Outgoing valorisation boss Paul Althuis: ‘There is always more to be gained’

Paul Althuis, the driving force behind valorisation at TU Delft, has reached the pensionable age but he will continue to work. We look back and to the future.

Paul Althuis: “If you have certain objectives in certain areas, you need to make an effort to attract funds to TU Delft.” (Photo: Jaden Accord)

Groups of people are sitting in the NextDelft café, the brand new building for fast growing start-ups and scale-ups on Campus South. They type on their laptops or talk in hushed voices. Through the metres high glass sliding doors, the digging machines are moving earth and sand to a grass covered plot right next to NextDelft.

This is Paul Althuis’ base. He was Director of TU Delft’s Innovation & Impact Centre, previously known as the Valorisation Centre. Althuis was one of the people who brought about valorisation activities at TU Delft. He helped it grow to an annual earning of just over EUR 200 million, a quarter of the total annual income of TU Delft. 

Althuis started working at TU Delft in 1981 and never left. Through the Foreign Office, later the Centre for International Cooperation +, he switched to valorisation, the ‘monetisation’ or rather ‘social utilisation’ of scientific knowledge, in 2005. In that year, valorisation became the third core business of universities on top of education and research. Universities were supposed to seek partnerships with companies, obtain research subsidies, help start-ups get off the ground, apply for more patents etc.

NextDelft is one of the most recent accomplishments, so Althuis, sitting in the café, starts talking about it straightaway. Unlike the neighbours Yes!Delft (an incubator for new businesses) which are financed by TU Delft, it is financed by the ASR insurance company’s Science Park Fonds he explains. NextDelft attracted more and more companies to set up in Campus South, while at first hardly anyone wanted to establish there. Renting the existing industrial space is a better option than buying an empty plot and designing and building your own building, Althuis concludes. “Fortunately, ASR is now even looking at whether a second building can be built as this one is full.” +

Althuis still remembers the criticism that the area ‘was really green’. He believes that this will change fast. “We see a lot more activity now. The House of Quantum is due to come here, as are other things like the Robohouse/FRAIM and student accommodation.”

Before looking to the future, let’s look back at the past. How did you get to be at the top of the valorisation centre?
“I was asked by Marco Waas who, apart from being Dean, was also the delegated valorisation portfolio holder. At the time, I was working with Delft TopTech that ran degree programmes, a sort of MBA [master of business administration, Eds.], for people in business. Unfortunately, I had to declare it bankrupt during the banking crisis of 2008 and 2009 as the market for that type of business training completely collapsed and we could not ride out the crisis. For the first few years, I worked on Delft TopTech alongside the Valorisation Centre. We started the Centre with two of us. Now about 150 people work for the Innovation & Impact Centre [the successor of the Valorisation Centre, Eds.].”

‘Q8 could not prove wanting to invest in the energy transition’

Was it hard at first to get researchers interested in the idea of entrepreneurship?
“We do more than just encourage entrepreneurship. TU Delft lagged behind in obtaining subsidies. This and contract research were what we initially focused on. It led to us creating teams for the European Union’s subsidies programme, Dutch research funders, and contract research.

For the sake of clarity, it is the academics who write the proposals. But if you have a well-oiled machine that engages in positive influencing [lobbying of subsidy providers, Eds.], raises awareness in faculties, helps submit applications, and then co-manages projects, it helps. In the end, the second and third flows of money more than doubled between 2005 and now. In all that time I never encountered any resistance, perhaps also because we do not impose anything.”

On TU Delft’s annual accounts, valorisation falls under the ‘projects with third parties’ item. In 2021 it amounted to EUR 206 million. Do you think this figure is right given the size and objectives of TU Delft?
“It’s a big sum of money. Whether it could be even more depends on the situation as you are often expected to put in matching funds [an obligatory amount given by TU Delft to a project, Eds.], and this has its limits. That said, there is always more to be gained and you need to be aware of this. If you have certain objectives in certain areas, you need to make an effort to attract funds to TU Delft. I think it is feasible to get another EUR 30 or EUR 40 million a year.”

To what extent should TU Delft want this, given the societal discussions about academic independence or not working with the fossil fuel industry?
“If the Government does not pay up, you need to find other partners. That is a given. The expertise of Shell is crucial in the geothermal project on campus, which will help make the campus climate neutral by 2030 and generate a lot of interesting research. If Shell then co-finances the project and this creates a good partnership, I have no objections. We do work together, even if it is only on the energy transition. It would allow us to exert a positive influence.”

Are there any companies that you would not want to work with?
“One example is that Q8 [the petroleum company, Eds.] wanted to open an R&D centre on campus in 2018. But as they could not prove that they wanted to invest in the energy transition, we saw no reason to facilitate their coming here, and they did not come. We need to justify internally why a company sets up here.”

‘I have managed to involve a lot of good people’

Have you seen shifts in what is acceptable and what not in all these years?
“The world is constantly changing, so how we look at things changes too. It is not my intention to avoid a discussion, but the nature of its research means that a university is in an easier position than organisations like the TNO for example. While we occasionally carry out research for industry, as TNO does, in our case it is not immediately applicable. We are much more involved in the basic research.”  

You have now stopped working as the Director of the Innovation & Impact Centre, but you remain Director of the TU Delft Services holding and of Delft Enterprises. Why are you doing so?
“Because I very much enjoy it. Through Delft Services I am closely involved in the geothermal project, which is important both for TU Delft’s research activities and for its sustainability goals. Delft Enterprises works on the spin-outs of TU Delft [companies that work with TU Delft patents/intellectual property, Eds.]. TU Delft is a shareholder in 70 of these kinds of companies. We are not there to become endless shareholders, but I enjoy the work as it makes it very visible where the research that TU Delft does ends up in society. Just because I have reached the pensionable age does not mean that I have to stop working. The Executive Board’s idea is that, given the increasing number of activities, three different people should do these three things, but I do not know when that will come about.”

Replacing one person with three successors … I had already heard that you always did a lot of different things at the same time and that you were involved in all sorts of activities. That’s right then?
“I don’t do it all alone. I have managed to involve a lot of good people. I am exceptionally good at delegating and work highly efficiently. This means that I am able to take on a lot and play a meaningful role in a lot of areas.”

Editor in chief Saskia Bonger

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