Can Dutch academics become super connectors?

It’s only been a few decades since universities started an active policy to break down boundaries between academia and business, and create room for the commercialization of world-changing ideas. The winners of this year's Academic Startup Competition visited the tech transfer hubs at Stanford, Berkeley, Pepperdine, NYU, Columbia, Cornell Tech, and MIT to make new connections and to learn about the US way of valorisation. During their visit, they learned that when Stanford was already at the core of some of today’s biggest tech companies, professors at neighbouring university UC Berkeley were not expected or encouraged to aim for the same. Is it time for Dutch universities to speed up their valorisation practices?

In the past 15 years, much has changed in the United States startup ecosystem. Startups, valorisation and impact have become core in the business model of American universities., KNAW and ScaleNL support the scalability of academic startup competition winners by organising a visit to four American Tech-Transfer hubs. During our visit, we heard an American academic founder say: “You ask me which competition I’m afraid of, but we’re happy with each commercialisation, because they prove that the market is ready for this.” 

Impact, not income

The MIT motto “impact, not income” shows the importance of raising the profile of research, either through commercialisation or communication. It allows academics to establish relationships and build networks both within and outside their field. As was written by the UIIN: Exchanging ideas and getting feedback encourages thinking in more practical terms. And the resulting conversations can lead to collaborations that advance research in ways that individual academics can’t alone.

The ideas at the root of a spinoff are only the beginning

The public or private background, and the involvement of government plays a significant role in this transition. If universities are paid publicly, who then should benefit from the knowledge acquired? While there is logic in making IP public for the public to use, it often kills the viability of a future business if there is no way to protect your unique selling point. It made us realize something that the Netherlands should take really seriously: the ideas at the root of a spinoff are only the very beginning. Starting a business, thinking bigger and scaling are a whole new ball game.


An engineering campus

In 2010 this idea also formed in New York City. Local officials were “[...] worried that the city is not spawning enough technology-based start-up companies with the potential to become big employers like Google. [Therefore,] city officials are inviting universities around the world to create an engineering campus on city-owned land [...]” To date, Cornell NYC Tech has developed into a 1 billion USD project with another tripling planned to help diversify the economy, leverage existing NYC industries and create high-value jobs.

Professors as super connectors

The founder journey is crucial to make an impact through scientific breakthroughs. IP rights, facilities such as clean rooms, capital, talent and the market, all have to be aligned for a business to scale. While at UC Berkeley we heard the estimation that roughly one third of professors had an interest and actively contributed to valorisation. This meant that we met many professors that were essentially super connectors. Connecting founders with their network around a (deeptech) specialism. This requires a level of proudness, business sense and ambition in academics. While it’s difficult, it has been done before.


Alex Schubert writes: “Founder-led biotech companies are becoming increasingly common. While we are seeing inspiring companies emerging, there is still a lot of skepticism around this concept. It’s important to remember that this is not an entirely new phenomenon and that (even very technical) founders have built and led very successful, multi-billion dollar biotech companies.

Therefore,, ScaleNL and the KNAW are proud to have supported the 10 most promising academic startups from the Netherlands in their journey to scale.  This visit has taught us much of the above insights, and we’ve seen the businesses blow away American professors, ecosystem players and VCs. Hands up for these top ballers: EXIT071, IMcoMET, Sensip-dx, Time-travelling Milkman, TargED Biopharmaceuticals, LumetalliX, QuiX Quantum, Maeve Aerospace, MantiSpectra and Liion Power.

Background information

It is a challenge to valorize academic startups in their respective fields. Via the academic startup competition wants to connect academic founders with startups from other fields. Sharing skills, knowledge and expertise is why we include various and diverse organizations in our network. The competition and the trip give national and international recognition to academic startups that provide innovative solutions to global challenges


Article written by Sabine Kerssens

Sabine is Strategy Manager at On the cutting edge of business and data, she helps in their next steps forward and knows what makes the startup ecosystem tick. She accompanied the Academic Startup Competition to bring the best American DeepTech practices back to the Netherlands. She is also a Charlemagne Prize Fellow, on this topic.

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