‘We’re becoming the creativity and impact hotspot’
By Jurjen Slump
Paul Althuis has been in charge of the TU Delft Innovation & Impact Centre since 2005. Under his leadership in the last fifteen years, there have been countless initiatives, the most visible of which are field labs, such as RoboValley and The Green Village. So, what’s the secret behind the TU Delft innovation projects and what will it take to be able to make a real impact on society? “Create mass. Make choices. And invest in the knowledge economy.”
According to Althuis, the recipe for innovation is actually quite simple. “What unites us in Delft is the fact that we’re continually working on new things.” You have to set up initiatives and evaluate them, to see if they work. Based on that, you can move on to the next steps. The theme-based field labs are a good example. They function as linking pins in the innovation ecosystem and connect all parties working on new products and applications, unlocking a knowledge flow to students, PhD’s and spin-offs to large companies as well local and regional SMEs.
“They’ve enabled us to achieve a unique position”, Althuis says. Thanks to these labs, the market parties know how to find us. At the same time, they’re places where you can test, validate and market innovations at speed.”
Work is now underway on the next step: scaling up. If you accommodate theme-based field labs together with research institutes, start-ups and the project research of large companies within a single environment, you can have an even greater impact. “Take robotics and AI: RoboValley is full, and so is Sam|XL, leading to a brake on development.” By clustering robotics and AI in one building, you’re creating the circumstances for significant growth and can establish projects that are even more ambitious.
This clustering is important. “Bundling talent together can be a source of innovation,” argues Althuis. Take quantum: the concentration of talented scientists has created innovation. Microsoft moved onto campus and there were spin-offs as a result. “You need to create mass in order to advance innovation. We have one of the largest communities of AI scientists here, capable of bringing about enormous changes. But, to do that, you have to be able to make progress and have the confidence to do so.”
How do you look back on the last fifteen years?
“As a university, we’ve become increasingly outward-looking. We’re focusing more and more on the outside world. We’re not there yet, but what we’ve achieved lays the foundations for further progress. One of the most important lessons is that, above all, you need to experiment. Only then can you determine where there’s potential for growth.”
Open your eyes and look abroad. Across a range of areas, people have advanced much further in innovation than we have. Take the US, where they introduced knowledge valorisation some forty years before we did. That created a culture with an extreme focus on innovation and entrepreneurship. We also have a lot to learn from the ‘giving back’ culture, in which alumni donate large amounts to their alma mater.Paul Althuis, Director Valorisation Centre
What ambition do you have for the next fifteen years?
"Universities play a leading role in developing long-term innovation ecosystems. I want to see TU Delft Campus become even more of an impact and creativity hotspot. In twenty years' time, the campus will have taken shape even more thematically. By then, this place will be buzzing with amazing vibrancy from companies and faculties all mingled together. We'll be part of an innovation district: connected with the city and surrounding innovative locations for scale-ups and companies to thrive."
What will be the major themes?
“Looking ahead to 2050, there are two important themes: sustainability/climate and digitisation. We’re already investing heavily in these areas and I have no reason to expect huge changes in these themes. In concrete terms for TU Delft, this means focusing on human-centered robotics, quantum, medtech with AI applications and a number of subjects in which we’re traditionally strong: energy, water and mobility. If we are to ensure that the world stays liveable for the generations that follow, society will need to transition. With TU Delft, we can make an amazing difference. It’s our task to be constantly working on that.”
The city of the future
When asked for a moon-shot project on which Paul Althuis would be eager to work, his response is the city of the future. “In the fields of housing, employment and mobility, all the major societal challenges coincide with the new, radical technologies being developed at TU Delft. Take, for example, AI (mobility and autonomous driving), sustainability/energy (the built environment), medtech (the care people receive), robotics (employers will be working much more with intelligent machines), quantum (the quantum computer has an impact across society), blockchain (the provision of services) and AgTech (food supply). We’re working with the AMS Institute on countless solutions, but ideally we will opt for a complete city as a living lab for research and innovation, obviously in close consultation with the residents.”
You depend on government and the business community for a lot of innovations. Is the government doing enough in terms of innovation?
“Successfully marketing innovations requires patience. People do not fully understand that. There can be a sharper focus and less emphasis on achieving consensus. If you want to be a pioneer in innovation and create a knowledge economy to go with it, you also need to be clear about what you do and do not want to invest in. Focus on key priorities in which our country can stand out positively.”
“For exports, the Netherlands still depends a lot on horticulture and agriculture. That means you need to focus much more on a sustainable agricultural sector. When it comes to climate, no clear choice is being made either. Will we switch completely to wind and solar energy or will it be hydrogen? What are we going to do?”
Should the government take more of a coordinating role?
“Yes. The government should do more than just set out specific ambitions; it should also make things mandatory. In areas like reducing CO2 emissions, for example. Otherwise, nothing will change. The government can develop a successful climate policy at much greater scale. You could take one city as a showcase for everything we’re capable of in terms of renewable energy and mobility. That will hugely accelerate innovation on a range of key themes (see box).”
And the business community?
“The industry also has its own part to play. For example, they can play a major role in driving sustainability, helped by new applications that we as a university are developing together with them. I also think that companies should take responsibility and discuss this with their shareholders.”
What can we learn from abroad?
“I think Germany is a good example. That country has invested much more substantially in the knowledge economy, although they already have firm foundations thanks to their numerous technology-based SMEs. We are lacking those foundations and need to take action in that area. TU Delft contributes to this by helping spin-offs in the development of scalable technology and we hope that the government will also attempt to speed things up with its National Growth Fund.”
Will that be enough?
“I would invest the whole of the National Growth Fund in a targeted attempt to boost the knowledge economy. It now amounts to twenty billion euros, but it should have been fifty billion.”
Finally, what demands do these developments place on education and research?
“We’re good at fundamental research and need to keep it that way. All the radical innovations we develop are based on breakthrough technologies. We also need to promote entrepreneurship, ensuring that this research can benefit society as well. Everyone who does their Bachelor’s or Master’s degree programme here should have the option of taking courses in entrepreneurship and the opportunity to start up a company.”
Open innovation or co-creation?
Co-creation and open innovation are terms that are often used in the context of innovation. Paul Althuis believes that co-creation has the advantage. “Although open innovation is not outdated as a model, most people see more value in co-creation, in which both the university and a company explore potential ways to innovate. In the case of open innovation, the passion is more one-sided: a company concludes that it’s unable to innovate alone and goes in search of a partner. It then passes the ball to the other party. Co-creation is much more about working together to achieve it. In my view, co-creation is set to become significantly more important.”