Having ideas, experimenting and trying things out, wanting to change society. For many researchers, all of this is day-to-day business. But what if you want to take your idea to market? This is a step that often does not come naturally to researchers, and that is why there are a number of organizations at the UG that can help with this, such as VentureLab. This is how SlimStampen was created, a program that is now being used by students in five countries.
Text: Hannah de Nobel
Almost near the end of the Zernike Campus, a building resembling a stack of black shipping containers stands among the large innovation centres. Written on its side, you can read: ‘get started: the future is here’, in large light blue letters. This building houses Start-Up City, a complex that provides office and meeting spaces for various organizations that offer help to budding entrepreneurs. In the top shipping container, you will find one of these initiatives: VentureLab. VentureLab offers a variety of programmes that give budding entrepreneurs a helping hand, such as weekly workshops and a personal coach to get to grips with entrepreneurship. It also provides them with office and laboratory space in Start-Up City and the innovation centres around it, which can be very difficult to find without this support.
At the head of VentureLab is interim manager Corina Prent, a chemist, who travelled the world on behalf of major companies. Eventually, she settled back in Groningen to supervise start-ups. Having been on the side of both research and business, she knows very well how big a step it can be for researchers. ‘Being an entrepreneur requires a completely different mindset than being a researcher,’ she says.
Researchers who feel their research may have potential will find a bridge between the university and the business world at VentureLab, according to Prent. Start-Up City’s location between major innovation centres also works in favour of this. ‘By being in such a central location, we can match established businesses with start-ups so that they can learn from each other,’ she explains. VentureLab's network includes many large businesses. These can then be linked up with the researchers following the programme. According to Prent, this creates interaction between the consortia and the businesses, and the budding entrepreneurs can also always fall back on coaching by VentureLab. ‘That is one of the things I am very busy with: shareholder meetings, answering questions, and coaching,’ says Prent.
Hedderik van Rijn is head of the Groningen-based start-up SlimStampen, an AI program that helps people to study facts. Drawing on his research in experimental psychology, he has developed a method that creates a memory model of the student. Van Rijn can identify with Prent's description of the transition from being a researcher to becoming an entrepreneur. He had been hesitating a long time before setting up a company. ‘I was afraid to take that leap of faith for a long time. That is why organizations that help you to bridge that gap are extremely valuable,’ he says. According to Van Rijn, SlimStampen would not have existed without his contact with Prent. It was through her network that he came into contact with SlimStampen's co-director Hilco Boerlage. ‘Hilco was looking for a start-up idea, and I was looking for someone who knew how to run a business. That was a very good combination,’ Van Rijn says jokingly.
The collaboration between research and business forms the common thread of SlimStampen. ‘From a science perspective, we often look at the commercial, outside world as something we have to oppose, but I don't think that's necessary at all,’ Van Rijn explains. He believes that science is often strong enough to stand on its own, but that sometimes collaboration can actually be very beneficial. For instance, when it comes to improving the program, being able to get feedback from the users themselves is very useful. In fact, SlimStampen is already being used by hundreds of thousands of students across five countries, and the data obtained from this use can subsequently provide input for Van Rijn and his team's research. 'So that’s how we come full circle: it was a scientific idea being put to practical use, and we can use that data in turn to make new science out of it.’
There is still plenty of room for growth within the company. SlimStampen is now mainly used to study for tests, but Van Rijn would prefer SlimStampen to replace old testing methods, ‘because by using SlimStampen, you actually assess whether the student has mastered the information sufficiently during the learning process. This therefore eliminates the need for a stressful moment like a test, because that stress can also affect the results.’
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