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Eindhoven: Where techies are rock stars, and smart is sexy

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series about Eindhoven, Netherlands, one of the most promising candidates for Europe’s Silicon Valley.)

It seems like every other person crowded into the halls, displays and competition areas of RoboCup European Open 2016 calls out to Dr. Roel Merry as he walks around the grounds of the flying saucer-shaped Evoluon convention center in Eindhoven. Same Dr. René van de Molengraft.

Everyone wants to say hello to Merry and van de Molengraft. Chat with them. Consult with them. Have face time with them.

banner1_0The two Dutch PhDs are general chairmen of RoboCup, and RoboCup is a big, big deal. About 25,000 people from all parts of Europe will attend the 5-day event, which will draw robot teams from as far away as Iran and Canada, Merry says.

This city about 70 miles south of Amsterdam long ago earned a reputation for being talent-dense, named as the smartest region in the world back in 2011 by the international think tank Intelligent Community Forum. And that’s nice … but that’s an abstraction. A lot of smart people in one place doesn’t make it Silicon Valley, as the Europeans know all too well.

Elected officials and economic-development officials across Europe talk longingly of creating their own Silicon Valley. If there is one commonality between Silicon Valley and Eindhoven, it’s that techies here aren’t just techies. They’re rock stars. Because in this town – as in The Valley – smart is sexy. There are worst places to be if you’re an ambitious techpat, because there are tangible signs that something is brewing here in southern Holland.

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Dr. René van de Molengraft.

ROEL MERRY

Dr. Roel Merry

Eindhoven isn’t just where RoboCup is happening … it’s why it’s happening, because this is a center not just of robotic talent, but of next-gen engineering talent in Europe.

RoboCup is a competition to build the best team of football (soccer) playing robots. But the event is far more than that. It’s a celebration of technology as well as a chance to capture the imaginations of kids as young as five or six.

“Our biggest goal is technology promotion to a big audience, but especially to the kids,” Merry said. “That is our main goal. That’s why we do this … to let the kids experience technology and all it brings. They leave here with big smiles on their faces.”

A lot of cities across the United States and Europe have robotics competition. That’s not what makes Eindhoven different. What makes it different is that people here seem to live technology around the clock. Local school kids arrived at RoboCup by the busloads. Executives from Eindhoven’s expansive ecosystem of high-tech companies support the event, as do their employers.

When Merry is not organizing giant robotics competitions, he’s a project manager for illuminating hardware at tech giant ASML, based in Eindhoven. ASML, which employees about 15,000 people around the globe, is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of equipment that makes memory chips. Van de Molengraft is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Technical University Eindhoven, or TU/e in local parlance. Almost everyone I spoke with who was working at the event had both a technical career and an interest in technology that spilled over into an avocation.

Team Dare, for example, is a group of eight  engineers – software, electrical and mechanical – led by local robotics entrepreneur Heico Sandee, managing director of (fittingly) Smart Robotics. Team Dare has built robots that play music since 2008, one of two robotic bands on display Frida. Frank van Heeshe and Bas van de Ven were there making sure everything was working on the Team Dare display, which featured an upright bass, a flute, guitar and drums played astoundingly fluidly by robots.

But the technology on display isn’t merely a novelty. It’s emblematic of the depth of talent here. All the programming, all the hardware and all the formatting was created by Team Dare, said van Heeshe and van de Ven. Van de Ven is a software designer and Van Heeshe is a senior research scientist in the ultrasound section of electronics manufacturer Philips, founded in Eindhoven, though now based in Amsterdam. So they work in technology during the day, then robotics at night for fun. And the demand for Team Dare at shows and events is so great they have to set limits on how many they do, van Heeshe and van de Ven said.

And that’s how Eindhoven builds its tech ecosystem.

The resulting technology is fairly amazing by any standards. Earlier iterations of soccer-playing robots could simply grasp the ball and advance it. No longer. In the Middle League competition, teams of engineering graduate students including one from TU/e had to build autonomous robots that don’t just “play” football (soccer) by moving around, but by analyzing every situation and making appropriate decisions. Those robots have to integrate hardware such as a sensor for  360-degrees of “vision” and decision-making software. Robots must differentiate (without input from humans) between teammates and opposing players, then calculate according to the number of friends and foes around it and its position on the pitch whether to dribble, pass the ball, or shoot the ball.

“(The robots) have to decide where is the open field. Who’s open.” Merry said. The competition has myriad rules and requirements, from the size of the robot to how much it can enclose the regulation soccer ball. It is, he says, “a fully interdisciplinary effort” where clever programming and system design for coordinated team play, more than hardware, is the key to success. In short, multi-disciplinary integration.

“If students learn this, it’s an easy transition to industry,” Merry said. Ultimately, the goal of RoboCup is to advance the technology to the point a robotic team can – in the not too distant future – play and beat a World Cup team of humans.

And that’s what this really comes down to in Eindhoven … advancing technology while creating talent.

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