At the beginning of this century, a former student* introduced Willem Hulsink to the incubation programme of the European Space Agency (ESA). Together, they initiated the annual seminar ‘Turning technology into a real business', in which business students spend a week working on commercial proposals putting ESA space technology to terrestrial use.
As an associate professor in Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship at Rotterdam School of Management, RSM, Erasmus University, Willem Hulsink’s specialisms are high-tech entrepreneurship and knowledge transfer. 'Companies such as Airbus and Boeing can put certain space technology to good use', he says. 'But it could well be that this technology’s best use is in an entirely different sector. Using earth observation data, for example, you can create a start-up in precision farming. I am intrigued by how to best organise this kind of knowledge transfer.'
I expect the LDE Space for Science and Society programme to be of great value in narrowing the gap between space technology and companies.’
Mining the moon
He is especially fascinated by the ongoing commercialisation as it shows that space and entrepreneurship are a powerful match – not limited to terrestrial applications only. 'Gigantic projects, like going to Mars or mining the moon, are very interesting to me, as a challenge for humanity and in terms of funding.''It is no surprise that Hulsink is a big fan of Elon Musk, who shows that you can found your own, publicly financed, space company.
All within a single province
Hulsink would love for Europe to adopt a similar level of ambition and funding. But he is very pleased to note that the province of Zuid-Holland has amassed the entire value chain for putting space technology to terrestrial use; expert knowledge in astronomy and earth observation in Leiden, great strength in engineering in Delft and RSM for putting this technology’s use in a broader context. And space law, of course, for creating a predictable and safe investment climate. 'It is truly unique to have all of this at our fingertips, within a single province', he says. 'I expect the LDE Space for Science and Society programme to be of great value in narrowing the gap between space technology and companies.'
A lot of ideas
He is currently organising a Summer School, in close collaboration with aerospace companies. The aim is to have multidisciplinary teams from Leiden, Delft and Rotterdam work on projects proposed by these companies. 'It doesn’t have to result in the launching of a viable start-up. What is important is that these disciplines learn to collaborate and to come up with ideas, both within and outside of their own domain.' This is where Hulsink quotes Linus Pauling, winner of two Nobel Prizes: ‘In order to have good ideas, you need a lot of ideas.’ 'Not all projects will end in success, but we will undoubtedly uncover a few interesting ones. There are countless opportunities up for grabs.'
*This former student, Niels Eldering, has risen to the position of chief technology transfer at ESA. Hulsink and Eldering recently wrote a chapter on the ESA incubation activities for the 'Handbook of research on business and technology incubation’.