Business developer Nathan Volkers

20 February 2024 A word with

When you say 'MindLabs' you say 'projects'. Because experimenting, researching, developing and creating is in our DNA. There are always different projects running. No matter how diverse, they have one thing in common; we are all extremely proud of them. In 'A word with' we always ask one of our team members for their views on all the work involved. In this edition: Nathan Volkers, about his job as a business developer, with which he brings about new collaborations.

Nathan, you joined MindLabs as a business developer in August 2023. Fire away: what exactly does your job entail?
Business development is a broad container, but nicely put; I build bridges between different needs in the ecosystem. From the questions from businesses to the agendas of the knowledge institutions. But also the other way around; from the needs from experts or academies to work together with business towards an application towards the parties that fit in.

That bridge-building is a diffuse and complex whole. In practice, supply and demand almost never connect directly. If they do, it is actually always a coincidence. You can't live on that as an ecosystem. And so you need a process that gives time to find out, among other things, the needs, expectations, motivations and possible activities of parties, so that you can establish correct matches. My work at the moment mainly comes down to structuring and concretizing that process. Among other things, we are realizing an academy and open stage that will make companies aware of the role AI can play within their company. I also focus on providing insight into what we have to offer. And I try to find new suitable companies and parties.

How did you get into this position?
I studied structural engineering, but was already involved in entrepreneurship during my studies. First with a design and communication agency in hand-drawn visualizations. There I turned out to be good at selling. I learned how to build a business around it. I then taught entrepreneurship at the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences. Then I was involved in patent research on a new raw material for the absorption granules in baby diapers as an alternative to petroleum. And as an extension of that, I started a business in diaper subscriptions together with a former classmate; a combination of disposable, washable varieties and potty training. So I did a little bit of everything.

I used to frequent Tilburg by train, and the MindLabs building always fascinated me. When I took a look at the website last spring to see exactly what MindLabs is and does, it turned out there was a suitable job opening. One in which my experience in entrepreneurship would come in handy. I applied, and was offered a position.

So you are now primarily a 'bridge builder'. In a field in which the seemingly impossible often turns out to be possible, how do you keep expectations realistic?
Let me say first: I am not an AI expert. I work primarily in steps toward connecting different parties. It is therefore not up to me to assess whether something is realistic or feasible in terms of content. That is up to our experts. I do have ideas myself, of course, and I can indicate which different directions it could go. But my message is usually first and foremost: make a conscious choice and don't just let developments happen. Because then you will be too late.

Incidentally, whether an intended collaboration is feasible is a matter of not clinging too long and desperately to a potential partnership, but also not giving up too quickly. Above all, the needs must match. The reason for wanting to join an ecosystem like MindLabs may not always be the need for an AI solution or innovation track. For example, some parties are particularly looking for a network. Or for talent. I want to get this kind of information clear. So it's a matter of not making assumptions, and going into the discussions with an open mind.

So, if I understand correctly, business development for AI-related business is not very different from the same function in a completely different field?
Right, because from my role I don't have to come up with 'the solution'. Especially the entrepreneurship piece is the common thread. At MindLabs, you don't have to deal with standard processes; you don't have a specific product that you go on the market with. Whereas that is the case in many other places. That 'sells' differently, of course. And you have to be able to do that. You're really building and responding all day long.

And does the fact that MindLabs is an association affect your work?
Yes, it does make a difference. If we had been a commercial club, I would have pushed a lot more on creating our own offerings and hiring people. Having our own business training offerings could then be a base layer on a financial level, for example. Especially with a constituency like ours. But because making profit is not our goal, you have much more time and space to work on larger tasks. On matters that may not be commercially interesting, but that are important for the long-term success of an economy. A role that the market doesn't always (can't) take. It is great that MindLabs' founding fathers (Fontys, Tilburg University, ROC Tilburg, the municipality of Tilburg and the province of Noord-Brabant) see this and make it possible.

What exactly is it that drives you in your work?
Realizing connections for an organization with a social function. The mission-driven slant of MindLabs is really an essential part of my enthusiasm for this work. For an oil company - to name a few - I wouldn't want to do it. Where that motivation comes from? Before, I didn't have that social goal at all. I mainly wanted to be able to make my own money, and I was happy when my first company put a check mark behind that ambition. But my college friend - with whom I went "into diapers" - asked me at one point what I would have liked to do differently, looking back on my career up to that point. And then we actually both realized: we want to contribute more to social solutions. Meanwhile, I had had children, who will experience all kinds of things in the future, of course. These things, I want to anticipate them in time and do something with them. Even if I only make a very small contribution to the big picture.

You are experiencing the exciting world of AI quite intensively now. Would you be able to ground yourself in a field other than this in the future? Or will that be a crime?
Because my focus is so much on connecting and not so much on the technology itself, I actually don't necessarily feel like I'm very heavily involved in AI. When I'm in discussions with a healthcare party, for example, I feel like I'm dedicating myself above all to healthcare, and not specifically to the technology domain. In that sense, a switch would not necessarily lead to less exciting work, I think. However, I do find AI extremely interesting and I am now gaining all kinds of new knowledge. So I think - should I ever enter another field again - I see everything I learn now mainly as baggage that I will logically apply there as well.