| 7 minute read

Thematic Technology Transfer’s role in circular technology

Elena Galán-Muros
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In this engaging episode, we delve into the world of circular technology with Maurits Burgering, Program Director for Thematic Technology Transfer Program: Circular Technology (TTT-CT) at Wageningen University and Research. The discussion centers on the innovative TTT Program, a collaborative effort involving four Dutch technical universities and Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO).

Maurits sheds light on TTT’s pivotal role in nurturing young innovators, providing them with a fast-track route to transform their ideas into impactful ventures. Furthermore, the episode highlights how TTT’s initiatives are making a substantial impact on sustainability and climate goals, challenging conventional calculations. It offers a glimpse into the promising future of circular technology and innovation, with a focus on real-world applications and tangible outcomes.

In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:

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Madeline Arkins:
How did the partnerships between the technical universities come about and how was the Thematic Technology Transfer (TTT) Program developed?

Maurits Burgering:
I’m managing the TTT program for four technical universities in the Netherlands: Wageningen, Delft, Eindhoven, and Twente, and we joined in for more and better spin-offs to be created on circular technology, which is something important for our future.

Of course, it didn’t start just like that. The four technical universities in the Netherlands already have a long history of collaborating on fundamental research, student challenges programs and social events, so it was a natural for them to come together. And our government embarked on this TTT subsidy scheme, so we applied for it for both circular technology and smart industries.

We won both, so we have now been doing this project for almost four years, and it is quite a success.

Madeline Arkins:
Great to see! What does the TTT do that sets it apart in this area?

Maurits Burgering:
It’s a playing ground where you can easily shuffle some money around. Not big money, but small money between the four technical university and TNO (Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research) to help a very early phase innovation that hangs around in the cellars of the university. We turn the spotlight on it so everybody can see it and try to make it stronger and better.

By removing the lengthy procedures that usually take place when trying to get initial money, we also give a huge impulse to young people that have ambition.

Having this low entrance way of seducing young people to do something with their inventions is really the success. That, together with the fact that other TUs that form the consortium are helping them, not only their own university.

Madeline Arkins:
In addition to this kind of seed funding or even pre-seed funding, what other factors do you think are crucial in helping these early phase innovations get over the line? We see so many ideas fail at this stage. What do you see in your experience that really makes them a success?

Maurits Burgering:
First, failing is not something bad. Our motto is “fail fast”: If you fail, do it as quickly as possible. If you spend a little bit of money and it fails, then you know it wasn’t a good idea, and that is fine. What we saw in the past was that people had an idea and, little by little, they put a lot of money into it. And it was only after four years that they realised that it was a bad idea. These kinds of ideas tend to hang around quite long, so failing fast is good, because then the good ideas also develop fast.

Another very important factor is building trust between the consortium partners. And that is what we developed during the four years that we are now working together. For instance, Eindhoven shares a new IP on a specific topic with a venture in Delft and that way we have a couple of spin-offs that have actual IP from different universities. Crossover it’s very important.

Madeline Arkins:
Given that this is partnership with Dutch universities and the Dutch Applied Research Institution of TNO and the Netherlands has this very ambitious target of having a circular economy by 2050. How do you see universities and even initiatives and programs like TTT playing a role in pushing this forward maybe at some point reaching this target?

Maurits Burgering:
Of course, these young ventures have ambition and that’s very good. For instance, our Bureau calculates CO2 emissions, and we had a meeting with them, some banks, policy makers and some young ventures.

We noticed that, if you include the start-ups and what they can do in four to five years into these very conservative calculations, then we are actually doing much, much better on CO2 reduction than what was anticipated”.

These policy makers are so conservative and only calculate with the usual suspects: The big multinationals with their programs, but these small, young ventures are knocking on the door and challenging the system. And if what they think they can do comes reality, then we are actually doing much better in the figures in 2050 or 2030 than we thought. So that was a nice achievement.

Madeline Arkins
It sounds very hopeful. I feel like that kind of hope is often absent from a lot of these discussions that we have on this topic. Coming back to TTT, you are supporting researchers to then go out and grow their own commercial venture or technology or spin-off. How do you think universities can better support their academics who also want that kind of external engagement?

Maurits Burgering:
There’s certainly something. Here in the Netherlands, we have now quite a debate about how not everyone that has an academic PhD can be a professor. Perhaps only 1 out of 10, but then you have another 9.

A few of the PhDs will go to companies, but being an entrepreneur is very fruitful, and it is also an education in itself that makes you a much better professional.

If it your entrepreneurship journey fails, then you are still much more attractive for a company, because of your experience being an entrepreneur.

Now here in the academic world in the Netherlands, we try to see whether we can give credits to an academic, not only in the number of publications or the citation index, but also, for example, if they are a good teacher. For instance, it might be that someone is quite a reasonable researcher, but they are an excellent teacher, and they should focus on teaching because that’s their passion and their profession.

Or they are very good in valorising results, therefore, we should also support them equally in their career and as an academic that gets a professorship at some point. It’s a new wave basically that it’s not only recognising on publications, but also on education and valorisation. If you excel in one, that’s just as good as excelling in the other.

Interested in more insights like this?

You can learn more about the characteristics and skills researchers need to be able to successfully create impact from their work in our podcast episode Research Valorisation | Skills for valorisation and commercialisation, or you can watch our video on three simple actions to help academics in the valorisation process.

Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow us on your preferred podcast platform!

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