His mother always called him “a slugger.” At thirteen, he was urged to change schools, and he sees himself as a street fighter rather than a bookworm. “What is written is from yesterday or even older,” he says. So how is it that Jos van Esch, now 75 years old, has filed six important high-tech patents and is now disrupting the medical world with two of his inventions, from the village of Bergeijk, the Netherlands?
A tobacco machine that runs on artificial intelligence, an automatic asparagus harvester, a smart second packaging for medicines, and a box to store and return unused pills: these are just a few of the innovations that Jos van Esch has patented. At the moment, the 75-year old from Walik is mainly active with the last two, but that could change if he gets angry spontaneously about some illogical or inefficient action by mankind. Because if you look at Van Esch’s life history, you see mainly assertive rebelliousness as the driving force behind his urge for innovation. Lack of challenge in himself and inefficient behavior in his environment led to important steps time and again.
He never had a ‘big plan’ but Jos van Esch’s career does follow a logical path. It shows circles from creativity to results to unrest and from there to new creativity, with new results. Until the restlessness strikes again and he makes his next step.
As a 13-year-old dropout, Van Esch – like so many in the Eindhoven region – ended up at the Philips company school. “My father said I should do something with technology. In those days, what my father said was the law, so I didn’t have much of a choice, but to be honest: he was right about the emphasis on technology. After I went through all the practice material of the four-year course in two years, I was then placed in the factory, the sketching workshop, as a sort of promotion.” There, as a teenager, he ended up on a crew that was allowed to make sketches for the fine-tuning of machines where, for one reason or another, something was rattling. “Wrong synchronization, for example, defects that the constructors themselves no longer had a solution for. That was a great learning experience, although at the time I looked at it differently. But that was mainly because I only had two weeks of vacation a year, much less than my friends who went to school.”
The professionalism of his Philips colleagues still fires his imagination: “Unbelievable, how much I was able to learn from them as a young boy.” Not surprisingly, after his military service, which he spent as an aircraft mechanic for the air force, he knocked on Philips’ door again. There he developed into a draughtsman-constructor of various types of machines and products; he never let himself be pinned down to one specific area.
At Philips he was also introduced to the concept of ‘time writing’: the practice of calculating in advance how much time was needed for a certain standard result and at the same time the schedule to which the workers had to adhere strictly. “You got a minimum salary and only a bonus if you showed a predetermined return so that time-writing was deeply embedded in the culture of the organization. But it was completely ridiculous of course.” It also stimulated his creativity: Van Esch managed to make the time writing work to his advantage. “For example, with planing work, you had to wait half an hour before you could turn over the plate to be planed. In that time you could, of course, be doing other useful things. I devised a schedule for those people that allowed them to write extra time for a job in my department, and at the end of the week, we helped each other clean this big machine: that was more efficient for both them and me. Win-win, we say these days.”
Soon, however, it also began to gnaw. When Van Esch noticed that with his monthly salary of 450 guilders (around €200) he was structurally realizing projects that earned Philips more than a million a year, he had had enough. He picked up his boots and continued his career as a design engineer and after three years as head engineer at Philip Morris. “All thanks to my technical knowledge from the Philips sketch shop. I knew how to keep those high-tech machines running perfectly; that’s why I was able to move up quickly, and in doing so I also got a better view of the business side of the company. Thanks to Philip Morris’ Direct Cost system, I learned how to influence direct costs in order to optimize efficiency. That still helps me a lot.”
His work for this tobacco producer and, a little later, for the Swedish Tobacco Group, where he started working as a factory engineer, took him all over the world. He built factories in Hungary and Indonesia, among other places. Until the unrest, there also struck again and Van Esch accepted an offer at Van Melle. He eventually became statutory director and, under his responsibility, the Fruitella brand was introduced worldwide, including Russia and China, doubling its turnover. “Our slogan? ‘We are the Best in Chew’.”
No one else
En passant, during his time at Philip Morris and Van Melle, he caught up on what never seemed to work out for him as a 13-year-old: he piled one education on top of another, from MTS measurement and control engineering to HTS Mechanical Engineering and Business Administration, and for his MBA he graduated in Operations Research and Industrial Marketing. “In the meantime, I am the six million dollar man in terms of education and international courses.” The stacked knowledge in the fields of technology, business, and efficiency turned out to be quite effective for his employers. “For example, I developed the Meller product for Van Melle, a candy with chocolate on the inside and caramel on the outside. This is the opposite of a Mars candy bar, which is much smarter for hot countries such as Italy or the Philippines: no melting chocolate on your fingers. By dipping the candies in a bath of liquid nitrogen, the outside becomes hard. In the making process, we actually create a shell of air, using the nitrogen as a mold for the candy. The mold is to prevent deformation in the further production process, until the moment the candy has cooled down sufficiently. Because the caramel is on the outside, the customer still has the kick of the chocolate at his first bite. See, that’s what I like about it, especially since no one else apparently thought of it.”
Hoeing up graveyards
His retirement brought new opportunities. “Of course, I could go and hoe the cemetery of the neighboring village of Riethoven, but I didn’t fancy that. Or start painting, as many of my peers do. But then the only result would be that your children would feel obliged to hang your amateurish works in their living rooms. I really don’t want to do that to them. No, for me it was primarily time to give something back. At Philip Morris, STG, and Van Melle, I was able to do great things, but whether the world has become a better place because of cigarettes, cigars, and sweets is something you can ask yourself.”
That feeling was made all the stronger by the conversations he had with his then 27-year-old son after the latter had tried to take his own life. “I tried to convince him that life does have value, and in the meantime, I learned an incredible amount about myself; he was like my conscience.” For nine months, the two continued to talk, but ultimately to no avail. Another suicide attempt did succeed. It was Van Esch’s second personal loss: earlier, his oldest daughter, just ten months old, had died in her bed.
To say that these events had a huge impact is obviously an understatement. They marked the life of Jos van Esch; they gave his personality a permanent extra dimension that resonated both privately and professionally. He studied psychosynthesis, also in an attempt to better understand how people behave. “At the time, people thought of me as ‘completely out of order’. But I saw it differently, I’m a fighter and not a quitter. I am always looking for ways to challenge myself and others and to explore the boundaries together.”
The colleagues that Van Esch gathers for his new projects in Bergeijk know all about it. He not only expects them to have the expertise necessary to do their job well, but he also gives them reading assignments. He quickly grabs a book from his desk: Ramsey Nasr‘s The Foundations. “Have you read it yourself? No? Then do it right away. Look, I may have had a hard time privately, but everyone has to deal with something in one way or another. The people who work here with me all have their personal baggage as well. Books like this can help you become resilient. That’s what we really need, especially in these times and with this government. Nasr knows how to put that into words, just as – in a very different way – the yellow vests in France show that things have to change. Be assertive, as I was when I was thirteen. It sometimes seems that here in the Netherlands we have lost the art of ‘controlled’ anger. Everything has to be sweet and nice so that the truth often remains hidden.
Indeed, Van Esch has not lost that assertiveness after his retirement. On the contrary, he seems more active than ever – perhaps it is because his remaining time is becoming more limited and he still wants to do so much good. For example, together with two South Korean universities, he developed the Meds-Safe, a portable, temperature-controlled mini-medicine safe. This can be used to reduce the waste of expensive medicines. “That meant that, in addition to many visits to South Korea, I worked day and night for months because of the time difference. You can imagine that this led to a pretty disrupted day and night rhythm. Hans van Rooij ensured that VGZ embraced the Meds-Safe and that institutions such as the Elisabeth-Tweesteden Hospital in Tilburg started working with it.”
The Meds-Safe stems from Van Esch’s anger at the enormous amounts of medicine thrown away every day, worth almost a billion euros per year in the Netherlands alone. “In addition to the medical waste, there are also the costs of pollution. Initially, I thought: if I can solve a problem of at least € 250 million for the water boards for € 20 million, then that’s a simple calculation. Not so, it appears we just don’t want to pay for quality, because after paying the pollution avoidance costs, who gets the profits? Then Hans and I started doing it ourselves. We had to recover the costs via a ‘medicine-pollution-reduction-concept’. Meanwhile, the product is ready for the industrialization phase.”
Van Esch hopes that thanks to ReMediZ, the name of the company behind the Meds-Safe, eventually all medicines will be offered in this way. Medicines that are not used can then easily be returned to the pharmacy. This prevents waste, pollution of sewage and thus makes healthcare cheaper. “At the moment, doctors still say that pills can just be thrown away when they are past their date or the treatment has ended. And pharmacies still deliver expensive drugs in a paper bag, sometimes worth 15,000 euros.” He is horrified. “You should see what kind of packaging and service I get when I shop at MediaMarkt for that amount of money!”
His other main activity at the moment also has to do with more efficient use of medicine, but where the Meds-Safe has to find its way to users at home, Unit Dose Pack is primarily aimed at use in hospitals. “What normally happens there is hospital employees take non-barcoded single-piece medications out of their original packaging and then give them to their patients in a digitally controlled dosage. But not only does that create a risk of human error, but it’s also a waste of breaking the chain and all those extra operations. With UDP, we leave the medications in the original packaging and apply secondary packaging, with optimal sizing and ergonomics. It says exactly what the medication is intended for and, thanks to the scannable barcode, human error is minimized. It’s the double closed loop, from doctor’s prescription to administration to the patient and from stock control to use via ordering and billing.”
Jos van Esch still doesn’t grant himself much time to rest. His working days are extraordinarily long even without the Korean time differences. His wife sometimes tries to tell him “that there has never been anyone who regretted working too little at the end of his life”. Van Esch has to laugh and immediately reverses her words: “I don’t regret it either, because I’ve always enjoyed working.”
We asked Jos van Esch for a selection of pictures throughout his career. This is his choice: