Best practices for creating an innovation ecosystem in healthcare, from TU Delft, the Netherlands

Delft University of Technology (TU Delft), the Netherlands. Photo: TU Delft / Guillermo Arto Sánchez

Delft University of Technology (TU Delft), ranked number one university in the Netherlands and the 50th in the world, has been supporting, since 2005, a startup incubator, training teams of students and other young entrepreneurs in setting up their company and networking the founders with potential investors, suppliers and customers. On a mission to build tomorrow’s leading firms, over 200 companies have been set up in YES!Delft incubator so far, raising at least 316 M€ in private funding. Yes!Delft is considered the best business incubator affiliated with a university in Europe, according to the UBI Ranking, and number 2 in the world. One of the focus areas of YES!Delft is MedTech, and the incubator is a partner of EIT Health, which enables the startups to tap into this vast European network.

Roel Kamerling is a managerial coordinator for public-private innovation programs at TU Delft, most of them focused on innovation in health and EIT Health programs. During a visit of Roel in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, we spoke with him about the best practices for creating an innovation ecosystem in healthcare, in Cluj.

Roel, could you please tell us what is your role at TU Delft?

My role at TU Delft is to set up new activities with our researchers and industry and other researchers outside the University, to do research and to develop new competitive products and services. I’m also involved in supporting startups going to our incubator, YES!Delft. As a liaison there I make sure that talented people from the University with the potential to set up a company, are aware of the opportunity to move to our incubator. And I support connected startups from the University side as much as I can.

YES!Delft opened the doors to its first location in 2005 as one of the first incubators in the Netherlands, next to the campus of the Delft University of Technology. Photo: Yes!Delft

Our incubator is situated in a building within our university campus and was established as an independent company owned by the University, the City of Delft and another research institute in Delft, TNO. The incubator runs a programe to train young teams in how to set up their company and supports them by organizing a network of potential investors, suppliers and customers. Next to that they develop now more and more training and development programs in entrepreneurship for professionals working in industry. 

Tell us more about EIT Health and what you do there.

EIT Health is an EU supported program to stimulate the development of new products or services that support people in living active and healthy lives as well as creating jobs in innovative companies. I have had several jobs in EIT Health and in one – in the Accelerator program – I had a special focus at business creation using knowledge as a basis. For that program I’ve coordinated the development of EU wide validation bootcamps. I am now also a mentor for the Innostars RIS hub programs, a program that supports regions from Southern and Central Europe to develop the innovation ecosystem to the next level.

The EIT Health Validation Lab program for 10 startups at YES!Delft. Over the course of eight weeks, the teams traveled through the Netherlands and across Europe to validate the business potential of their ideas with leading universities, healthcare companies and hospitals. Photo: Yes!Delft

You’ve said that you are looking for ecosystems around Southern and Central Europe. Why are you visiting Cluj?

Dr. Ion Petrovai (co-founder FreshBlood) asked me to come to Romania to have a better understanding of what’s happening in Cluj, being one of the EIT Health Innostar regions. We had many interesting talks with the universities and cluster organisations and I brought with me a good example from Delft on what we do and how we overpassed our situation of being a university mainly focused on education and research and little on entrepreneurship.

Dr. Ion Petrovai (co-founder of FreshBlood) and Roel Kamerling (TU Delft), in Cluj-Napoca

In 2018 FreshBlood successfully applied for being one of the RIS hubs of the EIT Health in Romania. There are a select number of hubs of high potential regions and they all did an analysis last year including a SWOT analysis of their own region. For 2019 they had to make a plan on how to improve the health innovation system of the region. So, now we know what their strengths and weaknesses are, we can also start to plan concrete actions for the regions. So we understand what needs to be done, who could do it what would be necessary for expertise, investments or new policies.

What are the good practices you think Cluj would benefit from? 

What I saw in the past few days was that there’s a lot already happening in Cluj. Talented people, good education level, great companies, there’s a willingness to build more international competitive products and services and move beyond outsourcing of IT services.

In the process of coming from a first idea for a company or product to the final product & business, there are some steps to take in entrepreneurship. There are some essential questions to answer:

  • Is there a problem – solution fit?
  • Is there a product – market fit?
  • Do I have a team to work with?

And a good company incubator is the perfect place to find the answers for such questions. Creating an incubator in Cluj would be a fantastic idea, a physical place where startups in e.g. MedTech, robotics, IT maybe mechanical engineering can develop their company, and get support for connecting to all the relevant partners that a young company needs, such as launching customers, (medical) experts, investors etc.

What about the YES!Delft incubator in Delft?

The YES!Delft program runs on the same principles as some similar entrepreneurship education programs at Stanford University and MIT. It’s an incubator where we mentor new startups in order to get funding and develop their ideas and have contact with possible customers and industrial partners.

As a partnership between YES!Delft and EIT Health, the EIT Health Validation Lab combines YES!Delft’s startup expertise with the extensive knowledge and network of EIT Health. Photo: Yes!Delft

The mission of this incubator in Delft is to build tomorrow’s leading firms. If you want to enter the incubator, as a company and you are reviewed as good enough (there’s a quality check) you will have to pay a monthly rent. You will get access to the education program, the network, all the events that are taking place there and also free coffee. The incubator does not give you funding automatically but you can apply for grants, bank loans or at a funding agency with different conditions.

Can you describe how the program works?

Well, if you want to grow to the next phase with your business, you can either do that yourself or you can apply for joining the YES!Delft incubator program.

First phase or actually the pre-phase of the program is a bootcamp for validation of the mentioned 3 main questions. That’s a good way for companies or teams with an idea to prepare for the launch of their company. If you decide to launch, you can apply for the incubation program and actually start. Then again there is an extensive support program for young teams to setup the company. The idea is to grow into a sustainable company  within a few years and then you can enter a growth support program. Indeed, in all these phases of the program, they have a very extensive network of mentors, potential launching customers, international collaborations and investor network. And you get support in understanding what is the best type of financing for you.

TU Delft has investment funds for several phases of starting and growing companies, some of them together with close-by Leiden University and Erasmus University Rotterdam, so our companies will have access to several funding sources. There’s also a regional investment agency who wants to invest in the very early stages of these companies. This is a combination of public and private investments.

For how long is this program running at TU Delft?

Since 2005. There are around 200 companies that have been set up in YES!Delft. Since 2005 they raised at least 316 M€ in private funding. I’m sure the numbers are more, as these are only the publicly known numbers. Some of the companies are based on IP from TU Delft, but that is not a requirement to get into the YES!Delft incubator.

Yes!Delft is the best business incubator affiliated with a university of Europe according to the UBI Ranking and number 2 in the world. A very important side effect is that now entrepreneurship is cool among our students and university staff, which was not the case when we started in 2005.

What do you think about entrepreneurship and startups in Europe? 

Now more and more people, at least think it’s cool to do a startup, but percentage wise, the ones that actually do it, is still very low. As I said, YES!Delft generated 200 startup companies in 13 years, while we had on average 20,000 students every year at our campus. These are good companies, they created a lot of products that are helping people with renewable energy solutions, health products or new robots. Those companies created thousand of new jobs, directly for themselves and also for suppliers. 

Launch Day, at the end of a two-month EIT Health Validation Lab program for startups, at Yes!Delft. Photo: Yes!Delft

Moreover for TU Delft they are very interesting collaborators in R&D projects. So, even with low percentages of students and staff that actually set up companies there is still a high return on investment. We see that the early startups that are now mature actually start to mentor young teams and invest in the new generation. Because of the good program and interesting network we now also see that startups from different countries come to DELFT to develop their company. 

The possibility of setting up such a program was discussed as a result of the EIT Health SWOT analysis but do you think this kind of incubator would be feasible for Cluj?

There are quite some courses and projects taking place already but it’s completely scattered all over the city and at different universities, not really coherent. I would suggest one incubator for the city so that you have sufficient deal flow. And teams can come to enter the program from Universities, from people that are mid career and want to do something else, companies that have ideas, doesn’t matter, as long as they want to launch a company that has a good product and a good team of people. Then, it’s essential to have an incubator somewhere in a physical location, where people can share ideas and do their own work as a company and get support focused on their needs as a startup.

Babes Bolyai University’s Center for Innovation in Healthcare in Cluj, created the HIVE project, with a first focus on innovation in health.

Shouldn’t the Medical University create this incubator in Cluj?

Medical University should be part of it but not as the only one. There has to be a collaboration between technical, medical and business universities and definitely the Technical University should be part of such an incubator. More products and services than just health can be developed in a startup of course. Always, the industrial players in the city or region are a big asset for a young startup.

This incubator should not be an investment of just one of the universities or companies. This incubator should be ment to build tomorrow’s leading firms and you have to have a joint understanding of that because everybody will benefit from it. And everybody is needed to support the young companies.

Cluj-Napoca based FreshBlood is a community which aims to support health-related startups, it is one of the hubs of the EIT Health in Romania, and in May 2019 has become connected to the European Connected Health Alliance, a European network of ecosystems, forming the regional network Transylvania Digital Health Ecosystem, with the purpose of increasing the quality of the regional health services, through European collaboration and technology.

The vision of the Transylvanian Digital Health Ecosystem is to become a dedicated healthcare focused innovation accelerator for Eastern Europe. You can read more about the Transylvanian Digital Health Ecosystem, here

Maria is a young medical graduate and enthusiastic digital health liaison. She loves to be inspired and to help others to grow in the field of digital health. She is part of the FreshBlood team and also involved in EIT Health projects.