Understanding Society

Tilburg University is convinced that it can contribute to solving social issues by developing and transferring knowledge and bringing together people from various disciplines and organizations.

'Starting a company is a great learning experience'

Erik de Bruijn

In six years’ time, 3D-printer manufacturer Ultimaker’s annual turnover has grown to nearly 40 million euros, with companies like Airbus, Tesla, VW and Apple among its customers. Co-owner Erik de Bruijn, alumnus Information Management, laid the foundation for his company at Tilburg University. The alumnus with a great interest in technology combined entrepreneurship with his studies in Information Management. ‘I believe in the combination of economics and technology as a foundation on which something can be created.’

“At 16, right after my voice broke, I started out as an entrepreneur. My first company accordingly was called LowVoice. It developed all kinds of IT services. During my studies, I continued with this company. At Low Voice, I could apply a lot of the knowledge that I acquired in my studies. This way of learning was ideal. The best way for knowledge to stick is if I can put it into practice straight away.”

“When I was looking for an electric circuit to use in my house I found a small international group of people who were building 3D printers. I knew almost instantly: This is what I am going to be working on in the next few years. These 3D printers were not very well developed then yet. At the time, we did not yet manage to combine domains such as software, electronics, materials and hardware. But we did feel that we were developing something that was going to be of great importance.

In 2008, I made the first 3D prints of my own. In the course of my studies, I saw the enormous potential of 3D printing. I made preparations for a setting up a company, among other things by doing market research. Immediately after I got my Master’s degree in 2010 I founded Ultimaker together with two partners.  In expanding the growing company, we received help from Starterslift (now part of Braventure), an organization of Tilburg University that supports entrepreneurship. They helped us with questions we did not know how to deal with very well, such as handling the distribution of our 3D printers.

“Developments have been very rapid. 3D-printers have developed into a game changer in industry. 3D-printers make it easy to make unique products, to test new products, and to make spare parts on the spot. Our growth has been explosive. This is great of course, but what really motivates me is the fantastic possibilities that our new technology offers. Our mission to make this technology available to as many people as possible needs to continue to be our prime concern.”

“I love it when our product contributes to improving people’s lives. That is why we support e-NABLE, a worldwide community that develops inexpensive prosthetics with 3D printers on an open-source basis. We donated an Ultimaker printer to an Israeli organization that manufactures prosthetics for Palestinians. I also gave one to a fifteen-year-old American girl that I met at a fair. Of her own accord, using a 3D printer, she had made a flexible control panel for her largely paralyzed girlfriend, to be used to operate her wheelchair.”

“It would be a good thing if more innovative companies were to sprout from the university. A project like Starterslift (Braventure) helps to realize that. The same applies to the collaboration in data science between Tilburg University and Eindhoven Technical University, in which attention is paid to entrepreneurship. Technically-oriented and economically-oriented universities joining forces is something that I find interesting. I believe in the combination of economics and technology as a foundation on which something can be created.”

“I would like to see universities make more room for entrepreneurship than they currently do. More often than currently is the case, students should be given the opportunity to create things together, for instance in the setting of a student enterprise. Traditional courses and research are still largely one-way traffic, from teacher to student, while you can learn a lot from explaining things to each other and by doing things. A company in which you work together can be the ideal learning environment.”

BESI Award

At the opening of the academic year 2016, Erik de Bruijn received the Tilburg University Chapeau-Award (now the Best Entrepreneurial Student Initiative, BESI Award) in recognition of the impact his Ultimaker company is having on society.