Patrick Essers – How EIT Digital helps tech startups

Five years ago, the European Parliament opened the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT). As the title implies, it has a clear directive to enhance the continent’s ability to innovate. For despite a high-level research base, many dynamic companies and an abundance of creative talent, not enough good ideas are being turned into new products or business services. Many European countries still need a real change of mind-set towards the promotion of a more innovative and entrepreneurial culture. Patrick Essers joined EIT Digital on June 1st 2015 as the new node director for the Netherlands. Their offices are on the High Tech Campus Eindhoven, so we strolled over to Building 31 to find out how he’s getting on.

EIT Digital Node in Eindhoven on High Tech Campus

“It’s true that innovation is the key to growth, competitiveness and social well-being in the 21st century,” explains Patrick. “The capacity of a society to innovate has become crucial in an ever more knowledge-intensive economy.”

With headquarters in Budapest, EIT operates 5 knowledge innovation centres (KICs) –  Climate-KIC, EIT Digital, KIC InnoEnergy, EIT Health and EIT Raw Materials. Two additional KICs, Food4Future and Added-value Manufacturing will be set up in 2016, to be followed by KIC Urban Mobility in 2018. It’s Patrick’s job to manage the EIT Digital node which has built a very active network across the Netherlands.

So what kind of startup companies are you looking for?

“EIT Digital has traditionally done a lot of work with early stage start-ups, helping them with their value proposition, team development and deal making. That’s changing to an increasing focus on those busy with international deals.”

“We’re now helping more “later stage” startups who are at the point of scaling up internationally, especially when that involves another European country. Our networks are better suited to companies that have already established a customer need in one market and are looking for opportunities to expand to others. Investors in other countries are more likely to fund a startup if it has a proven track record in another.”

Tinnitracks Founders from Hamburg scaling up in the Netherlands

Is the European approach really better than national? 

“Definitely. Take the example of German startup company Tinnitracks. They have a solution for people who suffer from tinnitus – continuous ringing in their ears. They have found it much easier to scale up here in the Netherlands, and this helped them to get a large insurance company to back their product in Germany. They will be explaining more about their successful journey at the next health-care event being organised at the HTCE Conference centre on November 24th 2015. And I'm pleased that there are many more examples like this.”

“It’s best to describe us as a collaborative, practical “think-and-do” network. As EIT Digital, it is our job to actively seek out new partners and match them to various projects we’re running in breakthrough Innovation and High-Tech Entrepreneurship. We also run courses in Entrepreneurial Education. ICT, in fact, is a common thread to many of the grand challenges facing Europe. “

“Every node brings the same broad portfolio of expertise forward to companies and universities in their respective region. For instance, we have close links to the three technical universities in the Netherlands (Enschede, Eindhoven and Delft) as well as Utrecht University. We arrange Master Schools on eight technical Majors and a Minor in Innovation & Entrepreneurship, where we involve students together with young entrepreneurs and industry experts. In addition, we run both a Doctoral School and a Professional School. These provide a programme of learning for digital entrepreneurs and IT professionals throughout their careers.”

“We are currently located at European high-tech hotspots in Berlin, Munich, Eindhoven, London, Helsinki, Paris, Rennes, Sophia-Antipolis, Stockholm, Trento, Madrid, and Budapest. We have recently opened a hub in Silicon Valley. There is constant interaction between these locations so students, researchers, engineers and business developers can cross-pollinate ideas to succeed in their respective markets”.

So why is EIT Digital needed? What does it add to the existing ICT sector?

“Digitalisation now permeates through all of our economy and society. Digital innovations are everywhere – in products, services, processes and also business models. EIT Digital facilitates and accelerates these innovations for the benefit of both the European economy and society, building and running a pan-European network of the strongest players in their respective areas. We focus on the key strategic domains in which we are creating impact: economic impact, societal impact, Education/Research/Business and Ecosystem impact, as well as sustainability.”

“With this focus we can help young companies develop relevant, innovative projects for everyone’s benefit. I believe that pro-actively connecting educational institutes with research and business is important. Things accelerate much faster when people collaborate rather than trying to do it on their own.”

Discussions with the leaders in the security sector

"Perhaps the most recent example of EIT Digital's work was our participation in the BlackHat Europe conference in Amsterdam. Several startups, like qkey from Delft, who are part of the EIT Digital security program got a chance to meet with international experts and investors in this fast growing area of ICT. Networking in these type of high-profile business events is almost impossible if you don't have the right introductions."

Bram Spitzer (EIT Digital) with Guus Stiger (qkey)

What are you trying to change?

“We’re focusing on building innovative teams and changing the mind-set. In the Netherlands, there is no shortage of technical skills. But when you’re turning a technical proof of concept into a real business, you need commercial skills, or a “societal” team member of a startup asking what use this product is for its users. You need to look at the financial case behind the idea. And you need to ask serious questions about the market – is there a real market for the product in The Netherlands or elsewhere in Europe. If things take off, how will you scale? All this requires that you maintain a critical posture, looking at different angles of the proposition. It’s too easy just to believe your own press releases.”

Why did they ask you to come on board?

“I have a background in electrical engineering, I did my Masters at Eindhoven University of Technology. While in the Dutch Navy I realised that in addition to my engineering background, I really enjoyed teaching and building networks.”

“I’ve worked for KPN and Ericsson in the areas of business development. This always involved thinking outside the box and understanding market needs. In 2012, I switched to being Quartermaster Director for an organisation called World Class Maintenance in Breda. WCM was an economic development foundation set up in 2007 to boost innovation in the Dutch maintenance sector. It was quite broad including the maintenance of ships, planes, or the process industry. My task was to change the organisation from being fully subsidised into a sustainable business which today is run by 23 partners who keep it operational.”

“The goal for EIT Digital in its second phase of development is to become self-sustaining – which is why I was asked to come on board in June 2015.”

“A contribution to our sustainability will be delivered by creating a portfolio of Innovation Activities. This will generate financial support through partnerships and from external organisations and, over time, will generate revenue for this KIC. Our success will partly be measured by the levels of investments that companies and governments make in our activities. But we also intend to organise more activities that generate revenue for the KIC, be it in research-based innovation or in business & entrepreneurship. So although EIT Digital will become less of a fund itself, it will grow its network of investors to find venture capital.”

“We also see a trend where Universities in the Netherlands are doing a lot more applied research together with business and public institutions, such as hospitals. That means aspects like knowledge transfer and intellectual property are becoming more important.”

What is your preferred future for EIT Digital?

“Entrepreneurial Education, Research-based Innovation and Business & Entrepreneurship will remain our core focus areas. But I want to strengthen the collaboration with the other four knowledge and information streams, like Climate, Health and Energy.”

“For instance, when it comes to energy, EIT Digital is doing a lot of work looking at how to protect smart power grids from existing and future cyber threats. I believe this will be achieved by combining and analysing multiple sources of security-relevant information in real-time. This prevents a critical infrastructure from being compromised, yet at the same time allows savings on security related operational expenditure. As more and more solar energy comes on line, innovative storage solutions are also needed as the grid itself cannot act as a battery. I’m sure there are more cross-overs areas here with work being done by colleagues in InnoEnergy.”