Vivolta © Bart van Overbeeke
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The Brainport region is an important growth engine of the Dutch economy. It is therefore very important, both for the region itself and for the country, to further strengthen this position. The fact that this not only increases the earning capacity but also makes it possible to tackle numerous societal challenges, makes that goal all the more relevant. In a series of 12 articles, Innovation Origins looks at the most striking issues within this endeavor. In this, we are guided by the research report ‘Brainport at the top‘ that Rabobank published in collaboration with Strategy Unit. Today, in the sixth article in this series, we look at mission-oriented entrepreneurship.

It was stated before in this series: the key technologies are crucial for Brainport to combine its own strengths with global markets. Photonics, nanotechnology, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Smart Industry, 3D printing – these are all technologies Brainport already cherishes but can become even stronger when linked to “mission-oriented” themes. These are the major societal challenges in areas such as

  • Energy Transition and Sustainability,
  • Agriculture, Water, and Food,
  • Health Care, and
  • Safety.

Together, these themes make up for a mission-oriented innovation policy. “It is important to work out the context of these themes specifically for Brainport, based on the major key technologies in which the region excels”, the report states. “The goal is still to increase the earning capacity of the region and the country through a focus on Research & Development within the major societal challenges. Because many of the missions involve problems that are also experienced outside the Netherlands, there will also be export markets for innovative solutions. With this dual objective, Brainport can kill two birds with one stone.”

Meaningfulness and focus

Carl Heskes

Before we delve into the examples, a little more about the importance of mission-oriented entrepreneurship. For this, we call on Carl Heskes, owner of software company Scenius and connected to the Fontys Center for Entrepreneurship, where he assists start-ups with their first steps in entrepreneurship. According to Heskes, there are two main reasons behind mission-oriented behavior: meaningfulness and focus. “With regard to the first, it’s about the reason why you go to work, the intrinsic energy you need to enjoy your work. Of course, everyone experiences a setback at times, but the balance has to be right here. By having fun yourself, you also inspire your colleagues. You do not see work primarily to earn money, but as a reward for what you contribute to that mission. That gives people energy. The company they work for is the sum of all those people.”

The second reason has everything to do with the orientation of the company. “As an employee, you need to know what your goals are, where you want to go to. It’s actually just like in mechanics: if all forces are in the same direction, then you are effective and the result is greater than the sum of the parts. If that disappears, and money-driven motivations become more important, you get into trouble. Just look at Philips at the time of the Centurion operation. Suddenly, employees no longer felt part of that wonderful company of inventors. The change was explainable and has now fortunately been restored, but that’s what happens when you slip away from your mission.”

Many examples

Fortunately, Brainport is already on track. In fact, there are already many examples of mission-oriented entrepreneurship. Think of Xeltis, which makes heart valves that are absorbed by the body. Or Amber, that wants to shift mobility from possession to use. Another one is Sponsh, which extracts water from the air in places where it is not sufficiently available, and take a look at the various initiatives around vertical farming, or the emission-free hydrozine of DENS. And in an entirely different area: Fruitpunch which stimulates AI for good projects, Dynaxion Security that develops a system to identify drugs and explosives in mail packages and suitcases, and MindyourPass that always generates secure passwords. The list is almost endless, also thanks to the continuous new flux of initiatives at TU Eindhoven’s Innovation Space.

Paul Veendrick © Twycer

All these themes are important to Brainport, but one stands out more than others: much of the mission-driven entrepreneurship is expressed in medical innovations. Paul Veendrick, who as Senior Relationship Manager Large Business at Rabobank is often involved in these MedTech companies, notices it every day. “Healthcare has become one of our most important markets. That applies to the whole of the Netherlands, but especially to the South East of the country, with Brainport as its center.”

Veendrick sees that many technical innovations are needed to keep the healthcare system affordable. “Just look at East Brabant’s aging population, with the effect that we will soon have too few workers to provide the care we need. Technology becomes part of the solution at such a moment. But you also have to think of all kinds of e-health solutions around prevention. All this adds up to the ambition to accelerate the transition and keep everything affordable.”

IME Medical Electrospinning

Brainport indeed has an impressive number of players in the Life Sciences and Medtech markets. One of them is IME Medical Electrospinning in Waalre, which offers implants to ensure that tissues and organ structures in the human body regenerate themselves. Xeltis is one of the companies that use IME’s technology and equipment. CEO Judith Heikoop calls this mission “extremely decisive” in all her choices. “The only reason I’m doing this is that I believe you can help so many patients find a solution that allows them to regenerate their bodies. And that doesn’t just apply to me, it applies to the whole company.”

Judith Heikoop, © IME

The culture within the company is crucial, says Heikoop. “We are a technology company, so you can imagine that many of our employees get their drive from the technological solutions they come up with. But when I talk to them about what we can achieve with these solutions, I immediately see their eyes shine. ‘Can you do all that with our products’, they ask me. Yes, that’s all possible, that’s our mission!”

The mission also plays an important role in the hiring policy. “We are in a phase where we want to attract a lot of people; we have ten vacancies with a current total of about fourteen employees. The selection of these new people is therefore decisive for the further implementation of the company culture. So they not only have to be able to think big and global but they must also fully support our mission.”

This goes beyond just developing the products. It also has consequences for other choices you make as a company, says Heikoop. For example, on issues such as your footprint on the climate or on a healthy working environment. “You simply can’t be active in the medical sector if you make people sick in other ways. So we’re working on this in the broadest sense. For example, we had already agreed on a company lockdown before our cabinet ordered the country to do so.”

The market

Many mission-driven companies still sometimes find that the market is not yet ‘ready’ for the solution offered, according to the stakeholders who contributed to the Brainport at the Top report. “The mission-driven innovation policy lays down the vision for the coming years, but not yet the path towards it. In the implementation, the translation of the social task into a clear market demand is a prerequisite.” Judith Heikoop also notices this. “Our medical devices are welcomed by the human body as the body’s own. There are no scars, there is no rejection. So you could say: this is a no-brainer for the medical industry; everyone wants this, so let’s do it. But that’s not what happens. The reality is that we are far ahead. Completely unjustifiably, we suffer a lot from the consequences of The Implant-Files, which uncovered tampering with implants. As much as I would like the world to see what we can do, apparently, it doesn’t work that way. We need early adopters to create a market step by step and slowly generate traction. At the moment, that requires a lot of energy for me.”

Heikoop sees the problem not only in her own company. “Many companies in Brainport are world leaders when it comes to technology, just like us. But our modesty sometimes bothers us. Brainport can still make a huge leap when it comes to marketing and selling all those great innovations.” This is also a concern for Veendrick. “Together with the BOM and Brainport Development, we are working on a study of ways to make our medical-technological activity more visible. With the three of us, we can boost this sector even more.”

Tom Thumb

In the meantime, Carl Heskes sees another reason for Brainport to embrace mission-oriented innovation. “At a global level, we are a little bit of a Tom Thumb in terms of capital and manpower. Think of us as that Gallic village: we have to be smarter than the rest. We are in a situation where the speed of learning becomes more important than performance in itself.” It’s important to keep up that behavior after the first budget meeting, he adds. “Be careful that the client does not become the means to complete your budget, but that you stay focused on your mission. Leadership is decisive here.”

Finally: an organization is the sum total of the people who work there. And a region is the sum total of all those organizations. Heskes: “If the people have the mission-driven energy, then the entire region ultimately has the power to move forward, no matter what setbacks you’ll encounter along the way.”

Read the other articles published so far in this 12-part series here