Tessie is an ambassador for the future of science as it is embodied by TU/e: inspired, multidisciplinary, passionate about sustainability, and socially conscious. The job title on her LinkedIn profile is VP Marketing @ Lightyear. She describes herself as being “Fascinated by the ways in which humans and technology interact, and by the influence of those interactions on our perceptions, our minds and bodies, and especially our societies".
The curiosity evident in these words epitomizes Tessie's student career, but also her role at Lightyear, which started as a project and has now flourished into a nigh on autonomous company. The Lightyear is a car that combines smart technology with a roof full of solar panels. Complemented by exquisite design. You can drive the Lightyear for days without needing to stop at a charging station, particularly in the summer. It is an outstanding concept, but one so new that it can be difficult to grasp, for example by policymakers. This is just one of the practical consequences of the new developments that we discuss with Tessie.
Failure is an option
But let's start at the beginning, with how she found her way to TU/e. “I'm from Winterswijk, in the east of the Netherlands. I was the only one from the area considering studying in Eindhoven. The TU/e profile appealed to me. I was interested in electrical engineering, so that's what I said when I selected my subject profile. The funny thing is that I had never heard of the concept of ‘electrical engineering’ at high school. At the time, I wanted to go for the ‘Nature & Health’ profile. Shortly after making the decision, my mentor phoned my mother. He didn't think it was such a good plan, because I was better at languages than the scientific subjects. I thought that was the end of my plans, but my mum's reply was great: “If she's already got the hang of the languages, where's the challenge?” That was a real boost of confidence. And it helped me realize that failure is sometimes an option. I must admit that I did have my doubts when I came to Eindhoven. But the university had faith in me, just like my mum.”
During the Bluejay project, this faith was vitally important to Tessie and her fellow students. “Bluejay is now a largely autonomous drone that can support the emergency services. In search and rescue missions, for example. When we were working on the project, there was more of a focus on helping other groups, such as the elderly. Our first demo was attended by people from Philips, and by Jan Mengelers, who was President of TU/e at the time. Unfortunately, the demo was anything but a success. The drone crashed. We were devastated. Jan Mengelers had to head off quickly to another appointment, so we didn't get a chance to speak to him. The people from Philips came straight over and told us that it was the ‘demonstration effect’. It had happened to them too. They said that failures are part and parcel of innovation. But we could only think that this was the end of the road. We spoke to Jan Mengelers later, and he said “Chin up. These things happen. You are doing great work, and that is what you'll continue to do.” That support, the feeling that it is alright to fail, is tremendously important. And you truly need it. Because projects like this can quickly turn into emotional roller coasters.”
Tessie quickly saw one of her own qualities in her fellow students: looking out for others. “Lots of people here want to bring some good to the world. Because technology is so much more valuable if it helps the world.” She studied Technical Innovation Sciences. “The degree program was heavily geared towards the combination of technology, people and society. As you would expect, the emphasis was on technology. Other studies also combined technology with other expertise, but their focus was more often on administrative aspects. I wanted to learn more about how to use technology to make the world a better place.” And it is this inquisitiveness that she brought to the Bluejay project. During their demonstrations, members of the project group would ask the audience how they would use the drones. And they got talking with nursing homes. This way they generated 500 ideas.
A big, hairy, audacious goal
The significance that technology needs to have for the world is also what drives Tessie in her work at Lightyear. Their BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) is to secure a role for the car in developing countries. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could give people access to their own transport? With e-cars, which in time perhaps do not even need charging stations. Mobility increases your chances of progressing.” There’s already plenty of drive, but there’s a way to go. It’s a long road to a car that makes this possible. And alongside technical challenges, that road also winds past issues that perhaps nobody had considered when they started out on this adventure.
The first batch of Lightyears
Lightyear hopes to commence production of the first batch of cars at the end of this year. The batch will contain 946 cars, which is a nod to a light year. In one year, light travels a distance of 946 trillion kilometers. The team wants to complete the first car by the end of 2021. “The main purpose of that model is to demonstrate that it is possible. This one is for the investors, as it is far too expensive for the consumer market.” The purchase price of the subsequent model needs to drop under 50K. “To achieve that, we need to go for volume. From 1,000 cars to 100,000. And to do so, we need to create a network around us, a network of suppliers, people and companies that help us.” Work is already underway. Tire manufacturer Bridgestone, who also happens to be the main sponsor of the Solar Challenge, has become Lightyear’s partner.
Technology and psychology
“Good technology does not necessarily mean that you have a good product,” Tessie notes. “Perception plays an enormous role. You need to understand how to market a car like this, how people see it.” For example: “There was an engineer who was passionately explaining the technological highlights of the Lightyear, when someone asked if the car has cup holders.” Not much fun for the engineer, but a good indication of how people think about cars. They look for reference points with trusted concepts to help them understand new ideas. It’s like Henry Ford once said: ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.’”
Pigeon-holes are there to escape from
Another example is from the world of politics. Tessie explains how their attempts to secure subsidies stranded due to rules based on traditional standards. “There are subsidies for charging stations for e-cars, but if the charger is on the roof, as is the case with the Lightyear, there is nowhere for you turn. So, we then applied for a subsidy for solar panels on the roof. But that subsidy is only for when the panels are on the roof of a building!” Lobbying to open up the systems and create a place for their innovation is new to the folk at Lightyear. That task is not made easier by being so different to how the team usually collaborates, both internally and externally. “Our network here in Eindhoven is excellent. Companies, for example, but also professors and associate professors who are ready to help. But in the political world, you may have just built up your network, when elections come around and you have to start all over again.
That's why we are now actually going to The Hague in person, driving the Lightyear straight into the political arena.” The engineer that drove the car around on a trailer in America wants to come along. “He always stayed with the car when we stopped. He’d be asked the best questions and had great chats with passers-by.” This anecdote typifies the engagement felt by everyone involved with the company.
The team works closely with an extensive network of suppliers, specialists and sponsors. And – particularly when they were just starting out – they could count on an army of professors, associate professors, fellow students and others at TU/e who were ready to assist in word and deed. Tessie found that this help was invaluable. “It meant that we had the opportunity to do something that had never been done before. That was, and is, very special. Certainly if you consider where we are now.”
On the importance of the Fund
When asked how important the Fund was to her, she hardly needs to think about her answer: “Extremely important. As I've already mentioned: for projects like Lightyear, faith is everything. By supporting us, the Fund facilitated this faith. That gives you peace of mind, which is essential. Because with everything that you have to deal with, you do not want – or need – too many other concerns. This support is one of the reasons why TU/e is perhaps the finest breeding ground for young technological talent. At TU/e, if you have a good idea, you are given every opportunity to run with it.”