A smart doorbell, thermostat or lighting. You see them more and more. Devices that we can control remotely or that even work autonomously. They are all examples ofInternet of Things‘ (Internet of Things). Sensors provide the connection between devices and data systems. Power is needed for that. In an environment like an airplane, this isn’t very useful, because power often means a battery, and a battery means weight.
Home ZED, zero Energy Development, a spin-off of TU Delft, has developed wireless and battery-free sensors that are powered by power generated by simply pressing a button. Or buckling up. As a student team, the entrepreneurs won the Airbus ‘Fly your ideas’ contest in 2019. The team subsequently won the TU Delft Impact Contest and then the 4TU Impact Challenge. The prize in the Impact Challenge: participation in a trade mission to Dubai. That trip is next week.
“The advantage of these sensors is that they are also more ecological. And you don’t have to worry about that. The sensors always work and require little maintenance,” says Niels Hokke, co-founder of ZED. Hokke was still working on his 2019 master’s thesis, in which he sought a solution to the problems that arise with many wireless communications. “So how do you make sure that if you activate all those devices at the same time, the messages don’t collide with each other?” A theme that forms the basis of the start-up.
He has been a full-time entrepreneur since graduation. The three Hokke co-founders still work partly for TU Delft. “This is actually the best of both worlds,” said co-founder Suryansh Sharma, who joined the team after an Airbus career. He is also a doctoral candidate with an associate professor within the Embedded and Networked Systems Group (ENS) from Delft University of Technology, Venkatesha Prasad.
Sharma: “I wanted to investigate, among other things, whether there is a market for these sensors.” To which Hokke adds: “The jury for the Airbus competition included a number of senior Airbus managers. The fact that we were able to convince them strengthened our conviction that we had something beautiful on our hands that we could market.”
“Wireless, battery-free sensors are not new,” says Hokke. Prasad has been investigating applications of this type of sensor within the ENS research group since 2013. The concept that Hokke and his colleagues presented for the Airbus competition originated within the ENS. ZED mainly focuses on the problem of networking many sensors together: how can you solve this as well as possible with as little power as possible?
Prasad is also a co-founder of ZED. “As students, Professor VP (as the team calls Prasad, ed.) gave us all the freedom to choose our own path. That is no different as we are a new company.” The associate professor is part of the team and provides advice. As does John Schmitz, former Dean of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science at TU Delft. Schmitz also worked as director of intellectual property at NXP Semiconductors.
Hokke and Sharma have technical training. Hokke: “I see opportunities for technology everywhere. I need to focus on that.” That’s why he asked Josine van der Velde to help them kick off the 4TU Impact Challenge. she is a student Administration and International Business Studies at the NHL-Stenden University of Applied Sciences. In the lead up to the Impact Challenge, he did his internship at ZED. Now she is writing her graduation thesis at the start-up.
An instructive moment, says Van der Velde. He not only learned what it takes to start a company, but also how to negotiate with TU Delft. For example, about who gets what part of the shares. She keeps the team on their toes, says Hokke. “She brings structure and therefore is of great value to the team.”
The start-up was also fully supported by TU Delft, continues Hokke. Help with legal tasks such as going to the notary, or with contracts with other companies. “TU Delft has a large network of start-ups and scale-ups, among others. As a result, there are plenty of other entrepreneurs we can talk to. And who can help us apply for grants.” ZED recently received a grant of forty thousand euros from the NWO, the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research, with which the start-up can carry out a feasibility study. “That’s a huge boost,” Hokke said.
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Hokke has a zero hour contract with the university. In this way he can make use of the research facilities and computer systems. “We have a close relationship with TU Delft and we would like to keep it that way. For example, I also contribute to newspapers. There is no clear boundary from where the startup ends and this is where the university begins. We like that a lot.”
“Many of the solutions within the Networks and Embedded Systems group presented in the master’s theses are very close to a product. We want to help keep those ideas on the shelf. We want to give a commercial twist to these master projects. As a kind of platform to push these new innovations in the world.”
After the competition from Airbus, it seemed for a while that a collaboration with Airbus would follow. However, Corona threw a monkey wrench into the works. The plans were postponed. ZED took advantage of this setback to further develop and test the technology. Talks are underway again with an airline, says Hokke. “If that continues, we can implement a sensor network of a thousand sensors. So we can really show that battery-free IoT is possible on a large scale.”
Because showing what sensors can do is better than talking about it, says Hokke. “I realized that during the Airbus competition. Give people a button they can press. Then they experience what is happening. For example, turn on the light. Seeing what it can do inspires people and comes up with new ideas for applying the sensors.” Hokke and Sharma hope to give many demonstrations in Dubai. “So that people can come up with ideas for apps on their own.”
For Hokke, that’s the best there is: the pleasure of working together with people from different domains. “The pleasure of talking about your passion for technology and taking it to the next level together.” To which Van der Velde adds: “It’s about sharing your inventions with the world.”