Program directors Circular Technology and Smart Industry: “Combining strengths is paying off”
The Thematic Technology Transfer programs (TTTs) Smart Industry and Circular Technology have moved beyond the pioneering phase and are achieving success. Program directors Maurits Burgering (Circular Technology, left in the picture) and Nico Nijenhuis (Smart Industry, right in the picture) help promising ideas take off every day. They share their experiences.
The core principle of the TTTs’ mission is to create a stronger foundation for spinoffs. The Knowledge Transfer Offices (KTOs) therefore combined their strengths. What was that like in the beginning?
Nico: “When we launched these two TTTs in 2020, there was a lot we had to discover together as we went along. The four technical universities (Delft, Eindhoven, Twente and Wageningen), TNO and their respective valorization offices had no real experience with working together on valorization. I’ll be honest, it was quite stressful at times. I really felt like we were pioneers. All of a sudden, we had a brand-new program. It was new for us, but also for the government. Setting everything up and finding our way took time, but now – more than a year later – I think we have done a good job. More and more entrepreneurial researchers benefit from this new structure.”
Maurits: “That pioneering aspect was indeed unique. Together with education and research, valorization is a core task of the universities. The valorization offices have their affairs in order. We screen, we scout. What inventions from the lab are potentially interesting for a patent? How can we bring that knowledge to market? These days, it is part of our DNA, but especially during the early days, I found that the KTOs still had to get used to working together – despite the fact that this collaboration is very much needed. It was clear that the universities were sometimes still too protective of their IP. That willingness to share and the growing trust between us have been wonderful developments. There are already multiple successful examples of jointly owned IP coming out of these TTTs.”
“During the early days, the KTOs still had to get used to working together”
Why is that combination of strengths of the valorization offices so important?
Nico: “When it comes to research, the universities compete with each other in a certain way. On the other hand, they find each other when it comes to the substance of public-private partnerships. After all, they often draw from the same sources to acquire funding for research. When it comes to creating successful spinoffs, we all share the same goal. Working together on valorization is a unique opportunity. We are doing that for the Netherlands as a high-tech country and it is important to optimally stimulate entrepreneurialism. We need a stronger knowledge base for our spinoffs.”
Maurits: “That knowledge base consists primarily of domain knowledge pertaining to specific, often overlapping themes. The KTOs complement each other in that sense. The field of medical technology is structured entirely differently than that of circular technology. Not just in terms of the technology itself, but also with regard to intellectual property, business models, legislation and markets. We now have a far broader network, fewer obstacles and a stronger foundation for spinoffs. If I cannot answer a question posed by an entrepreneurial talent in Wageningen, my colleagues in Delft, Eindhoven or Twente might be able to.”
What can the TTTs concretely do for entrepreneurial researchers with a good idea?
Maurits: “In the Dutch funding landscape for spinoffs, relatively little money is available for early-phase development. We are working to change that. When a promising idea presents itself at a university or at TNO, the local KTO will first assess its market potential. After that, the TTTs can quickly provide financial clout and broader support.”
Nico: “Even during that early idea phase, entrepreneurs can acquire up to two tickets. Soon afterwards, the spinoff can receive a convertible loan via partner funds. We regularly see that this makes other (co-)investors more willing to jump on board as well. It works like a flywheel.”
What do you personally think about this new approach?
Maurits: “It makes me happy to talk to a spinoff that we funded at an early stage with a ticket and to listen to their ambitions and drive. You have to understand what that dynamic is like for a young researcher. They often have many paths to choose from. Join a major corporation, move abroad or launch a startup or spinoff. In such cases, you cannot take six months to arrange funding, because they will be long gone by then. There is no time for a bureaucratic, time-consuming tender procedure. If you come up with a good idea today, the TTTs can issue a ticket for it tomorrow if need be.’
Nico: “As an entrepreneur, I know the difference it makes to receive support and trust at an early stage. Of course, we have to make choices. There are limits to what we can do. Especially in the beginning, young entrepreneurs do not have to earn a CEO’s wages. There will certainly be entrepreneurs whom we have to turn down. Even so, it is best to invest a little money early on than go through a lengthy funding process that ultimately leads to nothing. Talent needs trust, which is exactly what the TTTs offer.”