Bart Steensma is the founder of one of the six startups participating in UtrechtInc’s part-time science-based validation programme. He finds it valuable to learn from others who have made the same journey from research to startup before him, and believes that his solution could make a big difference if he takes it to the market “You can add a lot more value if you go commercial”.
From research to startup
After finalising his PhD at UMC Utrecht two years ago, Bart continued on to a postdoc position researching the same topic. Together with his research group, he has developed a wearable device that can detect the heart’s motion using MRI technology. The goal is to be able to do home monitoring of heart failure to prevent hospitalisation. Initially, the plan was not to make a startup out of the research. However, once pitching for a grant within UMC Utrecht, the team was approached by Pontes, a programme improving the development of MedTech and Digital Health innovations in the Netherlands, telling them that their pitch was a great idea for a startup – and so the journey began.
Together they started to initialise the process of setting up a startup. “Utrecht Holdings [the technology transfer office of Utrecht University, responsible for spinning out research to the market] got involved and helped us write a patent. We applied for a ‘NWO take-off grant’ which is used to turn your research into a company, similar to a feasibility study, and that was another push. Once we got that grant I applied for the science-based validation programme at UtrechtInc, because I thought it was the right moment.” Bart explained.
Research vs entrepreneurship
What are the differences and similarities between being a researcher and an entrepreneur?
After thinking for a moment, Bart argued that “I think that researchers need to be curiosity-driven. As a researcher, you want to know how something works or why it works like that.” He adds that he believes that researchers do think about what they could do with their insights, but that is not the main question. In the business world, on the other hand, Bart argues that the questions around what type of outcome or application could solve a particular problem and whether people would actually pay for this product arises quicker. He adds “But still, when you write a research grant and you have a good idea, if it sounds innovative and if it sounds like you have a business case, I think you stand a much better chance. So, I think there are more similarities between researchers and entrepreneurs than people think”.
How does it work to combine your research with running a startup?
“For now, it’s okay. I’ve communicated to my department that I am interested in doing this and I have not seen any big trouble with it so far.” Bart shared. He further explained that he was involved in another spin-off company from the same department earlier, and said that the department is quite used to valorising research via startups and spin-offs. He continued “There is a really good synergy so far, because what I am doing for my research is basically the same as what we want to start a startup around.” When discussing the future, Bart has mixed feelings. “If I want to make the step into being an entrepreneur I will have to at some point get out of the research. I like research, so I would be sad to leave, but at the same time, I am really excited to start a company around this idea and add value there”.
I think there are more similarities between researchers and entrepreneurs than people think.
You are currently participating in UtrechtInc’s Science Validation Programme, how is that?
“Before this, I didn’t really know much about business and having a startup. Therefore I find it really interesting to see the basics”. Bart continued to explain that although it may feel like you are doing something completely new when you explore the opportunities of setting up your own startup, joining the programme highlighted that many people in similar situations have started startups before, perhaps even in the very field you are active in.”I think it is very good to know that those people are there, that there is a network and that you can always ask people what to do basically. So that was something that was very valuable for me to pick up.” Bart concludes.
What have you so far learned about being an entrepreneur?
“I find it very inspiring to be around people that also want to be entrepreneurs, or are entrepreneurs already. I see them being in quite different stages. Some already have a company, and some just really have an idea and nothing there yet.” He continued, “ I don’t really feel like an entrepreneur yet. But I like learning about all the things that go with being an entrepreneur, and I am really excited to start this journey.” When asked if he thinks he will ever feel like an entrepreneur, he laughed a bit and replied “It is a bit stupid, but I think that at the moment that we will turn the research into an official startup, it will feel more real. This is an idea that I have really developed myself and if we make it official, I think I will start to feel like an entrepreneur. The future is still uncertain, but I am definitely enthusiastic about doing it.”
I find it very inspiring to be around other people that also want to be entrepreneurs.
Finally, what would you say to other researchers who are working on a project that has the potential to be turned into a startup?
“I would definitely recommend them to try it.” Bart said confidently. He reasons that “[…] you can add a lot more value if you go commercial, either by making your idea clinical or have it used by a lot of people. So I think it’s really important to take that step.”
Are you interested in learning more about our valorisation programme for science-based startups?
Come by UtrechtInc for a coffee with the UtrechtInc team and have a chat with the participants of our current programmes to learn more about their experience.
The science programme starts in October and February and runs for seven months.
Posted September 2022