to the evolution of the electronics industry, he thinks light chips have the potential to impact many fields, stimulating students with good ideas in photonics to pursue them. “We don’t even know how it can expand,” he said.
The entrepreneur’s rollercoaster
It was then the turn of a Tilburg University alumnus to present. Martijn Ildiz is the founder and CEO of IM Efficiency, a start-up that reduces the fuel consumption of trucks by installing solar panels on top of their trailers. IM Efficiency tailored its solution for different kinds of trucks, and it now works with companies like Grolsch and Action.
In his opinion, a key factor for a company’s success is timing, both in terms of technology readiness and grit. “Back in 2014, when we started the company, we had many talks with potential investors, but there would be no feedback just because the market wasn’t ready. But then things change, and companies understand the value of your solution, and we had the grit to hang on in there,” Ildiz stressed.
Persistence – and the luck of being showcased on national television – helped IM Efficiency grow to its current 16 employees. Ildiz went into the practicalities of building a start-up, such as signing agreements with other co-founders. “In my case, my co-founder was my best friend, and when he decided to leave the company, there was no friction, but I’m aware that it isn’t always like that,” he said.
After the three presentations, there was still time for a panel discussion with some previously involved speakers. They all underlined universities’ pivotal role in nurturing innovation and pushing students to pursue their projects. Such endeavors can significantly impact if they result from a cooperative effort. The TU/e and the TiU look forward to working side by side for more impactful projects.