Eindhoven’s great connector: Maarten Steinbuch has a vision of the university of the future

Interview with Maarten Steinbuch, Distinguished University Professor at Eindhoven University of Technology and Scientific Director of Eindhoven Engine

Think of Maarten Steinbuch as Eindhoven’s Renaissance Man.

Maarten is an engineer with a degree from Delft University of Technology. As an entrepreneur, he’s the pioneer in robotic surgery behind the first human eye surgery procedure. He’s also a distinguished university professor at Eindhoven University of Technology, or TU/e. He’s one of the technical people who has a vision for humanity, which we call Maarten Steinbuch’s Unified Theory of Industry/Academic Collaboration. And he has a rare gift for cultivating people and getting them to work together toward common goals.

Front and center is Eindhoven Engine, the two-year-old effort he co-founded and is managing with Katja Pahnke, to bring together industry and academia, an ecosystem connection point providing everything from work space to funding to solve real and relevant problems. In addition, Maarten is an active member of the LUMO Labs Scientific and Industry Advisory Board and sees LUMO as an integral link in building Europe’s most dynamic ecosystem.

“I think Andy (Lürling) and Sven (Bakkes) are doing a really great job, and we maybe need more Andys and Svens … and LUMO Labs. Because for young startups finding funding, it’s instrumental that you have somebody who helps you.”

Maarten is a disrupter, but in a good way. When he arrived at TU/e 20 years ago, his 2002 inaugural speech included slides with photos of islands. He wanted to illustrate his point – the university is like islands. Every island has a full professor, and he or she is the king or the queen, he told them. And those queens and kings are not primarily interested in building bridges but focused on their own scientific challenges. “Some of my colleagues were really pissed at me afterwards,” he says smiling.

But he had come from Philips’ R&D effort, where there was a real emotional connection to the company, a “family feeling,” a loyalty to the institution and its products. But when he got to TU/e, “I did not have this family feeling at all because it felt, for me, everyone was in his or her silo.”

His mission became figuring out ways to build morale and a sense of pride in order to get people to stop seeing each other as competition and to start working together.

Soon after, he started with his own group in mechatronics, robots and automotive. Later, he started working with colleagues to design and define the university’s automotive track as a multidisciplinary study – electrical, mechanical, computer science and human technology interaction, later followed by the High Tech Systems Center.

Building Eindhoven’s profile
“In those early days, I was irritated about the media. If I looked to the national television or the national newspaper, the TU/e was hardly mentioned,” Maarten says. “And my parents said to me, ‘Hey, Maarten, why don’t we read anything from Eindhoven?’ “

So, about 15 years ago, he started actively reaching out and telling the story of Eindhoven and the Brainport region, one of the Netherlands’ three innovation regions along with Airport (Amsterdam) and Seaport (Rotterdam).

The other technical universities had about six journalists on the payroll. TU/e had one “and he was happy if we got a story in The Eindhovens Dagblad (the local newspaper),” Maarten says.

So, for the next few years he worked to raise the profile by reaching out to journalists in the major national news media. The big breakthrough came in 2013 when TU/e’s Stella solar car team, which he helped found, won the World Solar Cruiser Class race in Australia. Also, the world championships of the TechUnited robot soccer team helped a lot.

With global recognition, suddenly “everyone was proud to be working at TU/e,” Maarten says. His PR savvy not only helped put TU/e in front of potential students north of the rivers (Amsterdam, Rotterdam and other cities in the Randstad), it was also a huge motivator for the faculty.

Fourth Generation University
The regional (“smartest square kilometer of the world,” the High Tech Campus) and TU/e’s new-found international fame also caught the attention of Singularity University officials in 2016, who decided Eindhoven should be the innovative educational program’s first non-U.S. university. Maarten ended up in California at Singularity University training in its unconventional approach where he found himself in a room with co-founder Peter Diamandis. “I asked Peter Diamandis what he thought the role was for the university in the future. He said, ‘There is no role for the university in the future,’ ” Maarten says.

“I said, ‘Why? Why not?’ He said, ‘Well, education will be online. And all the innovations will be from startups.’ And I was so pissed. I was so pissed, because my TU/e colleagues and I were already doing for many years top research with all of the industry around us like ASML, Philips and DAF.”

So, Maarten flew back to Eindhoven and started composing his influential blog post, “Toward a Fourth Generation University.”

In that post, he famously asked how universities can speed up research in order to keep up with the pace of innovation, ever accelerated by the internet and digital information platforms (“Moore’s Law”). With technology improving exponentially, it was clear he and his colleagues had to make sure TU/e evolved, “because the world is changing exponentially, but we still do research in a linear way,” Maarten said.

He started researching all the previous iterations of universities back to the 11th century. “And I thought, ‘No, I think Peter Diamandis is wrong.’”

He rethought the essence of universities, concluding the Fourth Generation University must not be siloed, protecting its isolated islands, but an open university, an enabler of the local ecosystem with new roles for resident thinkers and interdisciplinary teams of scientists.

“We should think outside-in,” he said. “We should take the industries around us, and we should be the disruptors for those industries by taking industry knowledge in … focus our research on what is really relevant for society, and then disrupt the local ecosystem. We should become the long-term consciousness for the industry.”
“So, that was … that’s a whole line of thinking.”

Maarten realized achieving the Fourth Generation University would take 20 years, because it would take that long to change people’s thinking. So, he decided rather than trying to change the university from the inside, he’d create an external mechanism to speed up innovation.

And that became Eindhoven Engine, an effort to bring together the best and brightest from industry and academia, including young and well-motivated students, to focus on revolutionary technological advances. And, as he points out, Eindhoven is already ranked No. 1 when it comes to academics working with industry.

Eindhoven and Eindhoven Engine, Maarten says, can become a model for other universities “because we are already far ahead of many other universities in our thinking and way of working.”

That way of working has made the Eindhoven region the biggest contributor to the Netherlands’ GDP, something the rest of the country is finally starting to appreciate, Maarten says.

“I think the core knowledge of our region is instrumental in solving those grand societal challenges for the next decade. And if we can bring the best system architects from ASML – bring them together with the system architects from the building environment or healthcare or typical societal challenges, I think we can really leverage the network we have. “I think that is our strength.”

Maarten’s efforts to bring everyone together is the theme that runs through the LUMO Labs’ Advisory board meetings, with Maarten and Tom Furness sharing the vision of unlocking intelligence and linking minds globally.