'The societal impact of our research is and remains leading, and to achieve this you often need others'

Entrepreneurship and regional partnerships

As Director of Entrepreneurship and Regional Partnerships, Freek van Muiswinkel is committed to increasing the impact of research at Utrecht University. I hope that more and more people will see regional cooperation as a way to enrich their own academic mission.

About this series

As university, we want to make our knowledge available to society and offer solutions, says Anton Pijpers, president of the Executive Board. Contributing to society can be done in many ways, cooperating with private parties being one of them. We encourage our students and colleagues to be entrepreneurial: take initiative! Don't wait around for someone else to take action.

In this interview series, the Centre for Entrepreneurship introduces you to the people who can help take your idea further, or make that possible. In the left-hand column you will find the other articles in this series.

You started as Director of Entrepreneurship and Regional Partnerships in March 2020. Why does the university need such a director?

Freek van Muiswinkel
Freek van Muiswinkel

To increase our impact in society, meaningful interaction with the region is of added value. We can link the knowledge we develop here to regional social challenges, to governments, entrepreneurs and other partners who can actually apply the findings. Think, for example, of all the knowledge about children's first thousand days, about healthy growth and education, but also about artificial intelligence and sustainable energy.

In this respect, you can see that the university is becoming more and more professional. Starting from a strategic theme or from a faculty, we look at the partners with whom we can make the desired impact. How can we build good relationships with these partners, or take existing relationships to a new level? That requires manpower and direction. Gradually the university realised that this is a job in itself.

Is your work limited to the Utrecht region?

Not at all. The Netherlands is a small country - as a region you soon find yourself dealing with other regions or tasks of a national character. Take the Food Valley Region Deal. It is actually the Dutch government saying to the regions of Utrecht and Gelderland: 'Come on, bring on all that knowledge you have about sustainable agriculture and healthy food, and link that with all the people and businesses involved in a healthy living environment. Develop a joint agenda for the national interest'. So that is what we are doing, together with our partners.

Our alliance with UMC Utrecht and the universities of Eindhoven and Wageningen is of course another appealing example that transcends the region.

Who are your discussion partners within the university?

In any case, I consult very intensively with the strategic themes; this is where the faculty agendas come together nicely and where the outside world is already involved. Most strategic themes now have their own 'impact manager', a business developer or even an entire business development team. For the Life Sciences theme, I participate in meetings to make sure I know what is going on and what they're still looking for. And of course to tell what the region is doing, to make the connection.

But it can also be at the level of an individual professor, who for example has an important position in a top sector. If he or she shares information with us from the top sector, I try to translate it into action together with the university and regional partners and see what is needed to make such a lobby or concrete project a success.

You have a long track record at Utrecht University and UMC Utrecht. How do you know what's going on?

Yes, that certainly helps. I am lucky that I worked at UMC Utrecht for a while, and at Veterinary Medicine as well. For the past few years, I was a domain expert on Life Science & Health on behalf of Utrecht University, Utrecht University of Applied Sciences and UMC Utrecht at the Economic Board Utrecht (EBU). In terms of networking, that is very useful now.

At the same time, I often attend meetings or specific seminars. Even if I think I don't know anything about the subject, I still see if it fits into my calendar. Take the meet-ups that our Centre for Entrepreneurship organises for the Entrepreneurial Education Network, together with TU/e innovation Space and the University of Wageningen. That is actually the easiest way to get fully informed about what great things are happening at our and other universities in the field of entrepreneurial education and entrepreneurship. I can use that information for a business case that arises at another time.

I think you have to be extremely curious about others. I listen carefully to colleagues at the university who in turn have their own network. Informal contact is a method for dealing with things tactically and strategically. Of course, at the end of the day, we have to translate this into concrete matters. Where people want to be entrepreneurial, we as a university have to offer them the necessary space and support.

How does the university help people with a good idea?

In a previous interview, Maarten Flinkenflögel already gave two good examples, such as the additional resources for Upper Faculty Entrepreneurship Projects and the step-by-step guide that helps researchers to find the right facilities and support when they are considering entrepreneurship from their research or education.

The step-by-step guide 'From Researcher to Academic Entrepreneur'

At the regional level, in addition to the EBU there is also a regional development company, the ROM Utrecht Region. Utrecht University is one of the shareholders. The ROM invests in young, innovative SMEs. It also looks at major social issues, such as shortages on the labour market or questions related to the digital transition, public health (prevention) and the regional preconditions for innovation. How can you make the most of this through public-private partnerships?

This is interesting for us as a university and as a campus. We can contribute our knowledge to all kinds of consortia. And we want to connect the knowledge-intensive companies that indicate that they want to come to the region with the Utrecht Science Park. At the same time it is interesting that ROM Utrecht Region could be an investor for our spin-offs. By actively participating in the regional economic agenda, we also serve our own interests, and that's fine.

By actively participating in the regional economic agenda, we also serve our own interests, and that's fine.

Between the beautiful academic work we do at the university and the impact we want to make, there is a lot of entrepreneurial thinking and acting. This is not limited to the old-fashioned idea that entrepreneurship equals working with commercial parties who operate purely for profit. It is mainly about an entrepreneurial attitude. The social impact is and remains leading for our agenda, and you often need regional governments, private parties or NGOs for that. I hope that more and more people will see regional partnerships as a way to enrich their own academic mission.