Carmen van Vilsteren, director Strategic Area Health (December 2015)

I want to have impact on people's health

Carmen Vilsteren is a strategist: she indicates a line on the horizon, and then quickly tries to get people moving towards it. But she’s not someone to aggressively push and pull - she prefers to motivate people through positive feedback - something she learned at a parent class. Even as an industrial design engineering student at Delft, the new director of TU/e’s Strategic Area Health understood that she was a true generalist. Much of her career has been dominated by high-tech medical innovation - valuable business experience that the university will surely benefit from.

Carmen van Vilsteren is quiet for a moment. After half an hour of decisively formulating answers, she’s searching for the right words to express something that, for her, just comes naturally. Why is she so interested in the field of medical innovations? ‘There is nothing more beautiful than helping make people better’, she finally replies. ‘When I was a project leader at Philips Medical Systems in the 90s, we designed the cardiovascular C-arm for an X-ray machine for cardiovascular diseases. The vascular arc is the tripod where they attach the detector and the X-ray tube. Now, twenty years later, 45% of all angioplasty patients worldwide are treated with this system. I’m really proud of that.’

Having an impact on people’s health - that’s the core of Van Vilsteren’s career. And in her new function as the director of the Strategic Area Health, she’ll be able to continue helping others: her role will be to promote a smooth connection between knowledge developed at TU/e and the industrial and societal needs in the high-tech medical field.

‘I want to create things that will be used for years to come’

TU/e focuses on three ‘health’ areas: biomolecular care, image-guided interventions and participatory health and wellness. The importance of these research areas is clear, says Van Vilsteren: ‘Everyone wants people to stay healthy longer, that diagnoses can be made earlier and more accurately, and that drugs and other therapies have fewer side effects. And when we come home after an operation, we increasingly want that our health can be monitored remotely. The business community is actively working to offer complete solutions in these areas: for example, Philips’s goal is to cover the whole chain of health care and prevention. In contrast, TU/e is focusing in depth on a number of areas and wants to excel in those. It’s my job to make sure that while we’re working on these areas, we also maintain a connection with industry’s solutions. It’s not enough to only develop technology - we also have to apply it.’

‘A complex organization’, that’s what Van Vilsteren calls TU/e. At the moment, she’s working on getting acquainted with people. ‘My role demands that I get to know a lot of people from the various departments. And those departments are quite different from each other and often have different goals.’ She’s been charged with the challenging task of finding commonalities, but she can’t say more than that at the moment. ‘That’s the nice thing about TU/e. Even after two months, you don’t have to have a definite plan. In the business world, you’d usually have to have a strategy ready within two months but at a place like TU/e, it’s important that there’s sufficient support from the various parties. And that takes time.’

As long as technical innovations eventually come out of this process that TU/e can be proud of, Van Vilsteren is happy to be patient. Having a visible, positive impact on the world around her - already as a student that was a reason to study industrial design engineering at TU Delft. And while others specialized in parts of the design process - doing market research, writing a business plan, designing a prototype - she discovered that she preferred to be involved in the entire process. ‘I’m a generalist’, she says. ‘I also don’t need to know anything substantially better than the people I’m working with because I have complementary skills. As a solutions development manager at FEI, I initially got detailed explanations of how electron microscopes are constructed. I said: I don’t need to know all the details. I trust your knowledge so go ahead and do what you’re good at.’

She began her career as a consultant for product design at Philips. When she transferred to Philips Health in Best after a few years, she discovered a deep-seated passion for high-tech medical products. ‘After a week, we were allowed to go to a hospital and saw all the complex machines. As a designer you immediately think: how can I make those better? Just like writers hope that their books will be read a hundred years from now, a designer hopes to create things that will be used for years to come. In addition, I want to know how people feel about the product. When we had developed a new cardiology system at Philips Healthcare, I went to the client after its completion and asked them how they felt about it. I don’t want to only start something but I also like participating in the entire process, including getting it to market.’

During this period in Best, she lead three different projects on X-ray machines for the treatment of cardiovascular diseases. During each project, she gave birth to a child. Although Van Vilsteren describes herself as ‘quite a workaholic,’ her three children are a source of inspiration that she didn’t want to miss. ‘I once took a Gordon training course about communicating with children. It was the most useful course I have ever done. You learn the proper ways to give people feedback without approaching them in an aggressive manner. In that way you can steer them without pushing and pulling. It’s an important skill to have when you’re leading projects.’

Not that her co-workers have always so easily let her guide the way. When she started at Philips as a young, recent graduate it wasn’t obvious to everyone that she was there to be a leader. Also during her years at Philips Healthcare in Best, where the work floor was mostly populated by men, she felt she had to first ‘earn’ her managerial position. These days she squares her shoulders with a smile, used to belonging to a small female minority.

‘Back when I chose to study the hard sciences in high school, I already thought... ugh, only three girls. It hasn’t gotten much better since then. In the cardiovascular development department in Best, there were 150 men and 5 women. It became 10 under my management. At that time, I worked part-time and if I talked about that choice with men, they’d say, yeah, but you can’t make a career like that. But now I’ve made my career and those men haven’t. So then I thought:
are there going to be men who also choose to work part-time? But that hasn’t happened.’ However, she’s optimistic about the situation at TU/e, she quickly adds. “Now I work in an environment with a lot more women. I’m really curious if things will work differently here because of that fact.’

‘You learn a lot more from moving than by standing still’

After various positions at Philips, she became a co-founder of various start-ups in the high-tech medical equipment field in 2006. Even now she’s focusing on high-tech medical spin-offs through her business Imagion Consultancy where she combines her strategic thinking skills with a determined attitude. ‘First, I listen to people and look for similarities in their views. Then we decide which direction we’ll go in and I indicate a line on the horizon. Many people tend to think a long time about details. If I say, we have to go north, then they want to figure out exactly how many degrees latitude north we’ll go. I think that’s a waste of time. It’s better to just immediately head north and then decide after six months or so the exact latitude you need. You learn a lot more from moving than by standing still.’

She admits that her new position had been on her wish list for a while. ‘I worked with universities for many years from the industry side of things. Now I get to collaborate with the business world from the university side. I’m working here with a large team of highly competent people who really know their stuff. And I can add to that by giving them access to a very large network of both large and small businesses. Therefore, my knowledge and skills are highly complementary to those of TU/e’s own employees. And if you can reinforce each other, you can make an impact.’


Carmen van Vilsteren (1961) graduated cum laude from TU Delft’s Industrial Design Engineering Department. She worked for Philips Healthcare for many years, particularly in the area of cardio/vascular x-ray machines. Under her leadership, several high-tech systems were developed and put on the market. She was also a solutions development manager at FEI Company and is the co-founder of three companies: MiLabs, MicroSure and Imagion Consultancy. She’s a mentor with the Startup Bootcamp Smart Materials and the Hightech XL programs and she’s the CEO of MicroSure, a TU/e spin-off company in the field of micro-surgery robots. Van Vilsteren is married and has three children.