The first beer brewed with energy from iron powder, a generator operating on formic acid and an autonomous vehicle for research in Antarctica. This is just a selection of student projects that are growing into companies. Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) in the Netherlands, where these innovations were created and developed, gives students a lot of room for entrepreneurship. Innovation Origins follows them closely and sees their special technologies growing from an idea scribbled on the back of a napkin to a company.
Han van Kasteren has been coaching student teams for years in realizing their dreams. He coordinates the Energy Transition Track of the Honors Academy at the TU/e. The Honors Academy is for students who are looking for a greater challenge in their studies. To do this, they leave their schoolbooks and start working on a project of their own choice. At TU/e Innovation Space they get the room and facilities for this purpose. Under supervision but still in charge, they create inventions and put them on the market. “Student entrepreneurs get a lot more done in a year than established companies ever would,” says Van Kasteren.
Even after an eventful and for many a predominantly negative year like 2020, he is hopeful. Over the past 15 years, the coordinator has seen countless students working towards a more sustainable and better world. Not all projects succeeded, but for him it is clear: students are going to save the world. “Change comes from young people. They dare to do things. Young people protest and really want to improve. When you get older, you start to feel more objections and become more insecure,” he says. “Entrepreneurship is uncertainty. When you are young, you can and want to take more risks.”
The students come up with many creative and innovative solutions that researchers and professors hadn’t thought of. “I remember the Solar Team came up with the proposal to make a solar-powered car that also stores energy. The professors didn’t think it would work, but the students succeeded,” Van Kasteren is proud to say. “That is also science; something is true until someone else can prove otherwise.”
Making a difference
Despite the restrictions on corona, students did not sit still this year. The story of the new Team POLAR is similar to that of the Solar Team. The students want to create a vehicle that can research Antarctica autonomously and without emissions. “That sounds complex – and it is. During the first year, they were mainly working on the feasibility of the idea. It now seems promising and the team is growing rapidly,” he says.
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Van Kasteren coaches the students all along the way. “It’s incredibly beautiful to see young people grow. I see them develop from a quiet student into a self-confident manager,” he says. “Many people only see the negative things in the news. But I also experience another side. I support many students from all over the world who really want to make a difference.”
For this they need each other and each other’s innovations. The start-up DENS, created under the auspices of the Honors Academy, is working on a generator running on formic acid as a replacement for diesel. “It is a lot more sustainable, provided that the formic acid is produced in a sustainable way,” he states. “That’s what team Renew CO2 is working on. They make formic acid from water and CO2.”
It can also provide storage for renewable energy from, for example, wind and sun. “We all know that the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow. So we have to look for ways to store energy.” That is a new way of thinking with a different business model. Van Kasteren says: “Students don’t think in terms of money, but instead really want to improve the environment. They dare to take the first step and go for it, while companies and governments are sometimes more cautious. That shows the power of students.”
Life experience can be a hindrance
So how important are students in achieving sustainability goals? “Students are the driving force. Life experience can be a good starting point for doing something or not doing something, but it can also hinder you. Older people tend to narrow their field of vision. Students are more open to the world. That ensures that they make bold choices, which is also necessary for them to achieve their goals,” says Van Kasteren. This also distinguishes students from scientists. “Scientists often do a lot of research and papers – which is also useful – while students just do. It’s about the technological innovations that students develop, but also about changing behavior.
According to Van Kasteren, to really start living a more sustainable life, it is inevitable that we have to change our behavior. He believes that technology can change a lot, but some things cannot be solved with technology. “Look at the current situation with corona. We have to stay at home and keep our distance; that’s a behavioral component.” This also applies to a number of changes needed to live more sustainably. “For example, we can eat less meat. That reduces CO2 emissions considerably. We can also share cars instead of putting a piece of steel in front of the door that is stationary for 23 hours a day,” he says. In his opinion, this kind of behavioral change starts with young people.
A new kind of education
“Students want to make an impact,” says Van Kasteren. There is also another way of teaching. “Currently, students go to school first and learn a lot, sometimes without even knowing why they need that knowledge. Only then do they see in practice what they can use it for. But why don’t we do it the other way around? Students are presented with a problem and look for the knowledge they need to solve it. They then learn much faster how to work in the future,” says Van Kasteren.
At the Honors Academy, students already work according to the principle of challenge-based learning. “I hear back from students that they learn more in that time than in the other years of their studies,” he says. “They are already talking to companies and looking not only at the research itself but also at its implementation. The university wants to have this way of learning built into all layers of education by 2030. Van Kasteren is an advocate: “It requires a different attitude from lecturers. They have to not only provide information, but also to coach. Teachers must help students, but must also let them make their own mistakes. This can be complicated, but it’s also so nice to see students develop. And this is what they are going to do in the future.”
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