"With a small software start-up you can have a big impact"
After the success with 3D printing company Ultimaker, Erik de Bruijn has not taken a break. The Tilburg University alumnus has now turned to Stekker.app, a company that enables smarter and more sustainable charging and discharging of electric vehicles. Again with the intention to improve the world a little with the help of technology. “I want to make people less dependent.”
Erik de Bruijn is innovative. He has had a chip inserted under his skin. With that invisible thing, he opens the lock of his front door in Rosmalen. We continue to walk to his “laboratory” with a home battery, computers, and of course 3D printers from Ultimaker. He tells us that he is still co-owner of this company, but that he is no longer involved in its operations. Nowadays, all his attention is focused on his latest company Stekker.app: a company that makes smarter and more sustainable charging possible. This company came into being spontaneously, out of his own wishes. "I've been driving a Tesla for seven years now and five years on my own solar power. I wanted to charge when there is a lot of power being generated, but at the same time, make sure the battery is full when I need to drive." That is why De Bruijn developed his own software. Then the desire arose to contribute to smart charging and low charging costs at charging points. "The margins on the charging cards are still very high." Adding up these wishes and desires was the reason for him to start Stekker.app, together with partner Jankees van Woezik.
Stekker.app reached a great milestone in mid-June. State Secretary Stientje van Veldhoven of Infrastructure and Water Management opened the first smart charging station in the Netherlands in Culemborg, a parking lot full of charging points covered with 784 solar panels. The owner of the charging station, the energy cooperative Vrijstad Energie Culemborg, offers its members a user card, issued Stekker.app. De Bruijn: "Owners of electric vehicles can use our app to indicate when their battery needs to be full. Our technology then looks for the most favorable moments to charge, for example, when the demand for electricity is relatively low. And we suspend charging at less favorable times." During the opening of the charging station, De Bruijn showed that you can also discharge a car battery with their app. "We charged the State Secretary's car with previously stored solar power from a battery of a Nissan Leaf." This could become an important functionality because car batteries may be able to supply electricity back to the power grid in the future (vehicle to grid). According to De Bruijn, it will take a while before this is common practice. It takes more than just an app that facilitates this. "This also takes further developments in battery technology and users who are willing to use their batteries for that purpose. Fortunately, developments are currently going fast. ”
With Stekker.app, De Bruijn is ambitious once again. He wants this app to become a connecting link in the smart charging of electric vehicles with sustainable energy. And preferably locally generated sustainable power. In his vision, end users should remain in control of what happens to their batteries. "They need to know exactly what energy they are charging and be able to control when they do so. They also need to get something in return for making their batteries available," says De Bruijn. He strives for a positive impact for as many parties as possible. Think of financial and sustainable benefits for owners of electric cars and owners of charging stations. But also, more spread-out loads on the power grid. That is important for grid operators. "The electric fleet of vehicles that charge en masse at peak times can be a problem for them. We ensure that it also becomes part of the solution."
In Culemborg, De Bruijn is currently testing the possibilities. He is working closely with the charging station owner Vrijstad. Members receive a discount if they use the branded charging cards offered by Stekker.app and if they use solar charging. The group of users in Culemborg is in a sense a test panel for Stekker.app. Building from the perspective of the users is how De Bruijn wants to make a difference. "At Ultimaker this led to the best results. We built what we wanted to use ourselves. And we asked users what they encountered. We're doing that again now. You always have blind spots as a developer. You only discover them when people start working with your product or service. If you listen carefully to the feedback, you're more likely to create something that users are hungry for.”
Studies turn out useful
You do not have to tell De Bruijn that an entrepreneur has to be persistent. Starters always come up against new issues that they have to solve themselves. And the hurdles to be taken are high at Stekker.app. "The algorithm is complex because you have to take opportunities and expectations into account. But perhaps an even greater challenge is linking the information sources: the car, the car owner, the charging station, the manager of the power grid, and many others. We want to arrange it in such a way that this complex jumble remains invisible to the users." In taking up this challenge, he benefited from his studies Information Management in Tilburg. "As a student, I also had to connect systems. Like in the course Seminar or IT. For this, I had built a system à la Google Translate. This could recognize text in a photo you took and sent you a translation. For each step, it made a link with the best external service. That integration thinking is also badly needed at Stekker.app. Our system is a spider in a web." He's glad he learned more than just programming during his studies. "That changes rapidly, the knowledge about integrating systems is more sustainable."
Power to the people
In spite of all the hassle, De Bruijn never doubted whether he had to start a business again. "I knew I wanted to do something new again. What I did doubt about was quickly hiring a lot of people again. That's why I now consciously choose to keep it small for the time being. It doesn't have to be big. The attraction of a software start-up is that you can stay small but can have a big impact. My starting point is: first develop it small and well and only then expand.” Although he really likes developing things that do not exist yet, in the end that is not what is about for De Bruijn. "And I don't care about making as much money as possible either. The real drive is to develop innovations that contribute to a better world." It's not just the “climate-friendly” generation and storage of energy that appeals to him, but also the autonomy aspect." Technology can make citizens less dependent on governments or large companies. It helps them to get a grip on basic needs such as energy and to contribute to solutions themselves: power to the people. Essentially, I want to make people less dependent. At Ultimaker, that was already my driving force. The 3D printer is a device with which people can become manufacturers themselves and share designs." He realizes that the success of Ultimaker has been exceptional. And that this does not guarantee the success of Stekker.app. But he believes in it one hundred percent. "Maybe another motive is that I want to prove that this can work and be attractive to users, also for people who are less technology-minded than I am."
Erik de Bruijn in a nutshell
The fact that Erik de Bruijn is a real entrepreneur is already apparent in (secondary) school. There, together with his brother, he started IT service provider LowVoice. It does not stop there. During his Information Management studies at Tilburg University, he became fascinated by 3D printing. Shortly after his graduation in 2011, he founded 3D printer manufacturer Ultimaker together with Siert Wijnia and Martijn Elserman. They receive help through the Starterslift project at Tilburg University. The Ultimakers soon find an eager market, initially among enthusiasts but later also among well-known multinationals. The company grows rapidly and develops into a global player with 450 employees. When Ultimaker passes the start-up and scale up phase, De Bruijn withdraws from the operations in order to start up a business again: Stekker.app. This smart charging app was introduced on Monday, June 15, 2020 at the opening of the country's first smart charging plaza in Culemborg.