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The Dutch city where industry–academia collaborations flourish

Modern buildings in Eindhoven with Phillips signage

Credit: Getty

Julie Gould discovers how the Dutch city of Eindhoven is breaking down barriers between academia and industry.

Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands has a long history of partnering with local technology giants such as Philips Electronics and DAF Trucks, with support from city leaders.

University president Robert-Jan Smits tells Julie Gould how mutual trust and a respect for academic freedom have helped academics and industrialists to forge successful collaborations since 1956, when the university was founded.

In the final episode of this six-part Working Scientist podcast series about porosity, the movement of people between academia and other sectors, Julie Gould is also joined by Fiona Watt, director of the European Molecular Biology Organization in Heidelberg, Germany, and Dario Alessi, director of the Division of Signal Transduction Therapy at the University of Dundee, UK.



Julie Gould discovers how the Dutch city of Eindhoven is breaking down barriers between academia and industry.

Julie Gould: 0:09

Hello, I'm Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Welcome to the series Beyond Academia, where we explore the movement of people between academia and other sectors.

Over the last five episodes of this series, Beyond Academia, we've explored how people move between sectors, from academia to industry and the other way across a porous membrane that exists between them.

This membrane, albeit metaphorical, is, in a way, a very real barrier to some people switching between careers. The differences in working cultures and environments make breaking through the barrier difficult.

So, in this last episode of the series, I want to explore: “Is there a way to remove this barrier, this membrane? Is there a way that cooperation and collaboration can work seamlessly, where people can move from industry to academia and back again, without any problems?”

Some believe yes, some believe no. And some believe maybe. I asked some of the people who I spoke to for this series about whether or not they believe these barriers can be broken down.

The first person I asked was David Bogle, the pro vice provost of the doctoral school at University College London, as he was the one who first spoke to me about the movement of people between sectors.

David Bogle: 1:34

I would like to see that membrane limited, but I don't see any activity to reduce it.

There's talk of improving research culture, but not reducing the hyper-expectations of researchers. So it will always be difficult for them to step aside and move.

Julie Gould: 1:55

Fiona Watt, previously the director of the Medical Research Council here in the UK, and now the newly-appointed director of EMBO, the European molecular biology organization, believes that there is a bright future for the collaboration between industry and academia, especially in the biomedical sciences field, where she has spent her career.

But she also believes that we need to be careful about what it means for the traditional university setting.

Fiona Watt: 2:21

The engine of success may shift from being the universities, to being other ways or environments in which research is done.

So the risk would be the universities simply produce the researchers, who then are dispersed and have careers outside of academia.

So then, who would lose?

Well, the mission of biomedical research would be a winner. The individual people who followed those careers would be winners. But potentially the losers would be the conventional university academic setting.

That's what I think we have to be really mindful of. You know, we talk a lot about the importance of diversity. But we often fail to think, well, you know, are we actually very attractive for a diverse workforce? And if not, the university sector…its relevance will wane.

Julie Gould: 3:23

Dario Alessi, the director of the division of signal transduction therapy at the University of Dundee in Scotland, thinks that removing these barriers is possible. As long as there's trust.

Dario Alessi: 3:36

I think there will always be a type of barrier. I mean, ideally, the barrier will be less but, you know, the way companies work, they're working on often quite confidential projects, they're competing with other companies, they can't be as open and transparent about what they're doing, at least, you know, in certain stages of the projects.

There's a lot of legal restraints, how companies work, and how people working in the companies, what they can share, what they can talk about, you know, which makes it difficult, I think, for them to often, you know, to act freely with academics unless they trust them, unless the right agreements are in place to enable the communications and exchange of reagents to take place.

That creates a barrier, but it's not insurmountable. You know, there's a barrier…you have to get the legal aspects and confidentiality aspects in place. And then then you can work together.

The most important thing I think, in any collaboration, is trust. This shouldn't be overlooked. Long term trust, collaboration will really enable the barriers to be dissolved to to a bare minimum.

Julie Gould: 4:47

Now, some groups have actually tried breaking down these barriers, and they have had a lot of success. One example is based in the Netherlands.

The Eindhoven University of Technology in The Netherlands was founded in 1956, as a request by the government and by the local industry.

Technology giants like Philips Electronics and DAF were looking for a place where engineers could be trained up, ready to enter into the workforce with all the skills and knowledge they needed for the job.

Robert-Jan Smits 5:17

From the origin of the Eindhoven of University of Technology, from the very, say, backgrounds, working together with industry, reaching out to industry, having exchanges between staff, from industry, academia is in our blood, in our genes.

Julie Gould: 5:33

That was Robert-Jan Smits, the president of the Eindhoven University of Technology.

He's been working there for almost two and a half years. And he told me that there are several ways in which the university serves the industry sector.

The first is like any other university. It is to provide talent to the industrial sector. The second is to work on collaborative projects…

Robert-Jan Smits 5:54

…whereby very often, for instance, now artificial intelligence is a big thing. And the high tech industry is indeed investing big time in artificial intelligence.

And therefore we have set up an institute on artificial intelligence. It's a university, where we are working very much with the industry, the high tech industry, on specific applications, like, for instance, medical diagnostic tools, and for automotive.

Julie Gould: 6:20

And the third is within their educational system, which is influenced by the industrial sector. The university has invested in something called challenge based learning.

Robert-Jan Smits: 6:29

These are groups of students who are addressing a given challenge. And a lot of these challenges are defined by the high tech industry in our region. Defined algorithms, which allow us to do this, this and that. And then a group of students go after that.

Julie Gould 6:47

And the final way that the sectors collaborate is that there is porosity.

Robert-Jan Smits 6:52

A lot of researchers from industry, which are teachers, professors at our university, they have assignments at our university.

We have people from our university who work at industry a few days a week.

Julie Gould: 7:05

But, says Robert, there do need to be some boundaries set in place. Otherwise this collaborative environment wouldn't work. And the first of these is academic freedom.

Robert-Jan Smits 7:15

We have our own specific objective, mandate, mission, role in society.

And of course, you work with industry, but autonomy is for us key.

We of course, the research and the effects, the results of our research are published.

And we are publishing these results, whatever the outcome is. So in other words, even if the industry may not be happy with the outcome, we still publish. We are sticking to, of course, scientific autonomy.

Julie Gould: 7:45

The other boundary condition is with regards to property rights.

Robert-Jan Smits 7:49

It's quite important as well that you have very clear arrangements about intellectual property, so that there's no misunderstanding when you generate knowledge, how it can be used by the researcher at the university and by the company with whom you are working together.

And so far, we have not encountered major difficulties in that.

Julie Gould: 8:00

The Eindhoven University of Technology is actually part of a larger innovation ecosystem where the high tech industry is located.

In the 1980s, Philips and DAF were the biggest companies in Eindhoven. But they were in crisis. After major restructuring, and with the help of the city, Philips decided to open their doors and literally knocked down the fences to allow for more collaboration with the rest of society.

Robert-Jan Smits 8:35

And they embrace an open innovation philosophy. And they let others come in. They open their labs. They went for cooperation. And that, I think, has led to the success of the region. Cooperation, reaching out to each other, a partnership.

Julie Gould: 8:54

This larger ecosystem is called Brainport…

Robert-Jan Smits 8:58

…where there is a beautiful cooperation in the triple helix context, where the local government, the high tech industry, and university work together in this Brainport setting.

And there is a multi annual agenda strategy developed jointly, whether it is with regard to the mayor and the mayor's office, in Eindhoven, or the high tech industry or the university together, we define the strategy, the vision and the ambition of our region.

And we make sure that there are no bottlenecks or stumbling blocks to make this function.

So I think that's very much the reason why also, despite our origin, that we have been created at the request of industry. Things in our region work extremely smooth, because there is this constant interaction and dialogue.

Because at the end of the day, it's all about trust. It's about human interactions. It's reaching out to each other and being willing to share things and to be open.

Julie Gould 9:59

So how can other universities embrace this openness with the other sectors in order to allow for more porosity? Robert believes that biases need to be gotten rid of.

For instance, the belief within the academic community that publications done in collaboration with industry are of lower quality, less impact and fewer citations.

The other fear, says, Robert, is that the industry will dictate the direction of research. And to that, he says, what would be the point?

Robert-Jan Smits: 10:29

Well, our industry in our region is not at all dictating our research or trying to manipulate it. They want to have the best knowledge that is available. And they often tell us to be completely out of the box thinking.

One of the companies recently tell us (and it was a very interesting discussion) the CEO said, “I've only one request to you at the University at Eindhoven. Surprise us. Surprise us, challenge us, come with complete out of the box thinking new ideas even if they are crazy and completely upsetting our current way of working. That's what we expect from you.”

So if you are willing to reach out to your environment, to the industry in your region, and you build up trust, you will discover that you can work as a university and autonomy.

You can discover that you have allies and partners who are willing to think with you, to embark on the public private partnerships, willing to support your students.

And willing to think that you also long term in the benefit of society. So it's a win win for everyone. But there are still so many barriers and walls between academia and industry. And I see that also in other universities in the Netherlands. And it's time that we break those down.

Julie Gould: 11:47

If these barriers can be broken down and these biases can be removed, like at the Eindhoven University of Technology, then porosity may become more fluid. Here's hoping. Thanks for listening. I'm Julie Gould.

Nature Careers


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