Alumnus Benno

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UT alumnus Benno Oderkerk dreams of a future where smart measuring equipment monitors our health 24/7 and can predict a heart attack. avantes, where he is CEO, makes an important contribution to this dream. "I expect it to be reality within 10 years."

BY Marco Krijnsen PHOTOGRAPHY Fokke Eenhoorn

Avantes has already developed 40,000 spectrometers for industrial use: applications in the chip industry - including ASML - but also in agriculture and the food industry, and for measuring solar cells and led lighting, for example. Spectrometers are used in Life Science for non-invasive surgery and measuring tumours, among other uses. Oderkerk’s passion is mainly in healthcare. This preference has been apparent since early childhood. “My mother was a hospital patient several times. Every time I visited her, I was astonished by the tubes and equipment surrounding her bed.”

Grandma's colour TV

The fascination for medical technology determined his choice of study and university. His mind was made up immediately at the University of Twente open day when he watched a demonstration on electrostimulation in mice. Applied technology, that’s what he wanted to study; the result was electrical engineering in Enschede.

However, the start was quite arduous. Oderkerk struggled with theoretical physics and mathematics subjects all through the first year. He even considered giving up. It was grandma’s colour television that saved the day eventually. The student had taken the broken device with him to his room in Enschede. An electrical engineering lecturer helped him get the device up and running again for 2.50 guilders, the price of a new capacitor. The TV worked just fine all through his university days. “It was an eyeopener for me, a motivation to keep going until the course became more applied.”

After his graduation, Oderkerk left for Munich to obtain a doctoral degree. He soon realised he was too impatient for science. “I am not from an entrepreneurial family, but I have an enterprising character. I find it hard to sit still. I was having trouble with the unenterprising nature of scientists. Spending half the morning drinking coffee and talking about all manner of things was not for me. I wanted to do things, change things, make the difference.”

In Munich, he made the move to STM, a company that develops sensor technology for pacemakers. When he had the opportunity to become a co-owner, he returned to the Netherlands to establish a sensor technology business with his partner: Top Sensor Systems. The business location became Eerbeek near Apeldoorn, strategically situated along the north-south and east-west infrastructure.

Added value

Top Sensor Systems initially resembled both a business enterprise and an engineering firm. Business consultant Jan Melles, a doyen of photonics, recommended the development of own products to create added value. This is what we did. One of our first products was a variation on an existing spectrometer, reminisces Oderkerk. Thanks to the modification, physicians were able to measure the blood’s oxygen saturation through the skin. “With a measuring instrument or sensor, the main factors are the measurement site and the monitor displaying the results. We added value with our measuring probes and software. Our clients were delighted.”

Oderkerk and his partner wanted to progress. They detached themselves from Ocean Optics, the American supplier of the spectrometers. The company’s name became Avantes. “We wanted the name to start with an A, because search results are often in alphabetical order. Top Sensor Systems were always at the back of the trade show calendar. The company gained a lot of technical knowledge through the acquisition of a small spectrometer business in Amsterdam, which allowed for the development of a new, optical module of our own spectrometers. It ensured that in a short space of time, Avantes grew into a world player in its field. The company is particularly well-positioned in healthcare. “Of all heart-lung machines in hospitals that measure a patient’s blood count, eighty percent contain an Avantes spectrometer.”

Miniaturisation continues'

Photonics is another technology that also encapsulates spectroscopy. This is still in its infancy, says Oderkerk. Photonics are now included in the governmental agreement, and will gather pace. The comparison with gps comes to mind. This technology used to be exclusive to aircraft and can now be found in every smartphone. Oderkerk expects the same thing to happen to spectrometers. “They now fit into measuring equipment allowing for medical examinations on location, such as an ambulance. The miniaturisation continues. Soon, they’ll be fitted into your watch or ankle strap. The majority of the latest smartphone generation is already calibrated with Avantes spectrometers. These phones have an increasing number of health apps, our way of contributing to the dream I have. The dream also includes our personal space devices that keep an eye on our health. With smart toilets that monitor our urine, with smart fridges that check that the milk is still good to drink, with smart cities where traffic lights measure air quality and divert traffic based on the results. I think this will be reality in 10 years. Spectroscopy in combination with big data plays a crucial role in this development. After all, to measure is to know.”

This article appeared in the UT Alumni Magazine Winter 2018/2019 Edition.

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