Eindhoven University Fund to focus on energy and health

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Photo: Bart van Overbeeke

Photo: Bart van Overbeeke, TU/e website.

For the energy transition and the issues surrounding sustainable health, the Eindhoven University Fund has come up with the Energy and Health theme funds. TU/e alumni can thus make important research possible for which funding would otherwise be more difficult to obtain through the established channels. Ton Backx, director of the UFe, Mark Boneschanscher, director of EIRES, along with Harrie Noy, donor and former CEO of Arcadis, explained how this development aroused their enthusiasm.

“Within the university, we put a lot of effort into developing talent. And those young people have quite a challenge at the beginning of their careers in the current system to find funding for their own original research ideas,” explains Ton Backx, director of the Eindhoven University Fund (UFe).

He continues: “On the other hand, we are currently facing enormous challenges within our society, but we are hesitant and sluggish in really getting to grips with those challenges. In any case, this is how it is for the energy transition, where the discussion has been going on for 50 years and we have known for 30 years that we urgently need to start doing things differently. Add to this the fact that many people are living increasingly longer, fortunately, while we as a society are insufficiently prepared for this longevity wave along with the demand for care that goes with it.”

“If you bring those things together, i.e. those young scientific talents on the one hand and those big societal challenges on the other, that's really where the best developments come from and often the big breakthroughs. That means allowing scope for curiosity and ambition. What could be better than to give those young people some impetus with the resources we as UFe have from our donors, mostly also alumni of our university, who pursue those same developments? The theme funds were created on the basis of that thinking,” Backx says enthusiastically.

Ambitions brought together

Donor Harrie Noy elaborates: “I would like to contribute to those social issues and bring focus to shaping themes – that’s an enormous help to really get something done. In 1974 I graduated as a civil engineer from TU/e, then the ‘Technische Hogeschool’. Immediately after that, I started working for the company with which we were collaborating during the final phase of my study: Arcadis, as it is now. I ended up being CEO there for twelve years. So I owed a lot to my education here. Not only because of the skills I gained, but also because I came into contact with Arcadis during my studies. Now I look back, after a successful and rich career, and would like to do something in return by promoting scientific research at the university that educated me.”

“When considering this, I looked at a named fund with a focus on energy transition research. But the disadvantage of such a named fund is that it does not attract other alumni to participate. In conversations with Ton, the theme funds that were still to be established at the time came up. The potential of these appealed to me tremendously, and that certainly applied to the energy transition fund. Because if there is one great challenge at the moment, it is the energy transition to combat climate change. Coupling that with offering opportunities to young talented scientists, I think is a really fine idea. And that's how I ended up donating to the 'Energy' fund,” Noy explains.

Today’s conversation focuses on the issues surrounding energy transition. More information about the research enabled by the UFe Health Theme Fund can be found on the UFe website.

The Energy Fund

The institute EIRES (Eindhoven Institute for Renewable Energy Systems) is where TU/e researchers in the field of energy transition come together. Mark Boneschanscher, director of EIRES: “At a time when people are increasingly choosing only for themselves, I find the gifts of our UFe donors truly inspiring.”

“We can make very good use of those funds for some radical innovation. Indeed, we see that science funding in the Netherlands is increasingly focused on rigid roadmaps that are prescribed by the top sectors (ed. partnerships between business, government and science funders),” Boneschanscher explains.

He continues: “This way of thinking about research funding encourages people to work on the problems of the here and now and find solutions that can be deployed between now and five to ten years at most. For example, we can probably meet 2030 climate goals contained in the climate report by continuing to develop existing technologies further. But if you look at the 2050 goals, we're going to fall short this way. So radical innovation is needed. And that will have to be done now if we are to find the solutions in time, develop them and implement them.”

"Yes, that seems a long way off, but it is relatively close in terms of research and development," Noy adds. "After all, it takes time to come up with solutions, develop them and bring them to market. If you look at that, 2050 is already very close."

"For such radical ideas, which do not yet fit into an existing roadmap, it is difficult to find funding. And it also helps to get researchers out of the mindset of thinking in the established roadmaps where most of the money goes. It can be very inspiring to actually get them thinking 'out of the box' about longer-term applications," Boneschanscher says.

"A great example of this kind of research is the work of Bram Nauta (University of Twente) in the field of chip design, who received the Simon Stevin Master Prize for this in 2014. His pioneering circuits have been in all the cell phones in the world for years, but when he researched it, he had to do it in his spare time. Too fundamental for NWO, too technical for FOM (Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter), too remote for industry. With these UFe thematic funds, there will be an opportunity to finance this type of work so that researchers can investigate it during working hours. Then it also goes a lot faster."

An opportunity for wild ideas

Backx: “If you look at major breakthroughs in recent years, they often started with a wild idea, a radical research project. Then it takes about 20 years on average before such a breakthrough reaches the market.”

Noy: “The new funds also give less sexy ideas. Much of the energy transition research is about the search for alternative energy sources. But it is just as important to research saving energy and adapting the existing built environment to consume less energy.”

“As a donor, I don't want to get involved in programming, I like to leave that to people like Mark and Ton. But I do enjoy discussing it and being a partner for discussion. And that came off so nicely in our last meeting with the UFe,” said Noy. The new theme funds and their intended projects were explained to interested donors at a kick-off event in December. It is now clear that six Energy-projects and three Health-projects will be funded by the UFe over the next four years.

Backx: “In a normal funding application, a broad, independent committee considers which studies will receive money from a particular funding budget. And out of roughly twenty proposals, only five will receive money. Such a committee is supposed to spend the money responsibly. Then, you see that great proposals from young researchers with no track record often lose out to proposals from established names who already have more results and publications to show for it. Despite the fact that their proposal is often just as good, if not better, than that of an established researcher.”

Radical research

Boneschanscher: “I second that. One of the six projects that we are now enabling with the UFe-Energy fund is about developing models to make the built environment more energy efficient. Much research goes into making new buildings energy neutral, or even energy-positive. But just as important is the focus on retrofitting the existing housing stock. And so if you submit a funding application for that in open competition alongside fundamental research into the origins of life or the universe, you don't stand a chance. No way.”

“I can recommend Rosanne Hertzberger's column from last weekend, because it deals with exactly this topic,” Boneschanscher said. “In addition, more and more articles are appearing about the research she cites, that there have been fewer and fewer scientific breakthroughs in recent decades. Because there is less room for that radical research idea.”

Boneschanscher: “I have another good example of such radical research, which had difficulty obtaining funding. The work of Philip de Goey, TU/e dean of the Mechanical Engineering department and professor of combustion technology. You can't climb any higher on the academic ladder. Yet his research into iron powder as a fuel failed to receive any funding for years, because it was considered too radical. All his applications were rejected. It was only after four years that he received an ERC Advanced Grant. The only reason he was able to sustain that was because he was an established scientist. Young people can’t. If they don't secure funding for four years, they don't get a tenure track (ed. permanent position at a university).”

“They burn out,” Noy adds. “All that time, money and effort it takes to write all those proposals in the right format.”

Moving society forward

Backx: “So we pre-emptively force young researchers to go with the flow. We also train them to keep taking small steps in research instead of going for those radical ideas. And that's not always in society's long-term interest.”

“And there is another aspect,” Backx continues. “In the last hundred years, we have achieved a lot as a society. We have seen many innovations. If you look at where all the technology we use today came from, you see that about 100 years ago, large multinational companies were founded that started doing their own scientific research. A fixed share of the sales went to free, scientific research, like at Philips' world-famous Natlab or Bell Labs.”

 “As a society, we don't have that anymore today. Companies don't do that unconfined, scientific research anymore, because it's too risky, too long-term oriented. The only place where real scientific research happens nowadays is at universities and within national research laboratories,” says Backx

Noy: “It's also not wrong to do applied research, because you need that too. And more than we might think. Because if you compare the amount of money available for research into the energy transition with the enormous challenge in that area, you see that we still tend to underestimate that challenge. And while we mainly focus on the Netherlands, the whole world has to be part of the transition, otherwise it won't work. We also have a lot of international students here in Eindhoven and I would really like to give them the opportunity to do research that is more focused on the challenges of their region of origin and the context that is relevant there.”

“What is applicable here in the West may not necessarily work in less developed countries. Look, we have built our prosperity on fossil energy. And we can't do that anymore, because those CO2 emissions have to come down. So we need alternatives that also work in Africa and India; the need for prosperity is universal,” Noy stressed.

Backx agrees: “The pressure in society to share wealth widely is enormous, and I think rightly so. In Asia, for example, the growth in prosperity has been huge in recent decades. The main thing now is to make and keep that sustainable. So you have to collectively ensure that the levels of prosperity and well-being for everyone in the world can rise. And you can only do that together.”

Boneschanscher: “This is real systemic thinking, as you describe it. That way of thinking is everywhere at TU/e. It was our original raison d'être and we actively pass it on to all researchers. Within EIRES, we focus on connecting researchers. That also applies to the Energy UFe theme fund.”


The UFe's Energy fund will enable six PhD positions over the next four years, and the Health fund has created three research positions. Noy: “What we are doing now is, in my view, a first modest step, a beginning. Our ambition should be to give the funds more volume and allow them to grow. It would be nice if more people – those who laid the foundation for their careers here at TU/e – also want to become active in solving the problems of the future and support the young scientists.”

Noy: “I had registered myself as an alumnus at the Alumni Society, assuming that its purpose was also to raise funds. Not that I noticed it. Still, I think it would be good to also use that forum for fundraising and make it less non-committal. That way you create a flywheel.”

“In return, I propose being informed twice a year about the research that is being made possible. You get a chance to participate in that discussion. Not to determine the content, but to be able to have the conversation, give feedback and learn from each other,” Noy says.

Backx adds: “This is also interesting for the researchers. The people behind the funds, our donors, have all been able to achieve something in society thanks to their studies.”

“That's also what made that first kick-off meeting so interesting. People with all kinds of backgrounds and experience came together there,” Boneschanscher confirms. “Also for the researchers, the contact and involvement is very nice and less remote than with the usual funds.”

“Especially for researchers from abroad who are just starting their tenure track, who still have to build their whole Dutch network, this is enormously valuable,” Boneschanser concludes.

Noy is also critical: “I often find the UFe still very modest, also in terms of size. Hans de Jong has just joined the board and he too expressed the ambition to grow the fund further. I think these theme funds and the participation in them are going to help.”

“In the USA, thanks to alumni, university funds provide a much larger source of funding for research. Now we won't reach those sizes anytime soon, but it would be nice to make a step in that direction,” Noy adds.

This article was first published on February 28 by TU/e.

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