In 1951, Stanford dean Frederick Terman began to pull together academics, industry, and public funding in a combination that ultimately became home to the largest tech giants in the world — Silicon Valley.
Now, TU Delft Director Paul Althuis is embarking on an ambitious project to convene academics, private companies, and public funding in the Netherlands. “RoboValley” has already spun out more than 30 startups, and seems poised to begin attracting Europe’s best minds and capital.
Is RoboValley the new Silicon Valley? We discuss with Paul.
Something Happening in the Valley
Nestled between Rotterdam and The Hague, the Delft University of Technology is the largest and oldest public technological university in the Netherlands. TU Delft, as it is better known, is home to 19,000 students and 3,300 scientists. And, with the most robotics researchers in Europe – and second only to MIT in the world – it is considered one of the world’s most prestigious places to study for applied sciences.
However, TU Delft is more than a prestigious university; it is the nucleus of RoboValley, an ambitious project initiated by Martijn Wisse and Arie van den Ende. RoboValley is a collaborative effort between TU Delft researchers, the Dutch government, and private companies to create a robotics hub in Europe similar to Silicon Valley in California.
Between the Lab and the Boardroom
Leading the charge from TU Delft as the key link between academia and investment is Paul Althuis. He is the director of the TU Delft Valorisation Centre, which assists researchers to commercialize their innovations, and of Delft Enterprises, which provides financing and business expertise to startups that the Centre produces.
In Paul’s words, his role in RoboValley “is not only to stimulate and assist spinouts from TU Delft, but also to help with technology backup, financial advice, and attracting additional funding in order to ensure the future success of the Valley. With RoboValley, we are creating an ecosystem in this region where scalable technology will flourish.”
He knows that, as with any industry, investment is key. From his view, TU Delft needs “to create as many innovations as we can. Then, through the RoboValley ecosystem there will be external funds available so that these innovations can take the next steps. We are looking to attract more and more funding, as we must support the rapid pace of technological development.”
Rapid Success in Delft
After spinning out over numerous successful startups in the past two years, Paul says there is no one secret to successfully commercializing technology. Instead, he explains the key is to “give young people the chance to be entrepreneurial. If we don’t develop and train our students with entrepreneurial mindsets, their startups will never work.
He’s particularly excited about startups that produce horticulture robots, as the ever business-minded Director explains that this particular region of the Netherlands is a main exporter of horticulture products. Another favourite? “The developments in the drone data company called Birds.AI that uses Artificial Intelligence to identify objects are very promising; they are already very mature, and through Delft Aerial Robotics we help them to further enhance and develop their company. We see a combination of good technology and business expertise that will lead to success.”
Why Delft? “If you don’t have top scientists, there is little to valorise,” Paul explains. “We have a full spectrum of experts related to robotics and drones in Delft — really a team of the top professors in this field. We also have an internal robotics institute where scientists of different faculties meet in order to facilitate a multidisciplinary approach to robotics.”
Ready to Take on Silicon Valley?
RoboValley has been compared to Silicon Valley, and Paul agrees. “Silicon Valley is the successful combination of engineers, companies, and investors. That’s why it’s a good comparison to RoboValley, although we are in the initial stages. With our top scientists, we’ll have top spinouts – which will attract foreign investment.”
Of course Paul sees differences: “The biggest difference is the scale and availability of money. Silicon Valley was created some 60 years ago, and has had time to grow, whereas we’re just beginning.”
Moreover, in terms of focus, the two Valleys vary. “Silicon Valley is really specialized on the IT development side. We have chosen robotics as our key focus for RoboValley, which gives us a good position given the specialties of our researchers.”
Overcoming the Investment Challenge
Paul believes the ecosystem created by RoboValley is helping startups overcome one of the biggest challenges – getting enough capital. “In the Netherlands, it takes a lot of time to attract enough money for the initial steps of company creation. There is no lack of talent, intellect or technology; but there is never enough money.”
“We’re active in acquiring and arranging further investment, and we’ve been keen on attracting foreign investors. Our international focus at RoboValley will ultimately be the basis of its lasting development.”
What Lies Ahead
Within the next 5 years, Paul expects that the robotics startups created through the RoboValley ecosystem will attract a number of foreign companies to the Netherlands. In fact, he expects to see the first few foreign companies move to Delft and the region next year.
Paul is optimistic; when asked about the biggest failure thus far, he shrugs. “We are of the mindset that we will give smart people a chance, with the implication they might fail. That way, there are never big failures. Not all startups will become successes, but through our way of working, we will be able to further develop our researchers and our technologies no matter what.”