TU/e’s driver of entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurship Ambassador Sjoerd Romme aims to improve both the infrastructure and the culture relating to entrepreneurship at TU/e.
Entrepreneurship holds few secrets for Sjoerd Romme; Entrepreneurship & Innovation is the domain of his professorship at the Department of Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences, a position he has held for many years. So his new role as TU/e Entrepreneurship Ambassador fits him like a glove. He is tasked with spreading the entrepreneurial spirit among students and employees, and he has four years in which to do so.
In Sjoerd Romme's family the professor of Entrepreneurship is something of an exotic. He is virtually the only member who isn't an entrepreneur. His grandfather on his mother's side founded a major Dutch wholesalers, Sligro, in the 1930s. “On that side of the family everyone is an entrepreneur. To be honest, it's the same story on my father's side, with a couple of teachers as exceptions. My three brothers: all entrepreneurs. I'm actually the only one in the family who works in the academic world,” says Romme. “So in a way it makes sense that I've become professor of Entrepreneurship. I frequently work with entrepreneurs and I train them. Working in this discipline suits my genes down to the ground.”
Moreover, science is actually entrepreneurship but with a regular paycheck, Romme believes. “The processes of running a commercial business are almost identical to those in science. It's all about pioneering, exploring, finding ways to get things done, seeking and serving target audiences whose issues you are trying to resolve.”
Entrepreneurship at TU/e
Getting back to the university, Romme is taking up his new role as TU/e's Entrepreneurship Ambassador, a management position he fulfils one day a week. He aims to bring together and streamline all the parties engaged in entrepreneurship. So, for example, technology-driven entrepreneurship in education; the one-stop shop for starting entrepreneurs The Gate; enterprising employees and students; the TU/e holding company; and TU/e innovation Space, where challenge-based learning is the vehicle by which entrepreneurial thinking is developed. As well as external parties keen to collaborate with the university in the area of entrepreneurship, they too fall within Romme’s scope.
“We aim to become an entrepreneurial university, producing students with an entrepreneurial and innovative spirit, but there is no clear process in place to bring this policy to life. There hasn't been anyone whose main focus is entrepreneurship, so things been given a low priority and left undone. Now I'm sitting in the driving seat; I'm going to connect parties and roll out the policy.” Together, we are going to improve both the infrastructure and the culture relating to entrepreneurship, with the added benefit that the new technologies developed here can be valorized. We need to radiate entrepreneurship more strongly in what we both say and do.”
The Netherlands are one of the most entrepreneurial nations in the world
Sjoerd Romme, TU/e Entrepreneurship Ambassador
“Do you know which country has the most self-employed professionals per thousand citizens?” Romme asks suddenly. “China and the Netherlands! So by this definition we are one of the most entrepreneurial nations in the world. But much more use could be made of this entrepreneurial potential. I suggest that instead of encouraging self-employed entrepreneurship, we would do well to create more deep tech businesses. These generate huge growth in employment. Take ASML for example, not only does it need a whole raft of employees, it enables a chain of suppliers to ride the wave of its success.”
Last year a study was published on academic entrepreneurship at the university. It reveals that students and researchers share the same needs when it comes to supporting a start-up of their own. Topping the list is help with finding a network able to lend their incipient business financial and legal assistance. Clear policy on intellectual property is also needed. After all, who owns an innovation conceived at TU/e and who may use it to start a business?
As of this academic year students no longer transfer their rights in intellectual property to the university at the outset. At present, for any innovations that may arise from student work, the issue of co-ownership is settled on a project-by-project basis. But new guidance on intellectual property is in the pipeline. Romme indicates that much work remains to be done on this theme, especially as it relates to student-entrepreneurs. “In the coming months I'm going to push this forward.”
“Once the new policy is in place, we need to communicate clearly what is and isn't possible. Inexperienced student-entrepreneurs are currently getting frustrated during negotiations about the property held in their start-ups; about the size of the percentage the TU/e holding company is taking; and the conditions under which a private limited company can be set up. This can be prevent if at an early stage you add an experienced entrepreneur to the student team, as a coach or co-entrepreneur. Someone like this has experience of estimating the monetary value of what TU/e develops in its labs. This changes the perception of what is and isn't fair. Let's not forget, the fact that TU/e makes a commitment to a start-up gives it creditworthiness and stability.”
Unpaid leave to start a business
Romme’s to-do list is long and revolves around what the university can do to nurture, track and further help students and employees with aspirations to start a company of their own. Promises made tend to relate to networks lending financial and legal support. Take, for example, the granting of entrepreneur status to students. This gives them the same rights as students who perform as elite athletes and have leeway in when they attend lectures and exams; the intention being to make it as easy as possible for students to combine their studies with setting up and running their business.
Another of his action points is unpaid leave for researchers keen to launch a startup for their own invention. “This happens now and again, but it is exceptional.” Romme stresses that TU/e already offers the option of taking a period of unpaid leave but it isn't often on the radar of employees and isn't all plain sailing. “We need to put this upfront, make it a familiar option for any academic thinking of investing a lot of their time over a period of a year or two in helping to start a business.”
There's more to entrepreneurship than starting a new business
Sjoerd Romme, Entrepreneurship Ambassador at TU/e
Romme’s group Innovation, Technology Entrepreneurship & Marketing (ITEM) provides almost all the entrepreneurship education available at TU/e. “We make a point of saying that there's more to entrepreneurship than starting a new business. It is about developing new ideas, using them to take pioneering steps, being bold enough to take risks, learning from mistakes, tenacity. All of this is part of the entrepreneurial mindset.”
As a form of education, challenge-based learning, in Romme's opinion, is perfect for acquainting students with entrepreneurship. What's more, this form of education, offered primarily in TU/e innovation Space and increasingly embraced within departments, could easily have been termed entrepreneurial learning.
“We are keen for students at the university to be exposed to companies and entrepreneurship, to have them tussle with the problems businesses encounter, with the feeling that every hour, every day counts. That in business it makes more sense to get someone working on a half-defined problem asap than to wait two years only to be overtaken by a competitor from Asia who did start at once.”
“Challenge-based learning is labor intensive; students work together in small multidisciplinary groups on cases drawn from industry. It is hands-on, requires plenty of coaching. We need to spread this entrepreneurial spirit throughout the university, but there's no need to work all our education into this form. Our aim is to expose all students to it a couple of times during their student career so that they are better prepared for the type of work they will face after graduating.”
Providing practical support for entrepreneurship, the Gate has been open to fledgling entrepreneurs since January of this year. This user-friendly one-stop shop offers access to every kind of expertise a techno-starter might need. Ranging from people still exploring their options to startups already blessed with customers, the Gate's users receive help with and information on patents, premises, pitching ideas and coaching, as well as help with securing financing. The Gate draws on the expertise of companies in the Brainport region.
“Traditionally, inventions and startups emerging within TU/e have been integrated fairly rapidly into one of the large multinationals and other companies in the region. If we want to raise our own profile as an incubator for new business activity, we need to take the bold step of keeping our young businesses independent for longer,” believes Romme. Facilitating this, TU/e is part of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), which can offer entrepreneurs, innovators and students in Europe support and funding. “EIT members are also major players with considerable resources to spend on innovation.” Companies, research centers and universities are brought together within EIT's Knowledge & Innovation Communities.
In keeping with the slogan Where innovation starts, the main focus of the university's business support is startups. Romme puts on his teaching hat: “Within the nine Technology Readiness Levels, which industry uses to assess the developmental phase of a new technology (and by extension a startup commercializing a particular technology), we work primarily at levels 1 and 2. We are good at the incubation phase of new technologies. The higher the TRL level, the closer you are to launching your innovation on the market. In the first two phases you have teams that have already left the academic phase and are exploring the potential for valorizing their invention. By the time they reach phases 3 and 4 (experimental proof of concept, ed.), they need to have left the campus because they will have outgrown our support facilities. We can't build a factory here on the campus.”
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