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It’s tremendous fun building the future

Apr 8, 2016 11:30:00 AM. By: High Tech Campus

On April 14th 2016, the Holst Centre will officially celebrate its first ten years. Dr.Ir. Sywert Brongersma joined in 2006 as one of the early employees, having studied Applied Physics at Eindhoven University of Technology. He shares the story of what’s grown into a very productive ecosystem with a global reputation for matching breakthrough scientific strategy with industrial needs.

The Future Belongs to those who create it

“The initiative to establish the Holst Centre originally came from Philips” explains Sywert. “They saw a need to develop flexible electronics and wireless sensor systems. But they didn’t want to develop this technology in “splendid isolation”. This was in 2005 when Philips was also actively opening up High Tech Campus Eindhoven for collaboration with external partners.”

Holst Centre was founded by two renowned research organizations with expertise in nanoelectronics - Imec (Flanders, Belgium) and TNO (The Netherlands). Philips backed it as the founding industrial partner, and Holst Centre has had support from local, regional and national governments over the years.

The reason for this approach is simple. Products and systems are becoming increasingly complex. With the exponential progress in physics, life-sciences, materials, electronics, software, etc., research and development costs are growing faster than company revenues. This is why Holst Centre conducts research in an open innovation setting. The goal is to share ideas, efforts, costs and risks, so as to reduce the time to market for new product generations. 

Holst has grown over the last decade from a team of 5 people into a centre with over 200 employees from some 28 nations. They have commitments from over 50 industrial partners.

International culture gives a competitive edge

“In order to have a global impact, we have a very international mix of people working for us, recruited from the Americas, Asia-Pacific as well as across Europe. This helps in understanding the needs of our international clientele as each person adds a piece of their own culture and network.”

“It also has an impact on the local ecosystem. Typically, the international talent that we attract to our institute stays 2-3 years. But since we are positioned between University and Industry, many internationals make the step to join local industry in the Brainport region.”

“We have a broad range of scientists in our teams; mechanical engineers, materials scientists, physicists, electronic designers, people that do full system integration, people that look at the application and work with hospitals and with medical experts to see what systems should look like.”

Unique approach that works

“Many institutes do contract research for a particular company. At Holst we listen to industry at large, and then try to identify products and trends over the next 5 years that are of broader interest than just for one company. So we're able to put together a more generic research programme strategy where multiple partners pay for the same research and therefore share the costs. It is always more effective than if people did this all themselves.”

“Then, on top of that, we also do advanced bi-lateral research based on this generic layer where we help companies take this technology to market. So for example, take low-power skin interfacing to allow more accurate body measurements. From this we might build a specific cardiac monitoring device. That’s been the case with the work we did for the Samsung Simband sports watch. This has a lot of clever functionality on the inside of the strap that goes around the wrist. Holst helped to take the technology to market.” 

“Holst Centre is also known for its work with flexible electronics, such as flexible OLED lighting and display devices. Of course, we have large commercial partners who are interested in building such devices. But we have also seen local enterprises like VDL or SPGPrints, that are now commercializing the systems and tools needed to do roll-to-roll processing. So yes, we work with world players with brands that everyone knows. But we also provide benefit for supply companies in this part of the Netherlands who also play a key role in bringing important technologies to market.

High Tech Campus Eindhoven Sywert Brongersma Holst Centre
High Tech Campus Eindhoven Holst Centre

So what's the magic of Eindhoven?

“I think it is because world-wide, the city has a very high visibility as a high-tech region. If you're anything to do with this sector, then Eindhoven is already on the map. And it has helped to be located here on the Campus.”

“We started here ten years ago with five people trying to define what we're going to work on. But then, because of this campus, we are surrounded by a vast amount of relevant infrastructure, like test and measurement labs. Access to these kind of facilities gets you up to speed very fast because you don't have to build up your own clean room and invest in specialized equipment.”

“Philips of course has been a key enabler. Because as they pulled out of certain fields to focus on other things, they spawned all kinds of spinouts which now have a life of their own. If you tried to build this sort of environment in a different city, you'd have to re-create that infrastructures and you can't build it overnight. But the fact that Philips really opened up the campus at the time we were established gave us a very easy launch-pad for a lot of us, including Holst.

“Then of course we bring in our own networks - Holst centre is a collaboration between the Belgian IMEC and the Dutch TNO. Both organizations have excellent contacts both in the Netherlands and with worldwide industrial players. They also added credibility, especially in the early days. You cannot operate as a starting institute of few dozen people and hope to knock on the door of Panasonic in Japan to propose you'd like to do research with them. But if you have TNO and IMEC backing you, then a lot becomes possible very quickly.”

The important role for public funding

“Our kind of work needs a long horizon. From a basic idea to market introduction for a MEMS device takes 25-30 years. In software it is a lot faster, but in hardware development, a decade is not that long. So let me stress the importance of the initial government grant.”

“Companies typically want to pay for the short-term development of technologies which they see going to market in the next couple of years. But to be able to do that you also need the more fundamental, longer-term work. Typically, that's where public money is used.”

“Remember we offer open innovation research programmes. People pay and they get access to the IP, but we don’t benefit from any industrial commercial success. At the moment, 55% of Holst funding comes from industry, another 15% from Europe-wide projects, which leaves the missing 30% which needs to come from public funding.” 

“I believe there’s a lot of evidence to show it pays off. Look at the example of IMEC which has been supported by the Flemish government and which today has a global reputation. Holst Centre is a very similar story to IMEC in their early years.”

“Our funding runs until the end of this year, so we're currently re-negotiating the next 5 years with the Dutch government. There was also a major five year programme in the Netherlands called NanoNextNL. This was funded out of the natural gas resources and benefitted many Universities and industry as well as us. That also runs out this year.”

“So we need new ways to guarantee the long term funding of an institute like ours. The way we get money now is that the Dutch government gives us a percentage of our industrial revenue. So if we bring in €1 million, the government adds an extra €250,000. This is an excellent scheme – it keeps everyone sharp with a good incentive to perform. But, of course, this is nowhere near the 30 percent needed for the overall budget.”

“We also get funding from the city of Eindhoven, the province of Brabant, many different sources of income which means we have to deliver a lot of things to many different funders. For me, the ideal future is that you bundle together the requirements for some of these sources of funding to reduce the time spent renegotiating with all the various entities.”

Branching out the base of expertise

“We’re looking to broaden our focus. We have a strong reputation in health and lifestyle. In the early years we did things with agriculture, automotive. But even though the technology is reusable in many of those sectors, it is very hard for an institute to be visible in so many markets. So we pulled back to concentrate on health and lifestyle. Now, after 10 years, we think this is mature enough to start adding application areas. So we’re actively exploring whether our technologies have applications in sports, agriculture (animal wellness), food, automotive. We can build on our domain knowledge to tap into and contribute to more ecosystems.”

“The Holst Centre partner gathering on April 14th is an important milestone in our history. It is always remarkable to step back and observe the huge progress that has been made. I hope that everyone will realize the big difference we make and celebrate the results of this vibrant collaborative ecosystem. Because it is tremendous fun building the future!”

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