Founded 15 years ago as open innovation research institute by imec and TNO, Holst Centre continues to build on its successes in developing technologies in answer to today's and tomorrow's societal challenges. Kathleen Philips and Ton van Mol (from imec and TNO respectively) reflect on how this leading institute accelerates innovation for building a resilient society.
Top notch research with impact
Kathleen: "The current Covid-19 pandemic shows how vulnerable we are as a society. At the same time, this crisis has catapulted us into adopting technologies that enable us to collaborate in new online settings or even to develop vaccines ten-times faster than ever before. Importantly, in the long run also, such technologies will help us in finding fitting solutions to such pressing issues as affordable and accessible healthcare and a zero-emission energy system."
Ton: "It's safe to say that innovation is more important than ever before. It was with a visionary foresight that Holst Centre was established 15 years ago: to accelerate innovations by way of collaborative research programs with industry that meet the needs of the future. Since then, the disruptive technologies that we developed have been enormously impacting."
"Take our research on OLED and flexible display technology. These were ongoing focus points of our research efforts during the first ten years of Holst Centre. Now these technologies are pointing the way in the smartphones of the future. Our research and innovations are also the basis for spin-offs and start-ups. A proud and recent example is LionVolt, which is now producing our revolutionary solid-state battery. It has a high capacity and fast charging speed, based on disruptive 3D architecture."
Kathleen: "Another good example of our impacting technologies are wearables with health trackers. New product introductions like Onera's sleep monitor are becoming part of our everyday lives within no time. Yet, such products have been built on top-notch research and chip technology. It's technology that we as users take for granted, but that has transformed the way we act in everyday life."
Long-term visionKathleen: "Our vision is a long-term one. But to be successful and drive innovation requires persistence and focus. You need the freedom to explore and potentially fail in order to learn, and finally develop the right technology for future needs."
"And that is precisely what we are good at doing: we have a long-term vision and foster our research, our bright minds, our IP and our partnerships with industry. Key has been our approach to R&D: we believe in the power of having the freedom to explore, while working closely with our industrial partners. At the same time ensuring we learn fast and continuously move forward. In this way, we have become an innovation leader. Our partnerships enable industry to apply our disruptive technologies in successful, market-ready products in areas like wearable health tech, ultra-low power design and flexible electronics."
Key technologiesTon: "Holst Centre is focused on key enabling technologies that help us solve societal challenges. Take our ongoing research in the field of hybrid printed electronics. Over the past 10 years, we developed this technology in close collaboration with industry. It is now being applied in such products as IoT sensors, medical wearables and flexible LED foils."
Kathleen: "Another example of such key technology is our work on ultra-wideband, also known as UWB. This high-precision and low-power positioning and tracking technology has recently been 're-discovered' by industry to bring location awareness to IoT products. In fact, since Apple introduced UWB on their iPhone some two years ago. UWB is hot! It became a 'must have' overnight for many companies. However the use of UWB on all flagship smartphones needs to become more accurate and at a much lower power mode. At Holst Centre, we are designing next-gen UWB that has 5-10 times lower power and higher accuracy, and as such will open up way more IoT applications."
Ton: "What this teaches us is, that as long as our research roadmaps are well defined and have relevant themes, sooner or later there will be a demand for our breakthrough innovations and enabling technologies."
Enabling technologies – Carrying the risk for industryTon: "Our strength lies in innovation with a disruptive character. Many of the elements of such technologies – including the materials used, production technologies and design – are completely new as well. Such complexity means that it can be difficult to develop technology on one's own. Know-how derived from different disciplines and companies is what is needed throughout the value chain. Also, sometimes working with long-term roadmaps is simply too big a risk for industry to take. That's why we have in place a shared innovation research program, where we work with multiple companies on a joint roadmap."
"By jointly carrying the risk for and with industry, we are enabling future value-adding technologies. We iron out the technical bottlenecks. Our challenge – and it's something we are successful in doing – is to continually check if our vision still fits with societal needs and industry priority."
Helping make healthcare scalableTon: "Our vision is to use technology to excel in the domain of medical devices and enable solutions that move patients out of the hospital. In doing so, health management will become a natural and unobtrusive part of life. Importantly, such innovations will help make healthcare scalable."
"Wireless communication has always been key in whatever we've undertaken here at Holst Centre. At the same time, we've achieved much in the development of flexible electronics. Combining wireless communication with flexible electronics has already given us our health patches."
"Now that such advanced wearables measure health parameters from outside the body, the next step will be the ability to monitor parameters from inside the body using implantable devices or via one's physical surroundings. To this end, our 'old' roadmaps towards miniaturisation and low energy use, remain relevant to this day and beyond."
Kathleen: "Building on our strengths, we are moving towards more demanding health applications and technologies, including: artificial organs, implants, closed-loop therapeutics and stimulation. The same holds true for our enabling technology efforts, where integrated photonics is a new kid on the block. This technology has great potential for new health diagnostics, as well as for better accuracy sensing, and integrated Light Detection and Ranging remote sensing."
Ton: "And, moving forward, as Kathleen mentioned, we believe in the power of photonics for measuring a person's health more accurately. This technology allows us to not only measure the various vital signs, but also measure biochemical parameters, determine blood sugar levels, and detect stress and – potentially even – inflammation."
"This means that, for instance, for people suffering from a chronic disease, such as COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) or heart failure, we will be able to measure the effects of certain therapies over time in a home situation. It opens up new possibilities for personalised and value-based healthcare."
Vibrant eco-systemKathleen: "Key to our success is the vibrant eco-system in which Holst Centre operates. After all, true innovations require innovative materials, production processes and more. So, in fact, you need a whole value chain in place to enable a new technology. Our close ties with industry make us stand out from other research institutes."
Ton: "And it's here that we also add value for our partners. For instance, we do pre-competitive checks to find out if there is a market demand, or expected to be one, for a certain technology. We also help to turn technology into a market-ready product."
"Taking the Philips Healthdot: for this company to have a viable, marketable product, new chip technology was required. So, we partnered with chip manufacturers to make a uniquely complex chip for Philips. Similarly, a new production process was required to produce the dot. We found the right producer."
"We don't only do this for large companies such as Philips, but also for smaller ones with niche solutions. And, nowadays, if we can't find a company that can develop the things we need, we establish spin-offs or start-ups."
Societal impactKathleen: "At the end of the day, what remains paramount to us, is the question how we can accelerate innovations into value-adding solutions for society. Recently, we've been helping local authorities tackle one of the biggest problems and long-term causes of death in our urbanised society: air quality. Based on our cloud-based sensor technologies, fine-grained, real-time air quality maps provide the tools required to closely monitor air quality and help facilitate smarter and healthier cities."
"Innovations that can cut healthcare costs – while improving patient wellbeing – similarly have a huge potential. For instance, our researchers have collaborated with the Dutch Kidney Foundation in developing a portable artificial kidney for dialysis patients, that fits into a cabin suitcase. This could make the current invasive treatment become completely redundant. But it doesn't end there: as nanotechnology continues to make electronic devices ever smaller, we can push forward even further. An implantable, artificial kidney will make an even greater impact."
Measuring successKathleen: "What we have learned at Holst Centre over the past 15 years, is that success is something that cannot be predicted. At least, it's hard to predict when the market will be ready to embrace a new technology. Nevertheless, we have a proud and proven track record in designing many ground-breaking innovations, enabling business success for our industrial partners, our start-ups and society."
Philips Dr. Kathleen Philips is vice president R&D and general manager at imec in Holst Centre, Eindhoven the Netherlands. Kathleen joined imec in 20078 and has held positions as principal scientist, ULP Wireless program manager, and director IoT. Before that time, she was senior scientist at Philips Research for over 12 years. She holds a PhD in Electrical Engineering from Eindhoven University of Technology, and graduated with honors in Electrical Engineering from KU Leuven, Belgium.
About Ton van Mol
Dr. Ton van Mol is managing director for TNO at Holst Centre and operational and market director for free form and flexible electronics at TNO Industry. Ton graduated with honors from Eindhoven Technical University in Chemical Technology in 1997, and received his PhD win the area of Thin film technology in 2001. He worked at Sandi National Laboratories (Livermore) as visiting scientist and joined TNO ion 2003 as senior scientist. In 2005, Ton helped set-to the open innovation initiative Holst Centre, where he had various roles, such as program manager and Partnership Director, before he became managing director in 2014.