Entrepreneurial Mind of the Month: Helmer Strik

NovoLearning: turning science into business and business into science

It’s common practice for many scientists, to develop technology in order to conduct research and not to be able to use the technology after the research is completed. Helmer Strik, associate professor at the Radboud University, resolved this by starting a spin-off from the faculty of Arts, NovoLearning, that makes use of the technology. 

NovoLearning offers a mobile learning environment with learn-as-you-go activities that are interactive and customizable. The fast growing company is based on years of research into speech technology for language learning and thus brings science to business. 

Social impact gives me a larger sense of fulfillment than an extra publication on my name.

”My research focusses on speech technology, its development and integration into applications. When a research project is completed however, the application, how valuable it might be for the users, is usually no longer used because it is too expensive to keep it running. In case of NovoLearning, I decided to step up and create a company”, explains Strik. “The University and the faculty supported this decision because of the social impact of the company. We also received useful support from Radboud In’to Languages.” 

Not an unusual step for the scientist-entrepreneur. In 1991, Strik founded the very first spin-off from the faculty of Arts called Polderland ‘Language and Speech Technology’. Learning from that experience, he decided to find a CEO to manage the business side of NovoLearning and became a CSO himself. As CSO he could focus fully on his field of expertise: the science. 

The search for the right CEO wasn’t easy. “The right person for the job had to understand and recognize the ambition to benefit the university on one hand and the company on the other. Martijn Enter, the CEO, has the appropriate background and expertise. Also, it took quite some time and effort to draft a contract between the company and the university.”

Having a spin-off like NovoLearning benefits Strik’s research and the faculty. “First of all, NovoLearning offers internships and thesis projects to students. Some of them even became employees. In addition, the company collects a lot of valuable data on interactive language learning that can be used for other research”, says Strik. “Also, NovoLearning gives me an advantage when I apply for externally funded projects which need collaboration with industry.” But NovoLearning not only provides added value to the scientist in terms of data and collaborations. “The larger social impact fills me with a great sense of satisfaction. It is an amazing feeling to create something people use and benefit from”, Strik explains. 

Like a true entrepreneur, Strik has ideas for the future endeavors. “I want to focus on the use of speech technology in the clinical environment and create a solution for people with speech disorders, dysarthria for instance. The challenging aspect of this idea is that the target group is too small for a commercial solution and there are different kinds of speech disorders. This means that a solution for one often does not work for the other. However, it is definitely worth exploring.”