July 03, 2013      

Dutch ingenuity resonates everywhere in the Netherlands. From the eco-friendly design of the country’s universities to its economical infrastructure, the impact of its own innovation is staggering. The Netherlands is where greenhouses were invented to compensate for a restrictive climate. Those greenhouses now contribute to the country’s standing as the world’s largest flower producer, and to the fact that Dutch farmers produce 2.5 times more food per acre than any other EU country. Even more acclaimed are the Netherlands’ meticulously engineered dikes and polders, structures that have, for centuries, protected its cities from being swallowed by the sea.

Open innovation is the watchword flashed amidst an influx of key mechatronics producers there. Besides cheese and tulips, the modern Port of Rotterdam facilitates the export of their high-tech components. In fact, 80 percent of the machines used to produce the world’s microchips are supplied by Dutch semiconductor company, ASML, alone. It’s the regional presence of these special components manufacturers and vertical market leaders, including Philips, DAF/Paccar, Tesla Logistics, Thales and NXP that makes the Netherlands an important incubator for industry-specific robotic solutions.

“I think we will advance because we are doing mechatronics in this region. So we can really design for accuracy,” says Dr. Maarten Steinbuch, a professor in Systems and Control and head of the Control Systems Technology group of the Mechanical Engineering Department at Eindhoven University of Technology. “That is our profession, basically. I believe that we can make a difference in that way.”

The modern Netherlands now faces a new set of socioeconomic challenges, which call for an increased investment in robotics. Sharing a similar fate as Japan and Italy, 50 percent of the Netherlands’ population is expected to be over the age of 65 by 2050, which underscores the urgent need for reliable home healthcare robots within the next 10 years. Add to that labor costs and the inverse relationship between food production and farm workers worldwide, and this agricultural center has its work cut out for it.

Brainport

Lely’s $390 million robotic milking enterprise is impressive, but a look under the hood at Dutch robotics reveals a hotbed of research invested in domestic care, robotic surgery and crop farming as well. The bulk of that innovation flows from a cluster of technical universities and the Netherlands’ aptly named “Brainport,” a bustling technology center located in the southern region of Eindhoven.

Currently, 50 percent of all patent applications in the Netherlands come out of Eindhoven. Collaborations between university researchers and high-tech manufacturers there are enabling new technologies in the same way that the country’s internationally renowned Airport at Schipol and Seaport at Rotterdam facilitate its daily commerce.

Four educational institutions sit at the center of the next wave of robotic innovation in the country:University of Twente, Delft University of Technology, Eindhoven University of Technology and Wageningen University.

The Dutch don’t have a heavily funded DoD to rely on for extensive robotics R&D, so the university system bears extensive weight. For this reason, Dutch robotics is not as dependent on the fluctuations of defense spending as some U.S. companies, but making the business case for robotics research to industrial partners early on can be a challenge. As in Palo Alto, there is a distinctive drive to innovate in the Netherlands, Dr. Steinbuch observes, but the region lacks a comparable number of active robotics investors.

Institutions like TU Eindhoven have responded to this phenomenon by fostering a healthy university spinoff culture. According to Dr. Steinbuch this shift in educational strategy began about 15 years ago in the Netherlands. Technology transfer, he says, has accelerated more rapidly at TU Eindhoven than at other universities; it produced double the number of spinoffs that came out of both U Twente and TU Delft last year. This can be attributed, in large part, to the shared research initiatives cultivated between TU Eindhoven’s labs and the strong regional businesses of the Brainport.

One such spinoff is PRECEYES, a company currently owned by the university that has developed a robotic solution for vitreo-retinal eye surgery. In compliance with Dutch regulations, if the university licenses or otherwise profits from PRECEYES’ IP, the profits are split equally three ways between the university lab, the group that initiated the research and the inventors. This relatively simple transaction exists in stark contrast to U.S. university policies that are variable and often obstruct partnerships with outside investors.

Dr. Steinbuch says industrial competitors now share their pre-competitive research facilities in the name of new product development and future worker recruitment. The Phillips Research facility that once hosted 3,000 Phillips workers, for example, now hosts over 9,000 people representing 250 different companies–only 700 of whom are actually employed by Phillips–all together at what is now known as the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven. The idea-sharing that occurs in that environment is all the stronger for its open structure.

“Dutch people are quite direct. They are not so sensitive to hierarchy,” Dr. Steinbuch says. “It is quite easy for people lower in the ranks to have ideas and for people to listen to them. That makes it relatively easy to cooperate in industries and with companies.”