Eindhoven University of Technology: Still plenty to learn online about international entrepreneurship

An autonomous agricultural robot, a cyber security key to generate security codes, and an accurate way to test and connect photonic devices. What do these three things have in common? All three are products of start-ups that reached the finals of the European Venture Programme.

The European Venture Programme (EVP) is a bootcamp for tech start-ups, set up by EuroTech Universities Alliance: a collaboration between the TU/e en five other tech universities. The goal of the programme is to broaden the horizons of start-up entrepreneurs. Not only do they learn everything about starting a business, but during the program, they also get to know several different ways of doing business within Europe. Because, so the idea goes, an international outlook among entrepreneurs provides more opportunities for growth.

Normally the EVP caravan tours around several cities in Europe. There the participants take a look at local start-up ecosystems surrounding universities of technology. In addition, they also get to meet experts and investors. But just like last year, corona has thrown a spanner in the works. Travel with such a large group is not yet an option. So, the participants were forced to crawl behind their screens for the final week with all kinds of workshops on how to go about setting up a business. From pitching, to what to pay attention to when you arrange funding. It was all addressed.

“You cannot quantify these experiences, but they are incredibly valuable”
– Steven van Huiden, start-up officer The Gate

Steven van Huiden, start-up officer at The Gate, is involved in the organization of the program on behalf of the TU/e. Needless to say, he finds it a shame that this seventh edition was largely taking place online. “It’s tough luck. Because it is precisely the journey through different ecosystems that is such a unique experience for a start-up. You come into contact with different experts, other entrepreneurs and investors. They also see get to see first-hand how things work in other ecosystems, which can be useful when you are expanding internationally. You already have contacts and knowledge of regulations then. You cannot quantify these experiences, but they are incredibly valuable. The group dynamics that you see develop during such a trip are also very valuable. Not only do you see knowledge and networks being shared, but friendships are actually formed as well,” he explains.

All of this is slightly more difficult to create online – but, Van Huiden would like to emphasize: “Definitely not impossible!” He goes on to explain that lessons have been learned for this from 2020’s edition, which also took place entirely online. “Last year, we noticed that things don’t happen so automatically online; it’s not the same as having a beer together after a session. We wanted to foster that more this year. By inviting the participants to break-out sessions in small groups, we wanted to encourage contact and collaboration. We hoped that they could also learn a lot from each other that way, just like in real life.”

The participants came from diverse backgrounds – from entrepreneurial bachelor’s students who want to get as much out of their studies as possible, to scientific researchers who have been busy setting up a start-up for a while already. “It was a very mixed bunch. All of them had a different background, culture or education. The great thing is that during the program you can see those differences start to blur. There can sometimes be a ten-year age gap and a wealth of experience between different participants, yet they still accept feedback from each other.”

In the end, four of the fourteen participating start-ups competed in the finals. The other ten start-ups were unable to convince the jury in their one-minute pitch. But that does not mean that there is no future for them; this is how Kristoffer Buch – involved in EVP on behalf of the Technical University of Denmark – assured the crestfallen faces that have just been eliminated. “The level of all the start-ups was incredibly close and everyone has grown tremendously in a very short time. Above all, stay in touch with your EVP hubs, because we can continue to support you.”

this he meant a financial cushion that will enable participants to travel to the respective cities at a later date. “We believe that we can help you on your way. You can see with your own eyes how other similar start-ups in the same sector are doing. You can come into contact with all sorts of interesting experts via the universities’ network and build on the foundation laid during the EVP.”

Nicklas Werge is doing a PhD at the Technical University of Denmark and is a business developer at Glaze. This start-up is working on a measuring instrument that checks the thickness of protective coatings on ships, among other things. “But there are all kinds of applications for this technique, the market is very extensive. The food and pharmaceutical industries could also have applications for it. I learn a lot by seeing a wide range of applications and getting in touch with the people who are already active in this value chain.”

Finalist Fatme Jardali, a postdoctoral researcher at France’s École Polytechnique and founder of Hiperssys, also thinks she would benefit from examples in the real world. She is working with Hiperssys on a promising new battery that has the potential to be lighter, cleaner and store more energy than the existing lithium-ion battery. “We are still full-on in the research phase, but are already thinking about the next step. How can you scale up battery production quickly? That’s quite a challenge that we could certainly use some help with.”

“Gaining an insight into an investor’s mindset is extremely valuable”
– Nicklas Werge, EVP participant and PhD student at DTU in Denmark

Collaboration between the participants is now also being explored, Werge says digitally. Together with the ultimate winner DirectFEM, which makes simulation software for engineers, Werge is eyeing whether they can support each other. “But I have also contacted all the hub leaders to find out if there are any interesting leads for us in the various networks.”

Even though the participants would have much preferred traversing Europe to get to know each other and the different ecosystems, they did learn a lot during this edition of EVP. Felix Schiegg from the Technical University in Munich found it particularly instructive to hear from investors what they are looking for. “This is especially important for start-ups,” he states.

Werge agrees: “Gaining an insight into an investor’s mindset is extremely valuable. I found out that in my pitch I put much more emphasis on the problem and its solution. I wasn’t paying much attention to substantiating potential sales. Now I know that as a hardware start-up, it is important to identify what pieces of the puzzle need to fall into place in order to say something about the potential of an investment. What about IP? Are you able to scale up quickly? What risks are you running and how do you deal with them?”