Maarten Steinbuch  ( Photo credit: Bart van Overbeeke)

Maarten Steinbuch  ( Photo credit: Bart van Overbeeke)


Exceptional Awards announced for 2016

The Netherlands Technology Foundation (STW) has awarded the title of Simon Stevin Master 2016 to two prominent people in the Dutch science community. Normally given to just one person, this year sees two leading scientists being honoured as part of STW’s 35th anniversary celebrations. The prize is the most prestigious of its kind in the Netherlands.

The title this year goes to precision engineer and scientist Professor Maarten Steinbuch and water scientist Professor Suzanne Hulscher. Each will receive a sum of €500,000 which can be used to support any research project of their choosing.

The Simon Stevin Master Prize is named after the famous 17th century Flemish scientist who made a huge contribution to Dutch engineering and mathematics.

Two recipients this year

Suzanne Hulscher is a professor at the University of Twente. She is international acknowledged as one of the world’s leading authorities on delta and river systems.  Her work takes a fresh approach to water technology and shows a deep understanding of how to predict change. This is especially important as Delta regions in many parts of the world needs to take complex and expensive measures to protect the land in the face of climate change. More information about her work has been posted on the UoT website.

Professor Maarten Steinbuch is a distinguished professor at Eindhoven University of Technology. His group is well-known for its work in ultra-high-precision engineering in medical and care robotics, high tech systems as well as pioneering work to make electric cars safer and more efficient. There is also on-going research into cleaner and more fuel-efficient truck engines.

Steinbuch has a reputation for getting things done, building informal networks of those willing to tackle the grand challenges in our society. He is a regular guest in radio and TV programmes to explain the importance of the scientific research and close collaboration with high-tech industry.

After a career in precision mechanics and controls at Philips Research and working on projects for the chip-design manufacturer ASML, Steinbuch joined Eindhoven University of Technology. He now heads the Control Systems Technology group, within the Department of Mechanical Engineering. But he is keen to show that success is linked to what his teams can do with others both on and off the campus.

Why move from industry to academia?  

“Because I thrive on the freedom to be able to think outside the box”, explains Maarten. “When you're busy developing the business strategies of tomorrow, you have to put aside conventional thinking about the next quarter’s sales targets. Merely extending knowledge a step further is not developing science.”

“You see so many industrial research labs today that are only developing incremental improvements. But breeding cleverer homing pigeons did not help in the development of the telephone, nor did breeding faster horses lead to the invention of the steam locomotive.”

Brainport Eindhoven: pioneers in open collaboration

“I think that European universities can do a lot more to collaborate with industry and come up with disruptive thinking. I don't see the difference between fundamental and applied research, for me it is all the same. We need to take more risks, helping industry with the longer-term strategies.”

“But it is also true that academic research has to remain closely in tune with real-world needs. Which is why we have never lost touch with all kinds of professions or short-term challenges as well. Indeed, as we see from today's startup world, few answers are found by just sitting in the lab. Talking with surgeons, oil-riggers, car manufacturers is essential. That's why I think we need more startups in this region, especially because we have the "maker spirit" in our DNA.”

“We’re currently running three different labs here, automotive, autonomous robots and medical robotics devices. There’s a connection between all three and it is because we have a leading global reputation for understanding very precise positioning technologies.”

 “Perhaps the most challenging area we're working on is medical precision robotics. How can you build useful medical robots to assist surgeons perform the most of delicate of operations? Eindhoven leads the world in precision mechatronics, so it's up to us to show what can be done. Our goal is to build a robot that can help a surgeon perform operations which are currently difficult or impossible. There has been wide press coverage of the recent spinout companies we’ve formed - Preceyes and Microsure. These companies received backing from industry and from the STW fund. Following their success, several more companies like this will follow adapting core technology to the specific needs of different parts of the medical profession.”  

Simon Stevin recognition is important

“What we've done is taken the USP of this region - being able to design very precise mechanics and controls - and applied it to areas that no-one has ventured yet. We have also taught ourselves to scale and adapt. My dream is that by 2020, there will be a whole cluster of companies in this region adapting this research to help solve the big challenges that face both the medical and automotive sectors.” 

Steinbuch is delighted about the award. “The Simon Stevin prize is not only a great honour; it recognizes the important role that our technical system thinkers play in solving the modern grand challenges that lie ahead. It is also clear validation that our approach is the right one and has every chance of scaling up”.

The award will be presented on November 24th 2016.  

About Simon Stevin

Simon Stevin, 1548–1620, was a highly-accomplished Flemish mathematician, physicist and military engineer. He was active in a great many areas of science and engineering, both theoretical and practical. He also translated various mathematical terms into Dutch, making it one of the few European languages in which the word for mathematics, wiskunde (wis and kunde, i.e., "the knowledge of what is certain"), was not borrowed from Greek.

Stevin is credited with several discoveries and inventions in mathematics, physics and applied science (hydraulic engineering and surveying). He invented (or at least described in detail) the Decimal system for fractions and did the mathematical groundwork for the construction of fortifications. His contemporaries were most struck by his invention of a so-called land yacht, The carriage was propelled solely by the force of wind and acquired a speed which exceeded that of horses.

Report compiled by Jonathan Marks