Maarten Buijs shares his personal experience in trying to get innovations to the market before startups were a thing.
I recently became involved in a scale-up in point-of-care diagnostics. As I’ve mentioned in earlier columns, I’ve always been fascinated by startups and scale-ups and how they’ve taken over the market introduction of breakthrough technologies, through the force of close-knit, focused and driven teams.
My first encounter with startups was at Philips’ Natlab. In my group, at the end of the nineties, the unsurpassed duo of Frits Dijksman and Riné Dona had developed a prototype of a nifty autonomous vacuum cleaner. Philips researchers had already been working on such an appliance, based on cameras, image recognition, most efficient route calculation – in short: the (expensive) works. Frits and Riné had the brilliant idea to simplify this by having the cleaner perform a random walk, change direction when encountering an obstacle – the same principle my invaluable lawnmower is still using.
Frits had a simple laptop simulation showing that such a cleaner could completely cover a sizable room with furniture with one full battery charge. Riné had added rollers to the circumference of the cleaner’s wheels so that it could move perpendicular to the plane of the wheels, which added significantly to the agility of the robot.
Once the prototype and the simulation were to satisfaction, the three of us took the robot to Hoogeveen, the headquarters of Philips’ vacuum cleaner business unit. They were polite and showed interest, but that was as far as it went. As it turned out, they were involved with a US startup working on a robot cleaner, which was all they needed. That was the day I realized that corporate research wasn’t the way to bring breakthroughs to the market anymore.
I decided to follow up on this insight regarding innovation-to-market with another breakthrough we were working on in my group, a miniature scanning electron microscope (SEM) column. My group carried out long-term research for FEI, which had acquired Philips Electron Optics. Our main research task was focused on correcting optics for regular SEM columns. Our mini SEM was a corporate research effort, not part of the contract research for FEI. And FEI wasn’t very interested in what we saw as a paradigm changer.
Having learned from the autonomous vacuum cleaner case, I wanted to see whether we could bypass FEI through the incubator that Philips Research had started somewhat earlier. It was a worthwhile exercise, but in the end, it was concluded that the route through FEI was still more appropriate than through the incubator.
Later, FEI did start selling a table-top SEM, which incorporated significant parts of the mini-SEM IP. Still, it took a circuitous route for the product, the Phenom, to become a nice product. The salespeople at FEI were paid on commission and were used to selling instruments that were orders of magnitude more expensive. In the end, the Phenom landed in the portfolio of Thermo Fischer Scientific.
This was all around the year 2000. While my own experiences at that time may not have been very successful, innovating through startups has become an entrenched route, even for deep tech with its decades-long path to market entry. I’m very excited to now be involved in a very promising first-hand experience!