Research brought to life (3): Sentea

Robuuste, kosten-efficiënte mini-interrogator (large view)

Robuuste, kosten-efficiënte mini-interrogator

(04-12-2019) The core of Ghent University's spin-off Sentea is fibre-optic sensing.

‘The university gives you the freedom to find your own path and supports you on your journey.’.

Do you remember the Morandi bridge in Genoa? Or the problems with the tunnels in Brussels? In both cases technical implications arose from one day to the other, in Italy even leading to the 'sudden' collapse of the bridge and great loss of life. The unexpectedness of these events, however, is matched by the thoroughness of Ghent University spin-off Sentea's technology, which can help prevent such accidents from happening in the future. It has sensors that can monitor the health of materials and structures, thus allowing timely intervention. ‘The university is an ideal breeding ground for high-tech products’, says Thijs Spuesens, who helped give birth to Sentea. ‘You have the time to work specifically on your research. And that's priceless.’

Entrepreneurship from a passion for technology

Thijs was a researcher at Ghent University long before he co-founded Sentea. ‘The university brings you into contact with many different, innovative technologies. I had the good fortune of working in the silicon-photonics research group for years. While I never aspired to build an academic career, I did get the chance through the university to start my own spin-off based on this technology.’

Ball bearings pre-equipped with fibre-optic sensors are being launched commercially, bringing the benefits of fibre-optic sensing to ships, trains, trucks, and heavy construction equipment.
Ball bearings pre-equipped with fibre-optic sensors are being launched commercially, bringing the benefits of fibre-optic sensing to ships, trains, trucks, and heavy construction equipment.

Fibre-optic sensing

The core of Ghent University's spin-off Sentea: fibre-optic sensing. Its sensors are based on light instead of electricity, which not only makes them impervious to electromagnetic interference, corrosion, and extreme temperatures, but also very accurate and stable over time. Multiple sensors can easily be integrated onto one optical fibre, making it possible to simultaneously measure several things, such as temperature, vibration, bending of materials ... This enables Sentea to cost-effectively monitor the health of buildings and wind turbines, to name but a few, and to prevent catastrophes. 

From European research project to Ghent University spin-off

A European project examined the advantages of this smart fibre, attracting the attention of a business developer at Ghent University's Industrial Research Fund (IOF), who realised this technology's potential for industrial applications. This, combined with Thijs' immense enthusiasm, led to the start of his journey as an entrepreneur. Not as the culmination of some childhood dream of being an entrepreneur, but from a passion for technology. ‘The biggest difference between the university and industry is that in the world of academia, you first and foremost have to prove that your technology does indeed work, and you write a paper about it. In industry, however, what you have to prove is that your technology works in every setting and under all circumstances. This makes a world of difference.’

A product is more than just technology

‘Having a technology that works does not mean that you also have a marketable product. We invested a lot of time in the development of our product. This involved electronics, software, the device's thermal management ... Launching a company also requires a lot in general. You have to do market research, convince investors, draw up a business plan ... As a beginning entrepreneur you have to acquire so much new knowledge, so many new skills. You have to really step out of your comfort zone ... It's a very steep but also a fascinating learning curve. 

Entrepreneurship is about flexibility and creativity

Being an entrepreneur is not all a bed of roses. You have to overcome setbacks and be flexible enough to view and solve things differently. ‘Sometimes we would be under a lot of pressure from investors. They wanted to see results, of course, but when you're developing a high-tech product you sometimes run into unexpected problems. Thanks to UGent's TechTransfer, for example, we discovered that part of our technology was already patented. So we had to look for a different way to solve that particular problem. I can easily give you more examples.’ 

Bridges can be equipped with fibre-optic sensors that continuously monitor their structural health.
Bridges can be equipped with fibre-optic sensors that continuously monitor their structural health.

Broadening horizons

‘At the university you are very focused on your own research. But yes, you can still broaden your own horizons. It's simply a matter of seeing the opportunities. For instance, you can ask the business developers of the Industrial Research Fund (IOF) to review your technology. They know the industry, and they can tell whether or not something will work in an industrial context. The university also organises lots of courses on entrepreneurship, communications ... such as the TT Skills Course.’

The advantages of a science park

Sentea is still located close to the university. Its home base is Tech Lane Ghent Science Park, the university's science park in Zwijnaarde. ‘It was a very deliberate choice. Being near the university is just so convenient. Not only does it allow you to easily keep abreast of the latest developments, but you can also use the university's infrastructure to carry out tests. Having to invest in our own cleanrooms and testing facilities would be completely impossible for us.’

Teamwork

To end, we asked Thijs about his greatest challenges so far. ‘Putting together the right team is crucial. You have to find people with complementary skills, people whose characters are compatible with yours and that you can communicate with smoothly. Also, investors look at the big picture, not just your technology. They need to see that you and your team can successfully complete the launch of your company. Without this, they will not commit their money.’

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