In the final event in the Deeptech Sandbox series we had the pleasure of hosting the Eindhoven region deep tech ecosystem experts at TalTech to share their insights and ways that have led to success in the area.
Eindhoven University of Technology belongs to the top 200 universities in the world and is in the top 10 of technical universities in Europe. The university has been selected to the top 10 research universities in terms of industrial collaboration. For example, in 2006-2008, 10-20% of all their scientific publications were written collectively with industrial partners. The pinnacle of their partnerships is the long-term close relationship with Philips. The university has also been considered as being the third in the Europe in terms of the impactfulness of their research (and the first out of technical universities). TalTech has been collaborating with the Eindhoven University of Technology through the EuroTeQ project for some time now. The Deeptech Sandbox event series allowed us to expand this collaboration to knowledge sharing regarding technology transfer and the deep tech ecosystem.
What was of particular interest in this event was the focus on how students can create deep tech innovation. Presentations by Madis Talmar and Nick Hol shed light on the support for student entrepreneurship. They explained that the Eindhoven University of Technology has for years been putting a lot of effort into the creation of student teams.
Student teams are typically NGOs (comparable to MTÜ in Estonia) created and run by students over a period of several years. Each has a specific challenge that they work on. Students change over the years, but the challenge remains. Once there are mature technologies or innovations resulting from the work done, new companies are created to take the innovations to market or the technology is licensed out. In Estonia, similar types of projects would be the student formula teams or the student satellite teams. However, in Eindhoven there are more such teams and they have a 3-person team supporting them at the university.
The university support for student teams is not focused on funding. Instead, the student teams must gather their own resources. As a result, every year these teams receive approximately 10 million euro worth of in-kind contributions and financial support from companies in the region. Companies are happy to contribute because the student teams get a lot of publicity and are working on important causes, such as tackling climate or energy problems.
A possible lesson from Eindhoven for Estonian higher education institutions is therefore to encourage and facilitate the creation of student teams. These are not companies, not startups, but rather volunteer-based teams that come up with new technologies and innovations. Eindhoven’s experience has been that these are excellent at bringing the deep tech projects to the point where they can be turned into investment-ready startups. These teams need guidance, clear procedures and rules (e.g. regarding intellectual property rights), training as well as the technical facilities for prototyping. Especially important for students is to have the facilities open also on weekends and at night.
Eindhoven University of Technology is taking setting challenges for students seriously. They have staff members actively scouting academia and industry for new challenges that are open-ended, interdisciplinary and collaborative. They recognise that working on these challenges can increase a student’s study time by some months, but do not consider it as a problem because students significantly increase their employability by working on these practical and innovative challenges.
Another interesting example for Estonia to consider increasing the deal flow of student deep tech startups is the Honours Academy programme. Participation in the programme is offered to students across the university who have the highest grades. The participants are then given research challenges to tackle over a 2-year period as an extracurricular activity. The solutions these bright students come up with can then be the basis of the formation of new student teams or lead to scientific publications or other outcomes.
Overall, Eindhoven representatives saw Estonia’s potential and emphasized that the key component is time. It takes years of strategic efforts from key individuals to build a world-class deep tech ecosystem. In addition to time, you need the numbers – thousands of students need to be working on hundreds of projects for there to be a handful of successful deep tech student startups. What helps to push the progress is that in Eindhoven the university is taking steps to prioritize flexible personalised learning paths and challenge-based learning. The hope is that, in addition to increased educational outcomes, this spurs innovation and encourages the creation of more deep tech startups. Classroom based approach is no longer seen as the way forward – instead, to motivate the current generation of students, Eindhoven recommends flexibility and mission-driven projects.