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Students compete to really make a difference with their social innovations

Monday, 30 May 2022

"It's just a real pleasure every time," says Robert-Jan Smits, president of the Executive Board of the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e). He is referring to the students who pitch their ideas, prototypes and projects during a competition like the TU/e Contest or the 4TU Impact Challenge in the battle for the prize. "It's wonderful and really clever how these young people are able to present themselves. Just in terms of how creative they are in their solutions for a wide variety of issues. That's really special.”


Over the past few years, Smits has noticed an increase in the level of enthusiasm among students for competitions such as the TU/e Contest. This is also the conclusion of other organizers such as Soapbox. Soapbox started around ten years ago organizing innovation and entrepreneurship competitions for students, for universities as well as universities of applied sciences. Soapbox founder Hans Heijnen sees, besides the increase in the number of students, a shift from ideas that make money to ideas that have social impact. "It is no longer purely about making money - making an impact is key nowadays. Students really want to make a difference."

"These kinds of competitions are not just for students who want to set up companies," Heijnen says. "Especially students in science education see it as an opportunity to get in contact with the business community. But there are definitely plenty of gems of companies among them."

More about Insightful Innovators

The 'Insightful Innovators' series is an initiative of 4TU.Federation and Innovation Origins. This is where you can read the stories behind entrepreneurial students at the four Dutch technical universities and their ambition to make the world a bit more beautiful. They are the driving force behind innovation in the Netherlands.

Local contests

TU/e has been organizing the TU/e Contest since 2015. It is a contest that challenges students to think outside the box in order to come up with solutions for social problems. They develop their idea, concept, prototype or project further during workshops and events. They are also put in contact with the business community. A whole range of partners are involved, such as ASML, the Dutch Ministry of Defence, Thermo Fisher, VDL and the police. It ends with a grand finale and this year it will take place on 23 June. 

Not only TU/e but also the other three technical universities of the Netherlands, TU Delft, University of Twente and Wageningen University & Research, organize what is known as 'local contests'. The winners of these separate competitions get to compete against each other during the 4TU Impact Challenge.


According to Smits, an innovation competition is completely in line with the philosophy of education. "As a university, we want to train the engineer of the future. That is a different type of engineer than was the case around fifteen years ago. This new generation of engineers must above all be able to think in terms of problem-solving, be able to communicate well, and work together in a team. It is precisely these contests that bring out the best of these three traits. They also seamlessly fit in with the concept of challenge-based learning style of education that the TU/e is renowned for." 

Among other things, TU/e uses challenge-based learning to challenge students to work on concrete social issues. Smits is seeing increasingly more student teams with students who want to be entrepreneurs, especially in the field of sustainability. This is something he welcomes.

"The contest also dovetails nicely into these times. Whereas the trend about thirty years ago was for everyone who graduated to work in academia, around ten years later, it was the aspiration to work in the corporate world. Nowadays, I notice that a lot of students want to start their own business to do their bit for a better world. It feels really special to have the chance to witness that," Smits notes.


Biosphere Solar, the winner of the TU Delft Impact Challenge Contest in the Ideation Category, is one such student team that is on track to become a company. Founder Siemen Brinksma recently earned his master's degree in industrial ecology and started the student team during his studies. He is now a full-time entrepreneur and the student team has since evolved into a start-up. Along with about twelve students, he is working on his mission to also transform the sustainable world of the future into a circular one.

“We need new technologies to become more sustainable. Electric vehicles, heat pumps, solar panels, sustainable housing, sustainable food supplies. One thing that is being left by the wayside in my opinion, is circularity. Take, for example, the solar panels of today. We can just throw those away when they don't work anymore.”

"About ninety percent of today's solar panels are made of silicon cells," Brinksma goes on to explain. A plastic adhesive holds the cells together in the panel. "A panel can then last around twenty years. Because of that adhesive, it cannot be repaired or modified in the intervening period. Also, that adhesive cannot be removed, so those silicon cells can never regain their purity. All the valuable and the toxic substances end up in the environment, or are recycled in a low-grade way.”


Brinksma sought a solution for that adhesive. He researched what was already out there and only came across one other university that was also working on this. That is why he decided to develop an alternative himself. That alternative works in the same way as double glazing. "In that case, you don't want moisture to get in between the glass panels so that you can prevent condensation on the inside. So, they extract moisture and oxygen from that in-between space. Then they put a rubber edge around the outside so that it is hermetically sealed for about twenty-five years. That's exactly what you want to do with solar panels as well.”

"We are now working on the structural design so that the cells will stay in place. In doing that, we are still facing some design challenges," Brinksma adds. This month, the start-up will begin testing prototypes in the Green Village at TU Delft. A collaboration that came about partly in response to the student contest. Not only the contest, but also a grant application and an investor from Delft brought the start-up and the Green Village into contact with each other. "In this respect, the TU Delft Impact Contest was important not only to showcase our idea, but also to earn the recognition that we are doing something right.”

Moreover, the competition has the added advantage that it gets you out of your bubble, Brinksma states. "You put your ideas out there, even though you know the product may not be ready yet. You talk to people in the industry. People with plenty of experience who you can ask all your questions. They tell you what they think of your idea. You can then think about that and adapt your solution accordingly. The financial foundation is also important. Because you can have great ideas, but if you don't have enough money to develop them, you won't get anywhere. That brings you back down to earth.”

Open source

Brinksma wants to share his design with other companies under an open source license. He is still looking for production partners. "Big companies are much better at that, of course. They already have that capital and the expertise. They just aren't using a circular design yet.”

And that's precisely where Brinksma wants to effect change. "Lots of technologies are protected by patents. Companies keep a solution all to themselves." In the view of the entrepreneur, it is a misconception that if you make something via open source, it is subsequently no longer protected.

"You publish that under a license. With that kind of license, you can impose restrictions. For example, that anyone is allowed to copy your technology, provided that they name you as the creator. Or you can say that it is not allowed to be used for commercial purposes. Or that if someone develops your design further, they must publish it under the same license. This is how you create an open ecosystem. The great thing about this is that, as a small student team, we don't have the same research and development capacity as a large solar company, however, we do have the opportunity to create a global community.”

Biosphere Solar now wants to try and find a large company, such as an energy supplier or a solar panel manufacturer, that would like to work with the company. "That doesn't necessarily have to involve the whole design. It could also mean modifying part of the production line to make it circular. Maybe other companies will then follow suit. 


The start-up is faring well. Or at least the pitch and validation part, Brinksma clarifies. The prototypes will be tested soon. In April, the company also won the Dutch CleanTech Challenge, which is taking the team to London.

"We are more in the process of selling our idea right now, as opposed to having something tangible. Our first goal is to finish the product design. And that we have a community that is working on that. Between all the competitions and coaching, I also feel like being in the workplace and actually putting our design into practice."

The contribution to society that Brinksma is striving for is important to TU/e director Smits too. "A university is also supposed to make contributions to society, on a regional and national level, but also on a European and international level."

Some wonderful examples also sprang from the TU/e, such as Lightyear. "Or just look at the solution that ELEO came up with for the storage of renewable energy. The scale-up is now working on a factory at the Automotive Campus in Helmond where, over time, approximately two hundred people will be able to work. Or consider Hable, which is making a global impact with a braille keyboard for smartphones

"You see the most amazing cases pass by during the finals of this kind of competition - and presented with such passion. Being able to be a part of that is really special."