Antoinette Brugman
2 July 2020

In its five years of existence, the High Tech Systems Center (HTSC) has acquired a prominent position as a link between business and academia. Companies like to work with them and researchers like to be connected. What’s the key to this success? According to Katja Pahnke, HTSC’s co-director, leadership is as vital as technical excellence.

It took some time to adjust five years ago, when she started next to Maarten Steinbuch as director at High Tech Systems Center (HTSC). Katja Pahnke is originally a chemist, not an electrical engineer, software engineer, mechanical engineer, mechatronics engineer or physicist – the type of experts that HTSC usually brings together. “I came here looking to set up an organization and establish a new style of collaboration. Early on, I dealt with a lot of smart people who were focused mostly on content and quality of research, rather than on how to do things smarter or more commercially. That felt a bit lonely in the beginning.” Nowadays, Pahnke feels very comfortable, as her personal leadership has helped to successfully expand the activities of HTSC.

HTSC brings several research activities in the field of complex high-tech systems to a single research center. The organization is embedded in Eindhoven University of Technology (TUE) and combines the expertise of the faculties of mechanical and electrical engineering, mathematics and computer science, as well as applied physics. HTSC carries out multidisciplinary fundamental research and designs new concepts and prototypes in close collaboration between the academia and industry.

Pahnke: “Businesses will come to HTSC to talk about the issues they’re encountering in industry. However, from the start, we’ve also had our own matching funds, which allows us to investigate issues with far more academic freedom. The researchers obviously find this free research very important, but industry also benefits as they look to be surprised with new ideas. Sometimes, this kind of collaboration produces unexpected innovations that turn out to be gold. This is the kind of collaboration that we work to facilitate. Sometimes, we jokingly say: we get paid to color outside the lines!”

Multidisciplinary consortia

HTSC has made consortia building a cornerstone of its structure. A prerequisite for a consortium is that it’s multidisciplinary, involves several faculties and that it also includes an aspect of system architecture. The basis of any new research project always stems from a research question that’s derived from an industrial problem. So far, it seems this method is working, as the number of research positions at HTSC has doubled over the last five years – from 100 to over 200. Of these positions, 80 percent are PhD candidates and 20 percent are trainees of the Mechatronic Systems Design course (PDEng).

“In terms of hiring researchers, a lot has changed in the five years of our existence,” says Pahnke. “When we started, researchers from the university were mainly selected based on their substantive knowledge and the pool to select the new talent was big. Our faculties would decide which candidate best fits a research project in terms of education and experience. Currently, however, talent is much scarcer and one aspect is becoming increasingly important: how do we, at TUE, ensure that people choose us? I’m convinced that leadership also plays a major role in this.”

“By using effective leadership qualities,” Pahnke continues, “you can ensure that there’s an inspiring working atmosphere within your organization, that you can offer researchers and employees cool challenges and that they’re given room to flourish as much as possible. This is how you ensure that people can utilize their strengths. This is exactly what I’m working on together with Maarten Steinbuch. This approach is clearly working, as the interest in working with us continues to expand. We can talk about the content and ways to fine-tune it, but we also have a sincere interest in people and a sensitivity to their ambitions. We aim to find people that have strong personalities and show ownership, entrepreneurship and tenacity to achieve their goals, such as agility to maneuver in complex circumstances.”

Together, Pahnke and Steinbuch have a large network. When forming a multidisciplinary team, they carefully decide which person best fits the team in terms of personality and content. However, Pahnke emphasizes that there’s something else she finds very important in her team: diversity. “I believe that you need diversity for maximum inspiration and new innovations, by cross-disciplinary work. By this, I mean that you need, for example, people who may be a bit chaotic, but who are incredibly creative at the same time. In addition, you also need people who work in a structured way and who can mold something into a plan, start it up and finish it off. The strength of leadership is that you bring this diversity to your team. This requires competencies from the hard, substantive side, but certainly also from the soft, personal side. I find it important that you empower people in this complex environment and that you offer them a pleasant working environment to which they want to commit themselves. And that every team member takes ownership and shows commitment to contribute to this. If you only focus on content, you can’t achieve this. This requires personal leadership.”

HTSC Maarten Steinbuch Katja Pahnke
Maarten Steinbuch and Katja Pahnke talk about the content, but they also have a sincere interest in their people. Credit: HTSC

Personal leadership

“For me, the success of an organization starts with personal leadership,” Pahnke explains. “What I mean is that you have to know yourself well, as an executive, and keep yourself on track. It’s important to know how to set goals, stay true to your values and act accordingly. It’s also important that you realize you’re setting an example and you consciously show it. If you can display these characteristics, people in an environment with complex substantive questions will be driven to work with you. That’s how leadership binds good people to you and creates a good team. If you then show good leadership as a team, this, in turn, has a positive influence on the organization as a whole, and ultimately on the ecosystem in which the organization operates. In my opinion, this layering is an important aspect.”

To maintain a good connection between academia and industry, HTSC works with fellows and program managers. “Fellows are people from industry who work part-time at HTSC and are a figurehead in a particular area or domain. They are real professionals, forming the link with the business community and playing a crucial role in the valorization of knowledge and embedded systems thinking. They have connections in industry and can make the link to scientists and faculties to develop new programs,” illustrates Pahnke. “One of them, for example, is Ton Peijnenburg, deputy general manager at VDL ETG. He has a great deal of knowledge about mechatronics, he masters thinking in system architecture like no other and is familiar with what’s involved in designing systems. Our program managers are the people who can build a large consortium in a specific area, for example robotics or 3D printing. Program managers are also people from industry, who work part-time for HTSC.”

Successfully bridging the gap between the business community and TUE is another area that Pahnke believes leadership comes into play. “One important role in leadership is how you deal with the differences between the organizations. Maarten Steinbuch and I have both worked in industry, as well as in a university environment. I also worked at the applied science organization TNO. As a result, we know the culture of these organizations and the field in which they operate, we know how processes run and how the innovation chain runs. Because you’re familiar with the organizations, you speak each other’s language and can better tune in and respond to the differences and build on the complementary qualities for a common goal,” highlights Pahnke. “For example, the university is characterized – something that touches enormously on my German values – by striving to be the best and wanting to excel. Because of this, projects can sometimes take a long time. In the business world, people also want to show excellent entrepreneurship, but sometimes 80 percent of the result is sufficient for this as other aspects come into play, such as the much higher dynamics and commercial interests. But it’s precisely because of these differences that both worlds can learn a lot from each other and come together.”

The Amsystems Center, a joint innovation center for additive manufacturing, is a good example to illustrate how personal leadership can lead to success in the high-tech world. “I knew TNO very well and TNO was physically in the TUE area – proximity helps enormously. The idea had long been to set up a multidisciplinary collaboration, but this often stuck to policy matters,” remembers Pahnke. “We then put our shoulders to the wheel together, took ownership and showed strength and speed. The Amsystems Center was created and in just three years’ time, the efforts culminated in almost 20 PhDs and a few Mechatronics Systems Design designers, in addition to many joint research projects,” Pahnke says with pride.

HTSC Katja Pahnke 1
Katja Pahnke: “Personal leadership starts with knowing yourself, knowing how to set goals, how to remain faithful to your values and to act accordingly.” Credit: Paul Raats


Even large companies and industry leaders see the additional value of the multidisciplinary character of the projects within HTSC. This became evident when ASML reached out wanting to set up a project with a totally new wafer stage concept using piezo actuators, in addition to other tweaks. For this, the chip machine maker wanted to take a few steps back in the design of an existing concept, to be able to make a new design in complete freedom, but with one condition: this process could only be successful if it was carried out on colocation in a multidisciplinary team.

“When discussing ASML’s plans, we saw opportunities to transfer this project to Eindhoven Engine, a public-private research organization on the TUE campus that accelerates innovations in the Brainport region. At HTSC, we work on projects that last four years on average. At Eindhoven Engine, however, we have projects in which knowledge institutes – TUE, Fontys and TNO – and industry work together so efficiently that they bring innovations to the market more quickly,” describes Pahnke. “The enormous acceleration at Eindhoven Engine is achieved by working on a number of parallel projects, in different domains, and by the collaboration of employees from the business community with researchers from the academic world and knowledge institutes. Through cross-fertilization between the various parallel projects, taking place at one common location and through a certain way of working, projects are accelerated and the collective intelligence is better utilized.”

The successful project with ASML shows that it’s important for innovations to adopt a different approach. Pahnke explains: “You have to organize unexpected encounters between different disciplines, but also between researchers and industry. A source of inspiration was the Philips Natlab. By putting people from different disciplines together in a colocation, surprising things are created.”

“I’m convinced that we’ve shown that the collaboration we’re facilitating from HTSC is a very promising way of working for the future. An adaptive, agile organization at the interface of industry and science, such as HTSC, can help to set innovations in motion and keep them in the region. It can also help to attract and retain the talent you need to do so. In the end, you want to get the right people in the right place, and you want to retain them. In my opinion, this can only be achieved through personal leadership. And yes, finally that also affects your team, your organization and the ecosystem in which you operate. And that’s what you want!”