A smart doorbell, a smart thermostat, or smart lighting. You see them more and more. Appliances that we can control from a distance or that even function autonomously. They are all examples of the ‘Internet of Things‘ (IoT). Sensors provide the connection between appliances and data systems. These need power. In a setting like an airplane, that’s not so convenient, because power often entails a battery, and a battery means weight.
Start-up ZED, (Zero Energy Development), a TU Delft spin-off, developed wire- and battery-less sensors that run on the energy created by simply pressing a button. Or by buckling your belt. The entrepreneurs, as a student team, won the 2019 Airbus ‘Fly your ideas’ competition. The team then went on to win the TU Delft Impact Contest and after that, the 4TU Impact Challenge. The prize for the Impact Challenge: participation in a trade mission to Dubai. That trip is taking place next week.
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The ‘Insightful Innovators’ series is an initiative of 4TU.Federation and Innovation Origins. This is where you can read the stories behind entrepreneurial students at the four Dutch technical universities and their ambition to make the world a bit more beautiful. They are the driving force behind innovation in the Netherlands.
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Convincing the jury
“The advantage of these sensors is that they are also greener. And you do not have to worry about them. The sensors always work and don’t require very much maintenance,” says Niels Hokke co-founder of ZED. Hokke was still working on his master’s thesis back in 2019, in which he sought a solution to the problems that stem from having a multitude of wireless communication. “So how do you make sure that when you activate all those devices at the same time that the messages don’t collide with each other?” A subject that has formed the basis of the start-up.
He has been a full-time entrepreneur ever since he graduated. Hokke’s three co-founders all still work part-time for TU Delft. “Actually, this is the best of both worlds,” says co-founder Suryansh Sharma, who joined the team after the Airbus competition. He is also a Ph.D. student under Venkatesha Prasadasso, an associate professor within TU Delft’s Embedded and Networked Systems Group (ENS).
Sharma: “Among other things, I wanted to explore whether there is a market for these sensors.” Whereupon Hokke adds, “There were some high-ranking Airbus managers in the jury of the Airbus competition. The fact that we were able to convince them strengthened our conviction that we actually had something good in our hands that we could commercialize.”
“Wireless and battery-free sensors are not new,” says Hokke. Within the ENS research group, Prasad has been researching applications of these types of sensors since 2013. The concept that Hokke and his fellow students pitched for the Airbus competition had emerged from within the ENS. ZED mainly focuses on the networking problem posed by large numbers of sensors all together: how can you solve this as effectively as possible using as little energy as possible?
Prasad is also a co-founder of ZED. “As students, Professor VP (as the team calls Prasad, ed.) had already given us all the freedom we wanted to choose our own path. This is no different since we have become a start-up.” The associate professor is part of the team and offers advice. Just like John Schmitz does, former dean of the faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science at TU Delft. Schmitz also worked as Chief Intellectual Property Officer at NXP Semiconductors, as well as other positions.
Hokke and Sharma both have engineering backgrounds. Hokke: “I see opportunities for technology everywhere. This is where I need to focus.” That is why he asked Josine van der Velde at the beginning of the 4TU Impact Challenge to help them. She is a student of International Business and Management Studies at the NHL-Stenden University of Applied Sciences. She did her internship at ZED in the run-up to the Impact Challenge and is now writing her graduation thesis at the start-up.
It proved to be a valuable learning experience, says Van der Velde. She not only learned what it takes to start a company but also how to negotiate with the TU Delft. About who gets what part of the shares, for instance. She keeps the team on its toes, says Hokke. “She creates structure and is consequently very valuable to the team.”
The start-up also received all the help it needed from TU Delft, Hokke goes on to say. Help with legal issues, such as going to a notary, or dealing with contracts with other companies. “TU Delft has a large network of other start-ups and scale-ups, amongst many other things. As a result, there are plenty of other entrepreneurs we can talk to. And who can help us apply for grants.” Recently, ZED was awarded a grant of €40,000 from the NWO, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, which will enable the start-up to carry out a feasibility study. “That’s given us a tremendous boost,” Hokke says.
Propelling new innovations into the world
Hokke has a zero-hours contract with the university. This means he can make use of the research facilities and the computer systems. “We have a close relationship with TU Delft and we would like to keep it that way. I also co-write papers, for one thing. There is no clear boundary of this is where the start-up stops and this is where the university starts. We really like that.”
“Many of the solutions proposed in the master theses coming out of the Embedded Network and Systems group are very closely tied to a product. We want to help ensure that those ideas don’t languish on the shelf. We hope to give these master projects a commercial spin. As a kind of platform to propel these new innovations into the world.”
For a while after the Airbus competition, it seemed that collaboration with Airbus would be forthcoming. However, corona threw a spanner in the works. The plans were postponed. ZED used this setback to continue developing and testing the technology. Talks with an airline are underway again, Hokke reveals. “If that goes through, we will be able to roll out a sensor network consisting of a thousand sensors. Then we can really show that battery-less IoT can be achieved on a large scale.”
Because demonstrating what the sensors can do is more effective than talking about them, says Hokke. ” That’s what I noticed during the Airbus competition. Give people a button they can press. Then they can experience for themselves what happens. That light comes on, for example. By seeing what it is possible, people get inspired and come up with new ideas of ways to use the sensors.” Consequently, Hokke and Sharma hope to be able to give plenty of demonstrations in Dubai. “So that people will come up with their own ideas for applications that way.”
For Hokke, that’s the best part: the pleasure of collaborating with people from different fields. “The joy of talking about your passion for technology and taking it to the next level with each other.” To which Van der Velde adds, “It’s about sharing your inventions with the world.”