When, in 2005, Philips decided to open its research facilities in Eindhoven and turn it into an area for open innovation, they contacted R&D centres imec in Leuven, Belgium and TNO in the Netherlands. Philips felt a research facility to be indispensable for the success of the open innovation campus. And Philips expected that a partnership between these two leading R&D centres – working on autonomous sensor-based microsystems and systems-in-foil (flexible electronics) technology – would bring the synergy they were looking for.
Now 15 years later, Holst Centre boasts over 180 employees from 28 nations who, together with 56 industrial partners innovate and connect, to develop breakthrough technology solutions. Founding fathers of Holst Centre Jo De Boeck (imec) and Jaap Lombaers (TNO) look back on what it took to establish a successful joint research centre.
Creating value-adding synergies in a joint research centre
De Boeck: 'Philips was definitely the matchmaker between imec and TNO! Philips believed that we were the perfect match to set up a research centre based on our combined technologies. We would be able to benefit from each other's know-how to enable ground-breaking innovations.'
Lombaers: 'Their idea for what was to become the High Tech Campus was a visionary one. They rightly believed that the added value of such a campus would be in creating a collaborative environment. This would be the basis of an eco-system in which innovation was to be the driving force.'
'In the same vein, Philips believed that by partnering in a research- and innovation centre, TNO and imec would together be able to create new value adding synergies and solutions. Imec would contribute know-how on autonomous sensor-based microsystems. Whereas TNO would bring our expertise in the field of flexible electronics technology.'
'Our respect for Philips' visionary idea is reflected in the name we chose for our new facility: Holst Centre. Gilles Holst is considered the founder of research at Philips and is one of the pioneers of industrial research in the Netherlands.'
Research within a lively eco-systemDe Boeck: 'Of course, it took time and effort for both imec and TNO to define the partnership and the strategic positioning of the joint initiative. The broad scope was in line with Philips' MiPlaza centre for micro- and nano technology. But from the outset, we realised that we would be able to make a far bolder statement by focusing and building on specific synergistic technologies. In doing so, we aspired to become the go-to place for innovation on the roadmaps mentioned by Jaap.'
'We defined three key aspects that were - and still are - essential for the type of research we had in mind. Research that is constantly ahead of the market, offering innovative solutions to meet future societal demands.' These 3 key aspects were:
1. Close working partnerships with industry in a thriving eco-system
2. Good complementarity and partnerships with the existing innovation and research ecosystem
3. Governmental support and funding at both local, regional and national level
'The industrial pool that we needed was present in the so-called Brainport area in Eindhoven and we had unique, promising technologies. In addition, we were lucky as far as governmental funding was concerned: it turned out to be the perfect timing for such an initiative. Policymakers were convinced that government funding was essential for staying at the forefront of innovation and maintaining a competitive edge in the global marketplace.'
Research roadmaps and open innovationLombaers: 'So there we found ourselves one day – an enthusiastic team – operating from spanking new offices on the High Tech Campus, seated between the cardboard boxes. It felt like we had just embarked on the adventure of a lifetime. Except that we first had to invest some considerable effort into enabling that adventure.'
De Boeck: 'That's right! So, for starters, and importantly, we drew up research roadmaps. We were adamant (and still are to this day) to have a clear understanding of where we wanted to be heading. In fact, such roadmaps are subject to constant tweaking and fine-tuning, in close collaboration with our industrial partners. In this way we keep them in sync with what is happening outside in the 'real' world. We need to constantly ask the question whether what we are developing, offers a viable and value-adding solution to real-life issues that need to be resolved?'
Lombaers: 'The whole idea behind open innovation is to enable faster, cheaper and more effective innovation by bringing players together. In this way, time to market for new products can be speeded up considerably. Of course, there was an initial fear from industry regarding the open innovation model. Were they going to lose their know-how to the competition?'
'But, Philips backed up this vision and after signing up a second interested party, more industry players soon were interested to join.'
'Companies overcame their initial hesitations, partly due to the fear of missing out. More, importantly, Holst Centre fulfils a need: the speed of innovation is just too fast and the complexity too high for individual companies to do all R&D themselves.'
'The perception soon grew that the eco-system around Holst Centre offers unique opportunities to not only develop innovative technologies, but to translate these into viable products that can be successfully brought to market. And because we had sound research roadmaps in place, we were able to put in place a robust research offering.'
Re-evaluating researchDe Boeck: 'From the outset we've been – and will continue to be – in an ongoing discussion regarding our role as not-for-profit research institute. Yes, we have the roadmaps, but how far should and can we go in pre-competitive and generic research? And at what point do we stop with our proof-of-concept activities, leaving further development to industry?'
Lombaers: 'Similarly, we need to constantly evaluate if our research and innovations are still relevant. I believe this has been important to the success of Holst Centre: that we dare to keep re-evaluating the relevance of our research and innovations in the real world.'
'For instance, in the first ten years of Holst Centre, we invested much in developing so-called OLED lighting technology. Philips and many other industrial players were extremely interested and we were convinced of the benefits and potential of this technology for lighting applications. Until we were totally eclipsed by LED lighting technology.'
'In the meantime, OLED has become the leading technology in another domain: the display industry. The lesson learned here, was that investing so much time and manpower in just one technological solution poses a risk. On the other hand, thanks to this focus we acquired unique and valuable know-how that we were able to put to good use in other applications such as displays and sensors.'
De Boeck: 'Yes, that's also part of open innovation at Holst Centre. Having a roadmap in place is one thing, daring to re-assess your ambition and redirect resources is the key to sustainability. Re-assessing is what we do all the time.'
Innovation: contributing to a healthier and more sustainable world
Lombaers: 'Thanks to the knowledge transfer within the eco-system in which we operate, it is possible for us to finetune our research and innovation to match pressing societal issues. What's more, by leveraging each other's know-how, we can take technologies to the point where they are ready for market.'
De Boeck: 'It puts us in a position where we are able to build relevant, innovative solutions to tackle real life challenges. The focus since the start has been on state-of-art research with impactful innovation in mind.'
Innovation: driven by the human factorDe Boeck: 'From the very beginning we have had a focus to attract top talent to Holst Centre. The drive to develop technology that can help us face societal challenges and contribute to a healthier and more sustainable world is something which appeals greatly to the current generation of ambitious innovators.'
Lombaers: 'Innovation is something that is done by people. It's their interest in creating sustainable solutions that is the driving force behind our success. Also with regard to our pool of talented researchers and technicians, we experience the benefits of creating and sustaining an innovation eco-system. We proudly see many of our people move to industry after a number of years at Holst Centre. It's the most 'physical' form of knowledge transfer! Similarly, researchers from industry are eager to make the move to us. This provides us not only with value-adding technical knowledge, but also with further insights in industrial needs, markets and applications.'
Jo De Boeck – Chief Strategy Office and EVP at imec. De Boeck has held a variety of positions at imec, from individual contributor and leadership roles in R&D teams to managing director of research divisions in imec's international setting. Currently he focuses on imec's long-term strategy, and innovation pipeline and venturing activities, as well as large collaborative projects with regional and international stakeholders. He is managing director of imec's activities in the Netherlands.
Jaap Lombaers - Director Knowledge Management and Partnerships at TNO. Responsible for TNO's knowledge management (including management of the Early Research Programs by which TNO builds new R&D propositions across its departments and units) and for the development of TNO's strategic partnerships with industry, universities and governments.