Students compete to really make a difference with their social innovations

“It’s just fun every time,” says Robert-Jan Smits, chairman of the board of Eindhoven University of Technology (TU / e). He refers to the students who pitch their ideas, prototypes and projects during a competition such as the TU / e competition or the 4TU Impact Challenge in the battle for victory. “It is beautiful and very smart how these young people are able to present themselves. How creative they are in their solutions to the most diverse topics. It is very special. ”


In recent years, Smits has experienced a growing interest among students in competitions such as the TU / e competition. That is also the conclusion of an organizing party like Soapbox. Soapbox started about ten years ago with holding innovation and entrepreneurship competitions for students, both for colleges and universities. In addition to the increase in the number of students, the soapbox founder Hans Heijnen sees a shift from ideas that generate money to ideas with a social effect. “It is no longer solely about making money, but gaining influence is central. The students really want to make a difference. ”

“This kind of competition is not just for students who want to start a business,” says Heijnen. “Students from the university programs really see it as an opportunity to get in touch with the business community. But there are many gems of companies among them. ”

More on Insightful Innovators

The series “Insightful Innovators” is an initiative of 4TU.Federation and Innovation Origins. Here you can read the stories behind enterprising students from the four Dutch technical universities and their ambition to make the world a little more beautiful. They are a driving force behind innovation in the Netherlands.

Local match

TU / e has organized the TU / e competition since 2015. A competition that challenges students to think outside the box to create solutions to social problems. During workshops and events, they further develop their idea, concept, prototype or project. They also come in contact with the business community. A large number of partners are involved, such as ASML, the Ministry of Defense, Thermo Fisher, VDL, the police. Finally, there is one grand finale† This year it’s June 23rd.

Not only TU / e, but also the three other technical universities in the Netherlands, TU Delft, University of Twente and Wageningen University & Research, organize a so-called ‘local competition’. The winners of these separate competitions compete with each other during the 4TU Impact Challenge.


According to Smits, an innovation competition fits perfectly into the philosophy of education. “As a university, we want to educate the engineer of the future. It’s a different type of engineer than it was about fifteen years ago. The new generation of engineers must, above all problem solving ability to think, communicate well and work in teams. It is precisely the competitions that bring out the best of these three characteristics. They also fit seamlessly into the concept of challenge-based learning education, for which TU / e is known. ”

Robert-Jan Smits Chairman of the Executive Board of TU / e
Robert-Jan Smits © Angeline Swinkels

TU / e uses challenge-based learning, among other things, to challenge students to work with specific social issues. Smits sees more and more student teams with students who want to be entrepreneurs, especially in the field of sustainability. He welcomes that.

“The competition also fits well in this time. About thirty years ago, the tendency was for all graduates to work in academia, ten years later it was the big business world. Now I see that many students would like to start their own business to contribute to a better world. It is very special to witness that, “said Smits.


Biosphere Solar, winner of TU Delft Impact Challenge Contest in Idea category, is such a student body that is on its way to becoming a business. The founder Siemen Brinksma has recently obtained his master’s degree in industrial ecology and started working with the student team during his studies. Now he is a full-time entrepreneur and the student team is a start-up company. Together with about twelve students, he is working on his mission to make the sustainable world of the future also circular.

“To be more sustainable, we need new technologies. Electric cars, heat pumps, solar panels, sustainable houses, sustainable food supply. In my opinion, it’s circularity that is left. Take, for example, today’s solar panels. We can throw them out when they no longer works. ”

“About ninety percent of today’s solar panels are made of silicon cells,” explains Brinksma. A plastic glue holds the cells in the panel together. “A panel can then last about twenty years. Due to that glue, it can not be repaired or adjusted in the meantime. The glue can also no longer be removed, so the silicon cells never regain their purity. All valuable and toxic substances end up in the environment or are recycled at low value. ”


Brinksma was looking for a solution to that glue. He researched what already existed and came across only one other university that was also working on it. So he decided to develop an alternative himself. That alternative works just like double glazing. “You do not want moisture to get between the glass sheets to prevent condensation on the inside. So they extract moisture and oxygen from that hole. Then comes a rubber edge around the outside, making it hermetically sealed for about twenty-five years. That’s exactly what you want with solar panels. ”

Prototype Biosphere Solar
Prototype Biosphere Solar

“We are now working on the construction so that the cells remain in place. In addition, we still face design challenges, ”says Brinksma. This month, the start-up will start testing prototypes in the green village at TU Delft. A collaboration that was partly due to the student competition. Not only the competition, but also an application for a grant and an investor from Delft brought the start-up and The Green Village together. “The TU Delft Impact Contest was important not only to show our idea, but also to gain recognition that we are doing something right.”

In addition, the competition has the advantage that it bubble achieves, says Brinksma. “You bring your ideas forward, even though you know the product is not ready yet. You talk to people from the industry. People with a lot of experience that you can ask all your questions to. They say what they think of your idea. You can then think about it and adjust your solution accordingly. And the economic rationale is also important. Because you can have good ideas, but if you do not have the money to develop them, you will get nowhere. You are simply put on the ground with both feet. ”

open source

Brinksma wants to share its design with other companies through an open source license. He is still looking for production partners. “Of course, large companies are much better at this. They already have that capital and expertise. They just do not use circular design yet. ”

And that is exactly where Brinksma wants to create change. “Many technologies are protected by a patent. Companies keep the solution to themselves.” According to the entrepreneur, it is a misconception that if you do something through open source, it is not protected.

“You publish it under a license. You can specify restrictions in that license. For example, that everyone is allowed to copy your technique, but that they must then name you as the maker. Or you could say that it may not be used for commercial purposes. Or that if someone further develops your design, they publish it under the same license. How to create an open ecosystem. The great thing is that we as a small student team do not have the same research and development skills as a large solar energy company, but we have the opportunity to create a global community. ”

Biosphere Solar now wants to find a large company as an energy supplier or a manufacturer of solar panels that wants to partner with the company. “It does not have to be the whole design. It may also be that part of the production line changes to circular. Maybe other companies will follow suit. ”


The startup is flourishing. At least the pitch and validation part, Brinksma nuances. The prototypes will be tested soon. In April, the company won the Dutch CleanTech Challenge, which brings the team to London.

“We are now selling more of our idea than having something tangible. Our first goal is to complete the product design. And that we have a community working on it. In between all the competitions and coaching, I also want to stand in the workshop and really carry out our design. ”

The contribution to society that Brinksma strives for is also important for TU / e-director Smits. “A university is also there to make a contribution to society, at regional and national level, but also at European and international level.”

Nice examples have already emerged from TU / e, such as Lightyear. “Or look at the solution that ELEO has devised for storing renewable energy. At the Automotive Campus in Helmond, the upscaling is now working on a factory that will eventually accommodate about two hundred people. Or think of Hable, which is making an impact worldwide with a Braille keyboard for smartphones. “

“You see the most beautiful examples during the final of such a competition. And delivered with such passion. It is very special to be a part of it. ”

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