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The Netherlands Technology Foundation (STW) has awarded the title of Simon Stevin Master 2016 to two prominent people in the Dutch science community. Normally given to just one person, this year sees two leading scientists being honoured as part of STW’s 35th anniversary celebrations. The prize is one of the most prestigious of its kind in the Netherlands.

The title this year goes to precision engineer and scientist Professor Maarten Steinbuch and water scientist Professor Suzanne Hulscher. Each will receive a sum of €500,000 which can be used to support any research project of their choosing. We reported on the prize for Steinbuch last week. Jonathan Marks sat down with Steinbuch for this interview.

Professor Maarten Steinbuch is a distinguished professor at Eindhoven University of Technology. His group is well-known for its work in ultra-high-precision engineering in medical and care robotics, high tech systems as well as pioneering work to make electric cars safer and more efficient. There is also on-going research into cleaner and more fuel-efficient truck engines.

Steinbuch has a reputation for getting things done, building informal networks of those willing to tackle the grand challenges in our society. He is a regular guest in radio and TV programmes to explain the importance of the scientific research and close collaboration with high-tech industry.

After a career in precision mechanics and controls at Philips Research and working on projects for the chip-design manufacturer ASML, Steinbuch joined Eindhoven University of Technology. He now heads the Control Systems Technology group, within the Department of Mechanical Engineering. But he is keen to show that success is linked to what his teams can do with others both on and off the campus.

Why move from Industry to Academia?

“Because I thrive on the freedom to be able to think outside the box”, explains Steinbuch. “When you’re busy developing the business strategies of tomorrow, you have to put aside conventional thinking about the next quarter’s sales targets. Merely extending knowledge a step further is not developing science.”

“You see so many industrial research labs today that are only developing incremental improvements. But breeding cleverer homing pigeons did not help in the development of the telephone, nor did breeding faster horses lead to the invention of the steam locomotive.”

Brainport Eindhoven: pioneers in collaboration

“I think that European universities can do a lot more to collaborate with industry and come up with disruptive thinking. I don’t see the difference between fundamental and applied research, for me it is all the same. We need to take more risks, helping industry with the longer-term strategies.”

“But it is also true that academic research has to remain closely in tune with real-world needs. Which is why we have never lost touch with all kinds of professions or short-term challenges as well. Indeed, as we see from today’s startup world, few answers are found by just sitting in the lab. Talking with surgeons, oil-riggers, car manufacturers is essential. That’s why I think we need more startups in this region, especially because we have the “maker spirit” in our DNA.”

“We’re currently running three different labs here, automotive, autonomous robots and medical robotics devices. There’s a connection between all three and it is because we have a leading global reputation for understanding very precise positioning technologies.”

“Perhaps the most challenging area we’re working on is medical precision robotics. How can you build useful medical robots to assist surgeons perform the most of delicate of operations? Eindhoven leads the world in precision mechatronics, so it’s up to us to show what can be done. Our goal is to build a robot that can help a surgeon perform operations which are currently difficult or impossible. There has been wide press coverage of the recent spinout companies we’ve formed – Preceyes and Microsure. These companies received backing from industry and from the STW fund. Following their success, several more companies like this will follow adapting core technology to the specific needs of different parts of the medical profession.”

“My dream is that by 2020, there will be a whole cluster of companies in this region helping to solve the big challenges that face both the medical and automotive sectors.”

“What we’ve done is taken the USP of this region – being able to design very precise mechanics and controls – and applied it to areas that no-one has ventured yet. We have also taught ourselves to scale and adapt. My dream is that by 2020, there will be a whole cluster of companies in this region adapting this research to help solve the big challenges that face both the medical and automotive sectors.”

Steinbuch is delighted about the award. “The Simon Stevin prize is not only a great honour; it recognizes the important role that our technical system thinkers play in solving the modern grand challenges that lie ahead. It is also clear validation that our approach is the right one and has every chance of scaling up”.

The award will be presented on November 24th 2016.

Foto (c) Bart van Overbeeke (TU/e)

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