Paul van Gerven
6 May 2016

The Holst Centre pulled out all the stops on 14 April in Amsterdam to celebrate its tenth anniversary. Employees, partners and other invitees flocked to the Kromhouthal on the IJ river to look back on a decade of research and development. The ideas that underpinned the institute’s founding back then are more current than ever. Yet it will be a major challenge in the centre’s second decade to ensure that the Netherlands reaps the economic benefits of the centre’s accumulated knowledge and expertise.

Autonomous sensor networks were an exotic what-if when the Holst Centre was founded in 2006. Though most people had been carrying around a mobile phone for years, it was a clunky and expensive way to access the internet. Not until the launch of the Iphone in 2007 did mankind definitively enter the connected age. And gradually, it started to seem reasonable that man’s environment would follow him into the web.

Back then, we hadn’t yet heard the term we now use for that, the Internet of Things (IoT), but Imec’s vision – which underpins half of the Holst Centre – still stands proud and tall. The IoT is viewed as one of the major forces that will drive the evolution of electronics in the coming years.

We can say largely the same for the other leg of the Holst foundation, which focuses on electronic systems mounted on flexible plastic substrates. When Philips transferred the technology to the institute after twenty years of research, it was still promising but not yet ready for prime time. Today ‘flextronics’ is poised to bestow new features and lower costs on a wealth of application areas, from healthcare to logistics and from automotive to lighting.

In short, the best is yet to come at Holst. In its first decade the centre helped clarify concepts, develop the required fundamental technology, and in many cases capture it in a demonstrator. In contrast to universities, Holst also focuses explicitly on developing the associated manufacturing processes. Certainly now that it has opened one of the world’s most advanced test production lines for flextronics, Holst is primed to make a real impact on the market.

ASML special
Holst Centre

Tweaks

That move to the market is already well underway, of course; there’s a reason more than fifty industrial partners have signed on to Holst’s programmes. But there’s a catch: because many of them are foreign, the region sees little benefit from their participation. From a financial point of view, the fruits reaped to date amount to just three young spin-offs. That’s a far cry from fulfilling the regional industry’s longstanding dream of creating a new ASML.

That puts Holst in the same position as its parent organization, Imec, across the border: its research is partially paid for with public funds (about half at present), but the results are converted to cash in other countries. Public authorities are asking themselves whether they can justify their investments. A few years ago, it was a Herculean effort to scrape together the institute’s budget, and right now public funding for 2017 and beyond is still uncertain. Just like ECN, TNO and other Dutch research institutes, Holst is caught in the middle of a battlefield.

Paradoxically enough, Holst’s public-private setup is simultaneously being used by the public authorities as a blueprint to design infrastructure for public applied research. Similar centres have opened in Groningen (chemistry) and Limburg (energy). Though it’s first and foremost Holst’s responsibility to prove its value for the Netherlands, its exemplary role means a few tweaks to Dutch innovation policy might not be out of line.