The digital space: inspiring innovation at Eindhoven University of Technology

The digital space: inspiring innovation at Eindhoven University of Technology

Frank Baaijens, Rector Magnificus at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), the Netherlands discusses some of the ways that the university is meeting the challenges of the digital space.

In September, SciTech Europa Quarterly attended EIT Digital’s annual conference in Brussels, Belgium, as the official media partner. The event, which explored the future of Europe’s innovation in the digital space and how talent and deep tech can help drive global impact, looked at how gathering ecosystems from business, research and education can definitively scale up businesses, foster transformation in the digital space, answer tomorrow’s economic challenges and support European Growth.

On the sidelines of the conference, SEQ met with Frank Baaijens, Rector Magnificus at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) (TU/e), the Netherlands, to discuss how the university is supporting the development of digital skills, how it is assisting spin-offs and start-ups in the digital space, and how disruptive digital innovations have affected the fields of computational and digital science in recent years. TU/e is a partner university of EIT Digital.

Since beginning your academic career in the 1980s, what have been the most disruptive innovations in the digital space with regard to your own areas of expertise (computational (bio)mechanics, rheology and regenerative medicine etc.)?

One of the main things that has changed over time is the raw computing power that we now have available to us. Indeed, when I was a graduate student I witnessed the first PCs coming into play, and things are obviously much different now. The raw computing power has really made a difference and has enabled us to do the kind of computations that we simply weren’t able to do before. Alongside this, parallel computing has also enabled us to develop the kind of algorithms that we couldn’t do before and which are much more complicated. Perhaps third, more advanced computer languages have enabled us to develop these algorithms much quicker than before. These are the three big things that have happened in recent years, at least in the computational space.

Do you feel that the techniques and the capacities are there to handle the Big Data that comes out of the computational work being done?

Yes, I think so. The kind of algorithms that are emerging from, for instance, data science, enable us to investigate the data we have in a different way. And that may lead to completely new insights into the fields we have. There is a lot more data being generated today, but it is also becoming a lot more accessible, which is important because it can be very difficult to get researchers into a situation in which they are willing to share their data and are also providing the information that is necessary to access the data in a meaningful way – if a data set doesn’t have the necessary background information then it can be very difficult to be able to use it. There is also a sense that politicians can also have somewhat unrealistic expectations for what can be done with data, which can present problems of its own.

Are the algorithms and computational techniques being developed in Europe enabling us to keep up with the rest of the world? Is enough being done to ensure that we are maintaining if not a leadership position then certainly a healthy one?

If you look at the private sector then it is obvious that we are trailing behind. However, at the university level a number of the top computer and data scientists of today are still working in Europe, so we have a competitive edge there.

Where we do struggle as a university infrastructure in Europe, however, is that we do not have the same sort of acquisition power that some of the American institutes have. For example: in the Netherlands we spend about €6.5bn a year on higher education, including R&D, and we have 250,000 students within the higher education sector. In the USA, MIT and Stanford combined have only about 25,000 students, and spend €6bn on higher education and research. The scale of investment is clearly different.

How would you characterise the way that current and future students and academics can go on to shape the Europe’s future in the digital space? What role will TU/e play in this, and what more do you feel needs to be done by Europe’s academic institutions when it comes to Europe and the future of digital education?

As a university, we have a responsibility to respond to societal needs, and this means that we have to continue to innovate our programmes and curricula. As such, next to computer science we also have a programme in data science together with Tilburg University – while the two are related, they are also very different. Indeed, this is now one of the first Batchelor’s and Master’s data science courses to be made available in Europe.

Additionally, digital and computer science skills are now being embedded in an increasing number of curricula, such as mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. Even in industrial engineering and industrial design we are now seeing people using deep learning algorithms, for example, demonstrating that a field like Artificial Intelligence (AI) is no longer restricted to computer science – this may be where the foundations are laid, but it is now being used throughout the university.

We could perhaps be a bit more proactive as a university system with regard to this, but it is always difficult for universities to see whether something is a hype or is there for the long term. And it is important to get this right because whenever you create a research group in a certain domain, it is going to be there for the next 20-30 years, and if you create a new educational programme, which is a huge effort, it will also remain established for at least 10-20 years, or even longer. It is therefore crucial to know whether the domain being tackled is one which will require these sorts of effort.

For the digital space it is clear that this is a very important long term trend and that we need to adapt to this in order to remain fit-for-purpose moving forwards; but in a general sense it is not always easy to decipher this, and that perhaps explains sometimes why the university system can be a little slow in developing, because they are always looking at the long term (and, of course, the university also needs to ensure a high standard of quality and the provision of rigorous academic training)

How is TU/e ensuring its students are equipped for the future of the digital space?

The data science Bachelors and Master’s degrees is a response to the need for data scientists. And alongside this we also offer basic computer science and data science training to those undertaking any other course across the university. Computer science is now spread out across all the other disciplines, which is a positive development because it also means that mechanical engineers, for example, will have a basic understanding of data science, and so in future employment they will be able to interact with professional data scientists in a meaningful way. Computer science skills are developing in a similar way as we saw with mathematical skills.

Is your university’s approach something you can export to other universities in Europe?

Yes, it is. Indeed, we have teamed up with other of universities in the EuroTech Alliance – Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, the Technical University of Munich (TUM), Germany, and Ecole Polytechnique, France – and we would now like to take that to the next level and go on to create European educational programmes.

We can learn a lot from each other because we all have our own unique approach whilst all being embedded in very vibrant technological ecosystems, which creates a very special atmosphere, and connecting those ecosystems would be a great step forwards.

How does TU/e work to ensure it supports spin offs and start-ups – not only in the digital space? Do you feel that there is enough support at the European level to help commercialise research results?

We have a special entity that supports start-ups and spin offs; we generate some 40 spin-offs each year from the university, and we support them as much as we can. There is also a lot of start-up activity in the region of Eindhoven as well.

Furthermore, we also organise the necessary funding together with the local and national government. However, there is certainly more that could be done here and also at the European level.

It is also crucial to have a mentorship system in place. For instance, my own research group has resulted in a number of start-ups and they have been able to really grow because a network exists which is able to help them to take steps they wouldn’t otherwise be able to make.

This is something which exists in ecosystems such as those found in the Boston area and the Bay area, where activity is so intense that the university no longer needs to take care of the companies because the support network is so well developed. I would therefore like to see us having more activity in that domain, and we could achieve that by teaming up with at least two other universities in the Netherlands to create more critical mass.

Do you feel enough is being done in the Netherlands (via ondernemersaftreks, for instance) to help new companies in the digital space? Are these incentives having an impact?

Every incentive is helpful; but there is a need for more of an incentive for the private sector to collaborate with universities because they are taking a certain risk if they interact with a university (at least from their point of view). Each company receives a certain percentage of every euro they spends with a university on top. Currently, that percentage is about 30%, which is too low – it needs to be at least 50% in order to incentivise the establishment of long term relationships and that would also benefit start-up companies.

Furthermore, because start-ups typically emerge out of the university system, there is an emotional tie; you feel a connection to them, and this is something that is more difficult to feel when collaborating with an SME that has emerged from outside because you might not necessarily have an interest in what they are doing.

In your opinion, what are the most important points raised in TU/e’s recent Strategy 2030? How important will industry relations be moving forwards?

Industry relationships are very important of course, and they always have been. Indeed, TU/e was founded as a result of industry need and collaboration. And we are now proud to boast the largest percentage of joint publications with the private sector (15%) in the world.

This university/private sector interaction is very intense but the important thing from the Strategy 2030 is that we have defined a number of cross cutting issues which need to be addressed, which reflects the idea that if you are building a complicated machine then you cannot do it alone or with a single discipline. Thus, if you want to address complex societal challenges then you have to team up and you have to facilitate that.

Another important point is the need for more flexibility in our education system; rather than having rigid curricula, we have to create curricula which are sufficiently flexible to meet the needs of the individual student. This means that the education should be rigorous, but should be less constrained by space and time, and students will, hopefully, be able to formulate their own curriculum.

This additional flexibility, which also involves learning digital skills, will also open up a path towards continuous education because once online courses can also go on to be offered to the private sector for lifelong learning.

Finally, the ‘Eindhoven Engine’ (which is essentially our strategy for innovation which I have already mentioned), is a place which will offer the necessary physical interactions between the public and private sectors with regard to both short and long term research – meaning that some of this is more developed (at higher TRL levels) and so a little more applied than the usual research that we do. The Engine is a place where academia and the private sector meet each other and discuss issues of importance, and this is significant because, despite the many digital communications opportunities that we have, physical opportunities are also very important.

Do you experience issues with regard to the industry having reservations around areas such as IP in the digital space?

Yes, but in the fairly large programme that we have with the private sector, which involves up to 270 PhD students and is paid for to a large extent by the private sector, we overcome this by essentially giving the IP away; it is very difficult for a university to make a profit out of IP, and so we are happy for the private sector partners to take this away and do what they can with it. Of course, in some instances not all the IP that is generated is of immediate interest to a company so we take it back and see if we can start something else with it.

Because of the fact that this programme has a focus on IP, it has resulted in more IP for us as a university than ever before.

Frank Baaijens

Rector Magnificus

Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e)

Tweet @TUeindhoven

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