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On the occasion of the celebration of its 60th birthday, Twente University has further emphasized its ambitions as an entrepreneurial stronghold. The institute that has already been acknowledged as the “most entrepreneurial university of the Netherlands” for many years, is looking for ways to even extend that character. The honorary doctorate for Prince Constantijn of Orange is one example of this ambition, but the university’s leadership aims for much more.

For Vinod Subramaniam, president of the university’s executive board, there’s no reason to have doubts about the institute’s core business: “It’s all about educating young people. If we would lose focus on that task, we’d better stop and go home.” But that doesn’t mean that research and valorization (entrepreneurship), the two other main focus areas, are any less relevant for Twente University, the president concluded at the end of a discussion at Novel-T‘s headquarters. “On the contrary. As an institute, we should give more support to this. Less bureaucracy and more opportunities for colleagues who want to take a step outside their work as researchers or teachers. Including the option of a potential return to their former tasks.”

Prince Constantijn as host

For the (delayed) celebration of the university’s Dies Natalis, Novel-T invited Prince Constantijn of Orange as the host for a debate on the importance of valorization, an entrepreneurial mindset, and an atmosphere that encourages commercial spinoffs of academic knowledge. Constantijn has earned his merits in this field of expertise, mostly in his role as special envoy at Techleap.nl. In the debate with four well-chosen UT representatives, he tried to find out about the level of entrepreneurship within the university.

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Associate professor Rebecca Saive is the example Constantijn wants to see more of. At the start of her career, she combined her academic work with building a start-up. “What helped a lot, was the time difference between the United States, where my start-up was founded, and the Netherlands. Of course, this meant insane working hours, but I could perform two jobs at the same time. Some colleagues kept wondering how I did all this entrepreneurial work while I also was their coworker. Well, I didn’t, it was more like parallel worlds.” Saive has seen how difficult it can be to be an entrepreneurial scientist. She experienced how the label ‘applied research’, as opposed to fundamental research, can even lead to a certain amount of contempt. “The perception of not being a real scientist”. Saive is convinced that Twente University could do more to create an entrepreneurial mindset among its employees. “It should really be no problem to do what you are passionate about. Be free to choose between research and entrepreneurship.”

For Nanobiophysics professor Mireille Claessens, the choice would be easy. “Entrepreneurship may be important, but true science always comes first, that’s what makes us strong. I will never make promises that cannot be supported by my academic research; the scientist in me is too strong to make commercial success a priority.” Her colleague Tom Kamperman, founder of UT-spinoff IAMFluidics, chose the opposite direction. He says the inspiration of “real-life examples of scientific entrepreneurs” made him become an entrepreneur himself. But the road he took wasn’t an easy one: “Time management is making it difficult. If you want to be a great researcher, it takes 200% of your time. The same goes for being a successful entrepreneur. But everybody can understand that two times 200% is a lot to handle. This is the big dilemma for all of us: the choice between entrepreneurship and research.”

Being supportive

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And that’s even without mentioning a scientist’s educational tasks. Jennifer Herek, Dean of the faculty of Science and Technology, is fully aware of the dilemma. “That’s why it’s so important to be supportive of the personal passions and reward them accordingly. Academia has a lot to gain there; bureaucracy is holding back new initiatives, for example through a rewarding system that is based on scientific and educational goals. Especially in Twente, we should find ways beyond that road and reward entrepreneurship as well.”

Through ‘constructive interference’, Herek wants to start changing things. Rebecca Saive is already looking forward to the results. “You know, even without our entrepreneurial ambitions, we have too many administrative tasks. I shouldn’t be grading every exam of every student, my time is too precious for that. If an assistant would help me there, I could be way more productive for the UT.”

All four panelists agree on one point: it’s impossible to do everything in a successful way. Nobody can be a researcher, a teacher, and an entrepreneur all at the same time. Also, even for the most entrepreneurial university in the country, this aspect can be made much more visible. There’s a clear task for Novel-T there to make the students aware of the options, says Saive. And the curriculum should also change in this direction, adds Kamperman. “The importance of teaching and research are fully visible, but entrepreneurship and leadership are no standard parts of our programs. We need to have it in the curriculum.”

The team level

So yes, the choice between teaching, research, and entrepreneurship may be a very personal one, but the university should still do more to create the circumstances in which knowledge can also lead to commercial enterprises. “And don’t forget that you can also look at it from a team level”, Vinod Subramaniam concludes. “Some people in your team are more capable of entrepreneurship than others. On an individual level, it’s impossible to keep juggling education, science, and entrepreneurship, but on a team level, it can be done.”

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