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At Medacc, Eindhoven’s deep tech talent meets American-style startup intensity

(Correction: The first version of this post had incorrect information about Medacc’s subsidy, which has been corrected.)

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series looking at tech talent and innovation centers in the Netherlands … the people and places expats, techpats and American investors need to know.)

Tall and thin, with long blond hair, Victor Donker looks like any 20-something enduring the stress and endless hours of a startup accelerator.

“Apparently this is Friday,” Victor says, shaking his head, “but it doesn’t feel like it.”

The startup game is demanding … teams work all day, every day. Seven days per week. Donker’s calendar is chock full of meetings from morning till night. He’d been out with friends the night before, “the first time I’d had a celebration with friends. But I didn’t drink.”

“That never happens with me.”

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Benjamin Tchang and Victor Donker, foreground, are in the middle of an intensive startup hardware accelerator at the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven. Medacc teammember Jori Verbeek is second from left in the second row.

He and teammate Benjamin Tchang are sitting beside a lake at a lavish high-tech campus, no different than any innovation center between Boston and Mountain View. There are signs for all the tenants including Microsoft, IBM and Intel.

But this isn’t Silicon Valley or Seattle. This is Eindhoven, a town you’ve never heard of, but you should know – one of the Netherlands’ many tech innovation centers.

Okay, this is not a place likely to produce the next consumer-facing digital revolution. The next Uber and Spotify won’t come from here. But Eindhoven IS a place where a 100-year heritage of electronics and engineering has laid the foundation for the hardware capital of Europe.

As Tchang points out, consumer-electronics giant Philips and ASML, the largest supplier in the world of photolithography systems for the semiconductor industry, are the economic drivers here. Big chip manufacturers such as Intel rely on ASML and Philips developed disruptive innovations in Eindhoven including the compact disc.

Now, something new is happening … an embryonic startup ecosystem is transforming a once stodgy, over-regulated business culture.

If you believe – as I did – that the relentless U.S.-style startup culture and European culture are incompatible, you need to come to Eindhoven. Especially if you are a U.S. investor tired of seeing an endless parade of vaporware and poorly executed ideas.

Industrial designer Victor Donker, COO, and biomedical engineer Benjamin Tchang, CEO, are two-thirds of the Medacc (medical accessories) team, one of nine startups currently at the High Tech XL hardware accelerator at High Tech Campus. Jori Verbeek, also an industrial designer, is CTO. All three have masters degrees from Technical University Eindhoven, with the technology based on Tchang’s research.

Medacc’s ProbFix product is a device designed to use a deep-tissue scanner from Philips, Siemens or other suppliers that can be attached to the patient, rather than a nurse or attendant having to hold a device for long periods of time. But their secret sauce is ease of use … the instrument can be used in conjunction with – and without interfering with – other monitoring technology during, say, heart catheterization, along with x-rays. Oh, and it can be made quickly and inexpensively using 3D printing technology. (Which started here in Eindhoven with Shapeways, now in New York City.)

But the reason it’s disruptive is that it’s hands-free, so doctors and nurses can get long and dynamic measurements, Tchang says. “It’s so stupid that (medical staff) have to hold the transducers for 30 minutes!”

The Medacc project comes out of Tchang’s research on a new ultrasound technique to diagnose children with muscle disease, requiring dynamic measurements with the patient on a bike. “The study was really about using a simple technique to diagnose muscle disease instead of using blood values which require needles,” Tchang said. “The problem that occurred during the study was that I could not stabilize the ultrasound transducer on the body.”

Okay … here are the reasons you should care about this:

  • First and foremost, the Medacc technology is real, with a prototype ready for clinical trials. And medical trials in Europe take years less, because there is no Federal Drug Administration-style over-regulation of devices.
  • The Medacc team is negotiating funding and pilot studies with five medical centers across the Netherlands including Utrecht, which itself is a major innovation center. During Friday’s “wow” session, they announced the Dutch government has awarded Medacc a 60,000 euros subsidy for prototyping and research during the HighTechXL track. The partners are setting up a second funding tract with University Medical Center Utrecht.
  • That said, Donker and Tchang are also considering creating a version they can use on large animals such as horses because of even less regulatory hurdles than with humans.

By U.S. terms, the amount of investment it could take to get the Medacc ProbFix ultrasound transducer to market is modest … about $300,000. But while the Netherlands has armies of top engineers, physicists, designers, scientists and researchers thanks to the presence of so many high-tech businesses, it’s got a hole where early round investment should be. Increasingly, there’s seed capital, and now more and more venture capital, said Guus Frericks, founder and CEO of HighTech XL. But for the startups such as Medacc, which is going to need an A Round and need it soon – there’s virtually no competition to grab up promising startups as there is in even the Midwest, much less the Valley.

“In the middle, there’s really nothing. There’s not a crowd (in the Netherlands) around private equity.”

Despite gaps in the eco-system, in the final analysis, of all the countries in Europe that are candidates for Silicon Valleys, the Netherlands has a clear competitive advantage – everyone here speaks colloquial English. More than that, Donker’s and Tchang’s generation has a different outlook and mindset than earlier Dutch entrepreneurs.

Tchang likes telling the story of how he and Donker cemented their Medacc partnership in September 2014 over beers at a hockey match … a story anyone in the Valley can relate to. When I have trouble pronouncing Dutch names, Tchang smiles and grabs me by the neck in a modified bro-hug and shakes me. In an unguarded moment, Donker admits he likes startups because “the nicest thing is, it doesn’t feel like work.”

This is a startup culture any American would recognize and embrace, along with technology and talent any American would envy. The question in my mind is, “When will U.S.-based investors start to notice?”

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