Alexander Pil
9 May

After two years of preparation, Eindhoven Engine is off the starting blocks. The initiative aims to boost innovation in the Brainport region – and beyond – by having industry engineers work shoulder to shoulder with scientific researchers on groundbreaking developments.

Last month, Eindhoven Engine officially kicked off. With the initiative, Fontys, TNO and Eindhoven University of Technology aim to accelerate research projects by providing a place where scientific researchers and students can innovate across borders, in a disruptive manner, together with industrial engineers. The first projects have already been launched, targeting smart mobility, new wafer stages, detection and treatment techniques for cardiovascular diseases, and smart cities.

The driving force behind Eindhoven Engine is TUE professor Maarten Steinbuch, who says he’s inspired by three experiences from his career. “In the 1990s, I worked at the Natlab. I saw that there were no boundaries between the different disciplines. We spoke to each other over coffee and shared our progress and ideas during the famous Thursday morning meetings. Since the dramatic reduction of Philips Research, with several of their former activities spinning out to form separate companies, a pillarization has taken place. Because of this, there’s only limited substantive interaction; perhaps only if they happen to come together in a consortium. Smart mobility doesn’t talk to high-tech machine construction, which doesn’t talk to healthcare, which doesn’t talk to smart homes.”

Sources of inspiration for Eindhoven Engine are the famous Natlab culture, the successful Kenniswerkersregeling and the creative young researchers at the university. Image: Eindhoven Engine

Steinbuch’s second source of inspiration comes from the success of the Kenniswerkersregeling, or knowledge workers arrangement. About ten years ago, during the Great Crisis, the Ministry of Economic Affairs supported the hard-hit high tech industry. Under the new knowledge worker program, companies were able to temporarily send their R&D employees, using highly subsidized grants, to a knowledge institution to work on topics that were relevant to both the company and society. Thus, preventing dismissals and avoiding staff shortages, so as not to thwart economic recovery.

“The example I always cite is that we had freed up space at our faculty for 15 engineers from Daf and its suppliers. Together with the researchers from my group, they developed the very first hybrid truck drive, within a year and a half,” says Steinbuch. “It was incredibly inspiring to get that practical experience. And vice versa, it was a huge incentive for those engineers to be so close to fundamental research. Knowledge-wise, they felt completely refreshed.”

The third motivation stems from the research culture on the university campus. “We have a golden asset: our young students and researchers who innovate creatively. Look at Storm, the student team that built an electric motor and then drove it around the world. Large organizations already regularly set up small teams that are explicitly instructed to disrupt the parent company. Such a club is not stuck and can, therefore, iterate faster and innovate freely.”

Colocation

These three elements – Natlab, the Kenniswerkersregeling and the student teams – form the basis for Eindhoven Engine. “Colocation is the key word,” says Steinbuch. “Remove the engineers from their own organization and let them walk parallel paths here on campus in complete freedom. Together with students, PhD students and PDEng trainees from TUE, and researchers from Fontys and TNO.” Eindhoven Engine is definitely not a “TUE thing,” Steinbuch emphasizes. “We’re open to researchers from other knowledge institutions.”

Colocation isn’t new. “Fortunately, not,” Steinbuch acknowledges. “However, with other initiatives, you often see that either the scientists or the engineers predominate. In Eindhoven Engine, we remove the engineers from their company and put them together with our researchers at least a few days a week. That’s a unique proposition. We’ll see if it indeed has the added value that we expect it to have. We’ll learn and adapt according to our experiences.”

How does Eindhoven Engine relate to the High Tech Systems Center, TUE’s mechatronics center? This also operates on the interface between industry and university. “The HTSC works great as a single point of contact for business,” says Steinbuch. “We do challenge-based research with a strong multidisciplinary component. It’s aimed internally at PhD students. In addition to the expansion to colocation, Eindhoven Engine is more large-scale, more project-based and not just focused on high-tech machine construction. Also, especially in the long term, mainly PDEng trainees and students will work in Eindhoven Engine. They’re a bit closer to practice.”

The driving force behind Eindhoven Engine is TUE professor Maarten Steinbuch (left). Photo: Eindhoven Engine/Bart van Overbeeke

Hundred million

Eindhoven Engine receives financial support from the Brainport Action Agenda. A maximum of half a million euros is available per project. Participating companies or consortia are expected to contribute in cash, people and equipment, so that the total budget, including TKI allowance, amounts to around three million euros per project.

The Multimedia Pavilion on the TUE campus now offers space for four to six projects. The ambition is to grow to around five hundred people within five years, fairly distributed across industry and knowledge institutions. Sounds ambitious, but Eindhoven Engine has a budget of almost one hundred million euros for the next four years, so it’s not impossible. All those researchers are not on the Eindhoven Engine payroll; they’re paid for by the company where they work or the knowledge institution to which they’re affiliated.

In addition to Steinbuch, Clement Goossens has been closely involved in the first phase of Eindhoven Engine. As the first director, he and his team were responsible for the development of the center that was delivered last month. Now, Goossens is taking a step back and passing the baton to Katja Pahnke, who will be the new director. She and Steinbuch are going to pull the cart. In addition, they receive ample support from industry through an advisory board with representatives from, among others, ASML, NTS, NXP, Philips, Signify and VDL.

Export product

Eindhoven Engine’s initial focus is on Brainport. “If the concept works, it will have an impact on the entire region,” Steinbuch expects. He has larger plans, though. “We’re now starting with the TUE location of Eindhoven Engine. That’s hub 1. In the coming years, we want to see how the initiative works and how we can then export it. We aspire to collaborate with the Brainport Industries Campus, say hub 2. And with the Automotive Campus in Helmond, hub 3, the Maxima Medical Center, hub 4, and the High Tech Campus, hub 5. We can also roll it out to other innovation clusters in the Netherlands and Europe. There’s already a lot of interest from abroad to see how our ideas can be translated. But first, we need to get things on track ourselves.”

Main photo: Eindhoven Engine/Bart van Overbeeke