This is a partner blog written by Maarten Steinbuch (Eindhoven University of Technology) and Katja Pahnke (Eindhoven Engine). 


This short story is about our experience how to connect people and create new centers of co-operation in academia, and about the lessons learned in those years. Most of this journey I did together with Katja Pahnke, who will give her thoughts from her perspective in the second part. Let me briefly summarize my own findings first.

Let me start with the automotive activities at our university, Eindhoven University of Technology, which were boosted in 2007 by the growth of the local industrial activities with NXP semiconductors and DAF trucks as well as TNO (largest Dutch Research Institute) moving to the nearby city of Helmond. We wanted to develop a new master’s degree in automotive technology in order to meet the human capital need of the region. By then it was already clear that automotive no longer is the domain of the mechanical engineer alone. In fact, systems thinking and systems engineering needed for the huge transition of mobility toward safe and green transportation requires the combination of mechanical, electrical, and industrial engineering & design and computer science. So here is the challenge: how to create an atmosphere with a common goal, building bridges and ferries between isles? Answer: with persistence and patience, bring people from different backgrounds together, and with a little research money. That also helps. I always call that cookie: give or arrange for a professor funding for a PhD student, and he/she will be grateful for ever J. We started to organize every month an ‘automotive lunch’, were I paid for the bread and butter, from my own research group money, because nobody invests at the start of something like that. We invited not only the scientists but also the teachers and technicians from our automotive labs, and now and then also the automotive student teams. These lunches created an automotive family feeling and made it possible that we became a community at our university resulting in smart mobility being accepted as one of the three societal focus areas of our university. Later also a new bachelor study was defined, again with the involvement of all relevant departments.

With the success of automotive in my mind, I was eager to do the same for the high tech application field within our university. Being often at the Automotive Campus in Helmond, it was no surprise that once I bumped into a person with two arms broken and in plaster to recover. That person was Katja Pahnke.


I remember this day as yesterday, me with both arms in plaster, Maarten with his leg in plaster. We had a click, not only due to our-temporary- disabilities but especially due to our common drive, shared values and energy. Maarten is a visionary par excellence, aiming high and continuously willing to learn. Here we found each other, but also in a common impatience to reach our goals and to act as role model how to implement a (new) strategy. At the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) we started the High Tech Systems Center together, in an environment which realized that a change of a culture and business model is needed. And where a new organization has to be built with different, entrepreneurial people in order to come to new innovations and answers to societal and industrial challenges by multidisciplinary research. Therefore, a new type of leadership was/is needed, and leaders who can drive and implement change, creating a new, own culture, but respecting the ‘old’ values.

Raised in Germany, striving for excellence is like a second nature for me and therefore the university was a very well fit – I loved the ‘collective intelligence’ vibrating on the campus from the first day. But worked in industry with a high pace and entrepreneurship I missed the speed of decision and risk taking. Therefore, in the beginning I felt lonely due to, in my eyes, higher focus on processes and ‘content’ rather than on people. In return, I was compensating a lot on social and interpersonal skills to connect different people and be the connector between various groups, departments, stakeholders.

But after a time we had created a good and powerful team and excellent connections to other researchers across TU/e, our patience paid off as well as investing in personal relationships and understanding the processes. Also money helped like Maarten mentioned before, and we were able to fund a lot of PhD positions by the so-called Impuls program: for every industry-paid PhD candidate we could co-finance an Impuls funded PhD candidate, and impact was at least doubled. We had and still have a very close and trustful relationship to our local high-tech industry, understand their roadmaps and were able to build an organization which could reflect the needed speed for research and implementation of the results.

In Eindhoven Engine, an innovation accelerator at the TU/e campus with even more shareholders (next to TU/e also TNO and Fontys are partners) the complexity increases but the possibilities as well. Combining forces will lead to higher impact, and that is what we really need in order to change the world by new innovations. Teams of our region’s most talented researchers from industry, knowledge institutes and students cooperate in Eindhoven Engine research programs to deliver breakthrough technological solutions. We bring these people together on a common colocation in the Disruptor building. We set up an own legal entity to be able to work independent and create an own working culture. This is necessary for out of the box thinking and acting, but also to innovate our way of innovation.

My personal drive is to lead by example and to organize diversity in a team, I strongly believe that building an origination on personal strengths and strong partnerships is much more effective, adaptive and future proof than surround yourself with the same personalities.

Leadership is also about dare, taking responsibility and ownership for your own choices. And combining this behavior with a very loyal, reliable and trustful culture of the university is a golden combination. In this way we created an entrepreneurial culture where our community is learning day by day, and (dare) making mistakes is part of the game.

For more information about Eindhoven Engine or other ecosystem partners, visit our partner page!