• Interview
  • Reading time: ± 4 min.
  • Text: Joost Bijlsma
  • Picture: Dolph Cantrijn

‘A commercial company can be an ideal learning environment’

Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have something in common. They all dropped out of university. Not because they couldn’t keep up, but because they wanted to devote their time and attention to entrepreneurship. A university program may not be entirely in keeping with the needs of young people with business ambitions. The curriculum tends to focus on theory and on one particular discipline. Entrepreneurship demands a multidisciplinary, hands-on approach.

Theory and practice

Erik de Bruijn found a way to reconcile academic study with his development as an entrepreneur. He had long nurtured an interest in technology so he opted to enroll on a program which combines technology with business economics: Information Management. He was keen to put theory into practice as soon as possible, seeing this as the best way of committing the complex material to memory. One way in which to do so is to start your own business, and that is precisely what Erik de Bruijn did. His first venture was the IT service provider Low Voice (which he had begun at the age of sixteen, soon after his voice had indeed broken). In February 2010, he joined forces with Siert Wijnia and Martijn Elserman to found Ultimaker, a company specializing in 3D printer technology, having taken advice from the Starterslift project. De Bruijn successfully combined his academic and business careers, going on to gain his MSc in Information Management.

Airbus, Tesla and Apple

Ultimaker has shown extremely rapid growth. The company now has three hundred employees and an annual turnover of forty million euros. All this was possible without any significant financial injection from the venture capitalists. The company simply took advantage of the growing popularity of 3D printing, which has made the transition from interesting hobby to serious business. While early orders were mostly from individual consumers, Ultimaker’s client base now includes multinationals such as Airbus, Tesla and Apple.

Erik de Bruijn sees 3D printing as a game changer for the manufacturing industry, making it possible to bring new products to market far more quickly. “Every mass market product started out as an idea. A 3D printer allows you to test ideas, innovations and designs almost immediately, whereupon they can be developed and improved.” Another use of 3D printing is to produce replacement parts ‘on the spot’. Volkswagen uses 3D printing to affix its badge directly to vehicles and to produce the fittings which hold the dashboard in place. “Another advantage is that these components can be modified at any time,” De Bruijn points out.

Mission

The success of Ultimaker sounds like every young entrepreneur’s dream, but De Bruijn is not interested solely in the financial side. He has another mission. “My real motivation is what this product can do for people.” Since the outset, he has been fascinated by the myriad applications of 3D printing. “I traveled the world, sleeping on people’s couches, to get the message across.” He is keen to ensure that his social mission remains intact as the company grows yet further, and hopes that clients will be excited by the possibilities offered by the new Ultimaker 3. “We must deliver what we have promised!”

Erik de Bruijn is also keen to ensure that the organization grows in line with its sales figures. “It’s all a question of having the right people in the right place,” he explains. “Everyone has their niche and there are people who can do some things better than I can. You have to be honest about that, put your ego aside and let them get on with it. It’s like bringing up children: if you want them to achieve their full potential, you have to know when to let go.”

“I find it much easier to remember the theory if I can put it into practice immediately.”

Erik de Bruijn

Elon Musk

De Bruijn finds it gratifying to be able to help large organizations develop their innovative ideas, but his enthusiasm really peaks when he sees his products building a better world. Ultimaker has donated 3D printers to e-NABLE, a global ‘open source’ community which develops inexpensive prosthetic limbs and hands. One Ultimaker printer was shipped to an Israeli organization which makes prostheses for the victims of the Palestinian conflict. Erik de Bruijn personally donated a printer to a 15-year-old American girl he met at a trade fair. “She had designed a flexible control panel for her friend’s electric wheelchair. She just needed a way of building it,” he explains.

Making a contribution to society must remain the key mission of his company, De Bruijn believes. “Otherwise it would be very difficult to carry on working with the same level of enthusiasm.” Elon Musk, co-founder and CEO of the electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, is a role model in this regard. “Musk wants to make the things that mankind really needs.”

Data science

Ideally, Tilburg University will spawn even more innovative companies like Ultimaker. It tries to do so through programs such as Starterslift, which provides advice and practical support to student enterprises. Tilburg University has also joined Eindhoven University of Technology to form the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science in Den Bosch. Erik de Bruijn finds this combination of technology and economics particularly interesting and sees it as a basis on which to create something really worthwhile.

De Bruijn also believes that universities should devote more attention to entrepreneurship within their research and education activities. Students should be given more opportunities to create things as a team, perhaps in the setting of a student enterprise. Traditional education is too much of a one-way process: the lecturer lectures and the students listen. “You can actually learn a lot by explaining things to each other. An enterprise based on teamwork can be an ideal learning environment. I firmly believe that you learn most about something by actually doing it.”

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