High Tech Campus Eindhoven: An oasis of innovation, not a walled garden of tech

(Editor’s note: Dispatches is all about the global mobility of talent, and High Tech Campus Eindhoven is one of the premier destinations in Europe for highly skilled internationals. Open Doors Day was part of Dutch Technology Week.)

So, we’re standing in the impressive yet understated lobby of Brunel Foundation building at Eindhoven’s High Tech Campus, chatting with one of the most in-demand cyber security experts in the world.

The guy, who we’ll just call “Mr. Ethical Hacker,” roams the world helping companies and even countries fight off foreign spies and digital sabotage. Amsterdam-based Brunel – one of 150 companies on the HTC campus – is a global provider of engineering, IT, aerospace, financial talent to clients, especially in the oil and gas industry.

We’re discussing encryption and digital security issues in the aftermath of ransomware cyber attacks earlier this month when it hits me.

“We weren’t wrong to base Dispatches here in 2016. This really is the high-tech Valhalla … the promised land for tech geeks.”

This is the future of work, the future of technology.

Ethical Hacker was holding forth Saturday afternoon during a series of lectures as part of Open Doors Days at High Tech Campus Eindhoven.

This kind of access to players tells you two things about this research & development campus.

First, some of the most advanced ultra-high-tech companies in the world opening their doors to the public is pretty rare these days, but openness (when possible) and collaboration are Dutch business axioms. And no question … it’s great marketing.

Second, this is a town that celebrates smart.

People started showing up for Open Doors Day well before the 11 a.m. start time, said Victor Donker, one of the founders of medical hardware startup Usono. People were coming in while the Usono team – Victor, Benjamin Tchang and Jori Verbeek – were still setting up the 3-D printer and connecting the video display.

Usono, which designs and builds ultrasound accessories, is one of a number of startups in Building 12 on the sprawling campus on the east side Eindhoven. The startups were collected in the building’s largest meeting space, and it was still crowded.

Startups are a small but growing part of the HTC eco-system.

We weren’t casual visitors … we document the scene nearly weekly because we think it’s the most promising in Europe. Sometimes even we lose track of the fact this a campus with a huge number of the world’s most successful companies including photonics giant ASML and chip maker NXP, not to mention Philips, Eindhoven’s foundational electronics multinational that launched both companies.

Open Doors Day is an outreach to the community with 10 stops on this year’s tour. The trouble is, 10 stops on a campus that’s one square kilometer (“the smartest square kilometer in the world”) with more than 500,000 square feet of buildings requires a full day.

A number of the events were only in Dutch, including tours of the various Philips innovation labs. That said, we calculate that about 30 percent of the crowd only spoke English.

So that helped us narrow down where we’d go during our three hours.

Jori Verbeek, far right, and Benjamin Tchang, second from right, demonstrate Usono technology to an SRO crowd.

• Our first stop was Building 12 because we know a lot of the teams including the men and women behind Usono, Bambi Medical, which makes technology to in monitor premature babies, and Amber Mobility, which is working on building shared autonomous vehicles.

Amber team members got a lot of attention ferrying people around campus in BMW i3s equipped with self-parking tech. But this and the Amber car sharing app is just the beginning.

The goal is to build an “OV car,” a reference to OV bike, the bike-sharing service in the Netherlands run by the Dutch train system, a self-driving car that’s durable enough to be shared constantly for years by different users without breaking down.

“No bus company would buy a bus that breaks down at 250,000 kilometers,” said Job Nijenhuis, one of the crew doing the demos.

Nijenhuis said Amber Mobility’s goal is to create a transportation option that gives people “the freedom of owning a car without having to own a car. We don’t think owning cars is the future. We think sharing cars is the future.”

• Our next stop was the cluster of exhibits at the Strip, the food-and-fun center of campus. There we talked with Mathias Kint, a Faro account manager for the Benelux region.

Faro’s HTC operation is part of the Orlando, Fla.-based parent company, which makes 3-D precision measuring technology. Faro’s versatile precision technology comes from the U.S., the Netherlands, and Germany, and can be used for everything from construction to precision manufacturing. “Jay Leno uses Faro … to fabricate water pumps or whatever for his antique cars,” Mathais said.

• Technical orientation starts early in Eindhoven. At the Strip, chip maker NXP had an escape room based on micro:bit. Micro:bit is a programmable mini-computer created by the BBC to make British children more tech-savvy by showing them programming is fun.

The escape room was a “time machine” created by DevLab Academy in Eindhoven that transports kids to 2100. Solving problems opens boxes with computers inside with another challenge. Each time they solved the problem, kids reversed time 10 years until they were back in 2017. Well, we assume they did, though we never saw any kids actually come back out of the time machine.

• Our last stop was the most fun. Osaka-based Shimano just opened their Europe headquarters at HTC last January. Shimano makes advanced hardware for bicycles, fishing gear, and other recreational equipment.

Employees sponsored casting competitions for fishermen and there were VR motocross bicycle rides for the brave. The new headquarters building itself is a destination … a very impressive space that fits into the spare contemporary HTC aesthetic of glass and steel buildings surrounded by trees and green spaces.

HTC is a beautiful place to work, with the center strip of restaurants, coffee shops, and meeting spaces sitting aside a lake. It’s also an anomaly.

With Apple opening its new $5 billion campus, the world’s focus will once again shift to Silicon Valley. There are other celebrated corporate complexes from Munich to Dubai. But those are closed eco-systems.

The message HTC sends the larger world with Open Doors Day is that it’s an attractive, inviting and open place to work. A place where startups and giant corporations blend together seamlessly; an oasis of innovation integrated into the larger community, not walled off.

Or as a friend puts it, “Working at HTC enhances your life instead of killing your soul.”

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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