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When Apple launched the AppStore in 2007, Jelle Prins felt everything: I had to develop apps. He put his money where his mouth was—and it didn’t go unnoticed. In 2008, barely landing in New York for his graduate studies, the founders of Uber called. Less than a day later, he sat across from them in a Starbucks.

“When Travis and Garret (Kalanick and Camp, ed.) pitched their idea to develop an app for cabs, my first reaction was, ‘There are all these yellow cabs here; why would you need an app for that?'” Once back home, after a little Googling, he saw that Kalanick and Camp had sold several companies for millions. “Even though I didn’t really believe in the idea at the time, it was fascinating to work with them as a student. In retrospect, it turned out to be a case of at the right time, in the right place.'”

A packed room

The room at Prince’s Tech Talk on the first day of The Next Web Conference in Zaandam is packed. It’s also an impressive resume. He is the first staff member of Uber, where he is single-handedly responsible for the app’s design. He later performs that trick several more times for, CataWiki, and the government’s Corona Notifier, among others.

In 2021, with Stef van Grieken, Elise de Reus, Harmen van Rossum, and Eli Bixby, he founded an AI platform for developing new proteins. The company has raised over €30 million so far and was voted startup of the year by MT/Sprout, with the potential to become “the next Dutch unicorn.” Its 40 employees – biologists, app builders, machine learning experts, and programmers – work from the Zurich office, the Amsterdam office or laboratory, or their homes anywhere in the world.

Helping a million companies

Of the five co-founders, Prins’ role is the least defined. “Initially, I was responsible for the product design team, which is now standing. I’m mainly concerned with positioning our brand in the market. How do we want people to think about us? What resonates and what doesn’t?”

Prins is still figuring out the correct answer to that question. What he does know is that Cradle is a platform, so he wants to tell his company’s story by describing what other companies can do with Cradle-designed technology. “If we are successful, there are a million companies that are all going to solve a piece of the climate problem with our technology,” he says.

His biggest fuck-up? “I left Uber pretty quickly. That was probably the worst financial decision of my life (laughs).” However, Prins also found that when he returned to Uber a few years later, he could make much more of an impact because of the experience he gained at other companies. He sometimes thought, after his time at Uber, that I was the first employee, and the company became an immense success; it’s never going to be better or more significant than this. Fortunately, that turns out not to be the case. “I think Cradle has the potential to make more of an impact than Uber did. I’m proud that I’ve always been able to grow in my career.”

AI is the new revolution

The idea for the Cradle came about when Van Grieken, a former Google employee and friend of Prins, told Prins about what he saw happening around AI. “He got the same feeling I got when I saw the first iPhone: AI is going to be the new revolution,” Prins said. The duo researched where they expected AI could make the biggest impact and ended up in biology.

Based on that belief, the friends sought co-founders who – unlike themselves – were experts in the field. Prins: “At Cradle, we make biology programmable and design smarter proteins to make and break down almost anything. That way, many processes can be made more sustainable, efficient, and better designed.” Prins is most looking forward to application in production processes that now consume a lot of energy and require fossil fuels. “Suppose we could replace gas and oil by putting CO₂ in a vessel, and fuel comes out. That would make a huge difference.”

Programming biology sounds interesting. But how?

Proteins are complex molecules with different structures. You can compare it to little machines that can make or break down everything around us. Designing an optimal protein is mainly a process of trial and error: it is difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. An experiment with a new protein soon takes weeks, and a 1% success rate is already considered successful.
Cradle’s computer model speaks the language of proteins, so it predicts the impact of one or more changes in a protein. Moreover, it comes up with ideas that humans would never come up with. This makes the customer design process ten to twelve times faster, ten times cheaper and much more likely to succeed

Europe successful in making tech companies great? Nonsense

Cradle’s ambitions are big. Preferably, it makes those ambitions come true from Europe, but Prins does not know whether that will succeed. “In America and China, the government supports and accelerates industry winners. We do that much less in Europe. It is often said that we are already doing very well, but that is theater. Yes, maybe if you focus on a few good numbers, but just many more unicorns are coming out of the US.”

Prins believes this could change if governments supported companies more. “By saying: if it succeeds, we will be your first big customer. Moreover, universities here often pull far too big trousers, and we have to pull out all the stops to defend the 30% rule for expats. The figures clearly show that expats provide the Netherlands much more than they cost. Scandalous, if you ask me.”

Fingerspitzengefühl for new technology

Prins’ involvement with Cradle is hard to call coincidental. He has a Fingerspitzengefühl for when technology is ready to make an impact. “Where does that come from? No idea. My mother is an aerobics instructor, and his father a rheumatologist, so it’s not like I grew up with it.” But for as long as he can remember, he’s enjoyed thinking about how technologies come together. In the next two years, he expects an explosion of robots. In his bag is a pair of glasses with a little camera. “Those aren’t ready for the masses yet, but I’m buying them to imagine how it will change the world.”

The most important lesson he has learned so far is twofold. One: He learned more from a year of entrepreneurship than from years of studying. “You don’t build a network. Gaining experience at different companies, startups, and agencies is much more educational. It’s that accumulation of experiences that allows you to make better decisions with more intuition.”

Two: It is essential to work with people who are so good that they intimidate you. “It’s enjoyable to be the smartest in a room, but you don’t learn a fuck from it. At Cradle, plenty of people are walking around who I think are brilliant. Although objectively, I know it’s unnecessary, I constantly suffer from imposter syndrome. But that shouldn’t stop you from not doing something. It’s precisely outside that comfort zone that you can accomplish things. Besides that, as long as you immerse yourself in something, you can quickly get to a level where you become a little dangerous.”