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Strong collaboration and a more proactive government should help startups fulfill the energy transition

The universities of Eindhoven and Tilburg jointly organized an Alumni Startup Night. The third edition focused on the energy transition. Do we sense enough urgency to tackle it?


Written by Innovation Origins

The universities of Eindhoven and Tilburg jointly organized an Alumni Startup Night. The third edition focused on the energy transition. Do we sense enough urgency to tackle it?


Written by Innovation Origins

Tilburg University’s auditorium is filled with alumni, students, scientists, and entrepreneurs for the third edition of the Alumni Startup Night. This joint event of Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) and Tilburg University (TiU) puts entrepreneurship at the heart of the evening. More university entrepreneurship contributes to solving major social problems such as energy transition, and that’s the main message conveyed in all the night’s speeches.

On the huge screen behind the podium, the set climate goals were projected once again. By 2030, we want to emit 55 percent less greenhouse gases in Europe, and by 2050, we want to be completely climate neutral. “Do we sense enough urgency to meet the goals and solve the problems?” Mohammed Chahim wonders aloud. He is a member of the European Parliament (MEP) and responsible for the Green Deal.

Collaboration is key

He calls for more collaboration among European countries, referring to World War II. “After the war, countries rebuilt together. Now, destruction (climate change) is not behind us but in front of us. Right now, there is much less cooperation; countries are looking too much within their own borders and not so much at the complete picture,” Chahim says. It’s a bold statement, especially nowadays, but it gets the audience thinking.

Government to fund more

Chahim focuses his presentation on a much more practical aspect of innovation: financing. He argues that the Dutch government should take more risk and co-finance start-ups and scale-ups. “To make the Green Deal possible, start-ups need financing and other forms of support. So the government should act as a co-investor to help start-ups create a business case.” In doing so, the MEP says government funding rules – which sometimes actually hinder start-ups from growing – need to be much easier.

He cites a case with hydrogen as an example. The hydrogen production price is still higher than the price the market is willing to pay for the product. The government funds the difference so that development can continue. “That’s how you solve the chicken and egg story.” In short, politicians may feel a little more urgency to address these problems.

Naivety and perseverance

That urgency is evident among the entrepreneurs on stage, though. Bas Verkaik, co-founder of ELEO Technologies and TU/e alumnus, and Harmen van Heist, co-founder of SPARK and TiU alumnus, talk about their experiences as entrepreneurs. Both companies focus—albeit in very different ways—on electrification.

ELEO develops a modular battery system for various industrial applications, such as the electrification of excavators and agricultural vehicles. Verkaik talks about the main lessons he has learned as an entrepreneur. “You need naivety to get started. As a result, you see fewer problems and many opportunities. Once you start, you need perseverance to solve all your problems,” he states. He adds that he gradually realized that no one has all the wisdom. “Everyone is just trying to do something. You learn and grow during the process.”

‘Just asking’

The company once began as a TU/e student team and now has 120 employees. Last year, it opened its factory at the Automotive Campus in Helmond. That brings Verkaik to the next point: boldness. “How did we manage to get the king to come and open our new factory? We just asked.”

His lessons can greatly inspire the many young entrepreneurs in the room. He concludes his speech with: “The most important thing is people. Good technology won’t get you there; you need people to keep developing it.”

Prototype of ketchup bottle

SPARK is developing an off-grid system for solar energy. Harmen van Heist and his team want to make energy available to people without access to a good electricity grid. They are now focusing mainly on the African market. “The prototype was an electric lamp made from a ketchup bottle,” he states. With this, he was able to show people how the system works. “We could talk about the possibilities, but that didn’t work. We had to show how it works. After implementing the first lamps, we saw that users started using them themselves.” Van Heist says that people themselves came up with extensions to the system and revenue models by renting out the lamps to other people in the village. Since then, SPARK has already provided 850.000 people with electricity through its modular system.

Find each other

SPARK is a great calling card for the mission of bringing the students and alumni of the universities of Eindhoven and Tilburg closer together. After all, the founders are from both universities. The rectores magnifici of both universities, Sylvia Lenaert of the TU/e and Wim van de Donk of the TiU, hope that more such companies will emerge.

In Eindhoven, technological development is central, while in Tilburg students are trained in economics, law, and philosophy. According to Van de Donk, a combination is important to achieving successful Companies. He praised the evening’s presenters—also the founders of Round One, a capital fund for and by students—for their efforts to bring the universities together. “You do it better than the universities themselves,” he said.

Sylvia Lenaerts’ most important advice for students and future entrepreneurs is: “Start doing. Get together, try it out, set up fun projects, and have a drink together. That’s part of it, too.”