Steef Blok © TU/e Innovation Lab
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The days when an inventor sat behind closed doors tinkering with groundbreaking technology are over. Nowadays, scientists from a variety of backgrounds work together to come up with an invention or a product. They also dare to bring it to the market at an ever-increasing rate. By no means are all innovations a success, but one invention is enough to change the world.

Innovation Origins regularly speaks to innovation leaders, trendsetters who are high on the innovation ladder. Steef Blok has the floor today. The director of TU/e Innovation Lab is responsible at Eindhoven University of Technology for valorization. That entails bringing knowledge from the university back to society. He has to deal on a daily basis with technologies that the rest of the world might not become acquainted with until ten years from now. “Technology forms the foundation for the growth of prosperity in the Netherlands. Our daily lives are wholly influenced by it,” Blok states.

Technology ensures prosperity

He talks about the impact of technology in the past and its importance for the future: “Our ancestors used to spend all day collecting and preparing food. Technology made it possible for food to be produced on a greater scale. As a result, not everyone had to deal with food and people started providing services. This is how the economy as we know it today came into being. Later on, machines began to take over more and more of the heavy work that people had to do, for example on farms. As a result, the economy grew and so did prosperity”.

“Sticking with that example for a moment, the advent of machines meant that the farms had to continue to grow as well. You can’t put a large machine on one hectare of land. More space is needed for that. Besides that, farmers have to produce more in order to recoup the cost of those machines. That’s how mass production came about.”

Smart machines

Although Blok believes that this type of mass production is now going to be phased out again with the advent of intelligent systems. ” We can connect machines through these intelligent systems. This allows us to remotely switch on the heating at home, but it also enables ASML’s machines to communicate with each other. The possibilities are unimaginable.” Even for the aforementioned farmers. “For example, a Brabant potato farmer flies drones over his land in order to measure the amount of manure and water that’s on the land. He only fertilizes the soil that actually needs it. That saves time and money and is also better for the environment. The harvest will be better as a result too.”

“A potato is still a potato, but this farmer takes care of his land in a tailor-made way.” Thanks to smart technologies, the ‘more of the same’ mentality is a thing of the past. “This can have several meanings. As an example, in the future, a machine could make a different product for one customer than for another.”

University is indispensable

“Universities are indispensable when it comes to these kinds of developments. This is where such systems are conceived. Universities are about ten years ahead of the market. But not everything that is designed at a university will survive on the market. Some projects don’t even get further developed into a product. If that does happen, it sometimes doesn’t yield the results you envisage. We’ve come up with inventions that I thought would make the world a better place. And nobody on the market cared.”

“I heard, for example, that early menopause is one of the main reasons why some women can’t have children. Women are already really reduced in their reproductive ability ten years before the onset of menopause. For example, if someone starts menopause prematurely, at around 40 years of age, they would have already had low fertility from the age of 30. The average age at which a woman has a child in The Netherlands is now over 29 years of age. Technology might offer a solution to this problem”.

“At the university, we designed a diagnostic chip that allows us to detect the gene that can predict a woman’s early onset of menopause. As a result, women know at an early age whether they will start menopause early, and they can tailor the time when they can begin to have children. The chip costs about €6 million. So it seemed like the ideal solution. Expensive and often unpleasant treatments with hormones and IVF would be used less as a result. But in the end nobody wanted it. Women didn’t want to know at all when they were going to go through menopause. Oh well…. The world is full of surprises.”

Unsolicited innovation

“Consumers will ultimately use a product. Naturally, they have to want to do that. This is not only true in the field of healthcare, but also in the field of sustainability and circularity. Things are already improving in those areas. For example, we are already using more and more refurbished computers instead of immediately throwing away all our electronics. We are also handling food more carefully. If we don’t want to burn waste anymore, but want to re-use everything instead, that should already be taken into account during the production process. In order to achieve this, entire production processes need to change.

“Genetic engineering is also one of the topics that we do a lot of research on at the university, but on which public opinion is really divided. Bananas grow in a greenhouse under controlled conditions at the University of Wageningen. This way the plants are no longer affected by disease. This allows for a constant supply of bananas. These plants are genetically manipulated. I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to use that on a large scale.”

The engineered person

“Genetic engineering in humans is also being explored more extensively. I’ve worked in the hospital sector. Here I’ve seen people suffer from diseases like cancer and I’ve seen people die. Suppose there’s a child on its way who has a disease or disability. But when you remove one gene, it’s completely healthy. I’d do it. Although genetic manipulation does pose a risk to people. Imagine, for example, that over time you’ve designed a ‘perfect human being’. But that’s true for other technologies: Atomic energy isn’t bad, but an atomic bomb is. I admit that the engineered human being is a bit scary. But we can’ t stop technological progress.”