Want Faster Technology Innovation in Sustainability, Energy and Health?

Bring student scientists together from different research groups to work on an industry challenge. The results will make you a believer.

By Aaike van Vugt, CEO and Co-Founder, VSPARTICLE

You've been CEO of VSPARTICLE for a few years after spinning out of TU Delft. First off, how has your thinking changed about innovation from when you started? Can you give us a few major ways?

 

When I started with VSPARTICLE I believed that having the right technology and IP would mean that 90 percent of the company was finished and that I only needed to introduce it to the market. After four years of building VSPARTICLE, I now know that having a patented technology is only 1 percent of the work that needs to be done. The biggest challenge in innovation is getting enough people from different disciplines to co-create a new multifaceted concept. Only when someone else shares his or her viewpoint are you able to evaluate your own ideas. Or, put it this way: creation requires other people and ideas to bounce off of and to provide feedback. 

During the last few years I have seen this realization come to others involved in innovation as well. Take, for example, the universities who are constructing multi-disciplinary student teams to develop new concepts like solar cars that are competing in the Australian sun during the yearly ‘Solar Challenge’. The beauty of these student teams is that they are not constrained by a business model and can take more risks than most of the corporates. When new concepts are validated or succeed, entrepreneurial students are able to start venturing with the support of the high-tech incubator that is connected to the university. The best thing of all is that student teams are not only speeding up innovation, but also improving their education since students are able to work on real world problems during their study.

I have also seen numbers of articles claiming that one market or industry will never be the same because a researcher has created a certain breakthrough. When I started with VSParticle I was always impressed by such articles, but now I understand that these articles are saying 1 percent has been created and that there is a long road before any true breakthrough will appear in the market.

 

In your experience, what hinders the process of innovation and scientific discovery most?

 

One word: Protectionism. R&D doesn’t thrive when it is only done inside a company’s four walls. Sharing all your innovations with external partners will also not enable you to grow a profitable business. Finding the right balance within collaborative innovation is the challenge that hinders it the most.I have seen numerous examples where the balance was off and companies were spending millions of euros on concepts that never saw the light of day or received any feedback from potential customers. The biggest mistake is when people responsible for innovation believe so much in their own ideas that they think that they know exactly what the customer wants without even checking or they are too afraid to share their ideas with others in order to find out.

Finding the right balance within collaborative innovation is the challenge that hinders it the most.

 

In what ways is scientific research and development within industry done wrong (or done right) — in your opinion?

 

Innovation in the sense of incremental improvements is easy. In most cases it is enabled by having open dialogues with the existing customers. The biggest mistakes are made during the development of completely new concepts or scientific ideas. Every company thinks that they have hired the most brilliant people. In reality there are many brilliant people outside of your company. So to achieve the best innovation, it is crucial to interact as much as possible with the people outside of the company. Most companies also overestimate the risk of sharing new ideas at an early stage. I really believe that companies should stimulate their people to focus more on co-creation instead of isolated innovation. Ninety-nine percent of your ideas will probably never create any value if you keep them within the company. Also, at VSPARTICLE we have signed numerous, in hindsight, useless, Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs).  New ideas or technologies only thrive in collaborative ecosystems, not in piles of NDAs. Only through collaboration can we understand where our technology can make the biggest impact in the near- and long-term future.

I really believe that companies should stimulate their people to focus more on co-creation instead of isolated innovation.

The US has the phenomenon of Silicon Valley. There has been many different initiatives over the last 20 years to try and spur a similar style of innovation and scientific startup creation within Europe. Do you think that it will ever be a reality here in the same way it is in the US? Why or why not?

Disruptive industries require motivated founders to validate new concepts and business models before they start focussing on profitability.

Silicon Valley is unique in the sense that investors are willing to put their money into disruptive 'dreams' instead or into companies that can show they will be profitable next year. This is a positive thing in terms of innovation. Disruptive industries require motivated founders to validate new concepts and business models before they start focussing on profitability. Tesla is a nice example of how the initial products haven’t been launched to create profits for shareholders, but to enable the production of mass market electric cars. Most investors in Europe are pushing too much on short term profitability, which makes it very difficult to create such an ecosystem of long-term disrupters.The ecosystem will only grow when investors are willing to invest in dreams and when founders think bigger. If Europe wants to play any role in-between the US and China, it should start fostering disruptors in the same way.

Most investors in Europe are pushing too much on short term profitability, which makes it very difficult to create such an ecosystem of long-term disrupters.

You have described the scientific community as rather insular and that this creates walls between disciplines. How can this culture be changed in order to spur innovation?

 

Interestingly, changes are already happening. Universities are structuring themselves more and more around big real world challenges like helping solve Climate Change or new methods for the Circular Economy (Sustainability) instead of the old way of different engineering disciplines. In the same way as with the student teams I mentioned earlier, the moment you start to focus on real world problems it becomes clear that the solution can only be found by cross-disciplinary collaboration. The past decades have been about the development of different engineering disciplines, the future will be about accelerated innovation by fostering crossovers between different disciplines. A nice example of this, in fact, is how VSPARTICLE, a nanotech company, is enabling the healthcare market to develop treatments for tumors with materials that normally end up in your laptop or smartphone.

The past decades have been about the development of different engineering disciplines, the future will be about accelerated innovation by fostering crossovers between different disciplines.