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Daan Kolkman: “It’s cool to see our MKB Datalab concept being rolled out nationwide”

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The ROBUST consortium will conduct ground-breaking research into artificial intelligence in collaboration with a wide range of partners. To ensure that the insights from this research benefit a variety of businesses -and not uniquely large businesses that can afford research investments- six new AI SME Clinics will be established across the Netherlands, following the model of the JADS MKB Datalab. A big boost for JADS MKB Datalab founder Daan Kolkman. 

What is an SME AI Clinic?

Daan Kolkman: “Basically it is a project office; a counter for SMEs to do AI projects with students that are affordable, flexible and add value. In a traditional collaboration between an organization and education, the focus is often on the learning process of the student. At an SME AI Clinic, an entrepreneur’s AI knowledge question is the focus. In principle, this is not a part of the educational curriculum: for a student, this is a part-time job. The concept originated within JADS as the JADS MKB Datalab and is now being rolled out nationwide within the ROBUST program.”

How do the SME AI Clinics fit into the ROBUST program?

“ROBUST is a huge research program in the field of AI, totalling €87.7 million. We as JADS MKB Datalab got into a conversation with Maarten de Rijke and Esther Smit from ICAI, who were looking for a way for ROBUST to involve SMEs. They wanted to make sure that not only the big corporates will benefit from the outcomes of AI research. You can see the SME Data Clinics as the branch of ROBUST in which we try to make the AI knowledge acquired within the ROBUST labs available to SMEs.”

Why was the choice made to roll out the JADS MKB Datalab concept nationwide?

“I think the success of the concept lies in three elements. First, that the learning process or question of the SME is the focus, not that of the student or researcher. Second, the way of working is flexible. When an entrepreneur comes to the table, we are able to say: you can start in two weeks. And not: in September we might have a spot for you. And finally, the cost and benefit for the SME are crystal clear. It is a clear proposition that an entrepreneur can say yes or no to. In this way, we take away some of the complexity that working with a knowledge institution entails.

This is also something we have had to learn. Entrepreneurs get inspired by the possibilities of AI and sometimes come to us with sky-high expectations. Sometimes you first have to ask: what kind of data do you actually have and what will this bring you? You sometimes end up somewhere completely different from where you started. That is also the challenge and fun of working within this concept.”

Is an SME AI Clinic the same as the JADS MKB Datalab?

“Initially, we said: We are going to copy the approach of the JADS MKB Datalab one on one at other universities. But when we started talking to those universities, we found out that a lot of initiatives are already happening there. It is not our intention to start something new if there is already something that works well. It is mainly about the concept and putting the entrepreneur at the center. So now we say: use all the documentation and processes we offer, but feel free to put your own spin on it. The ultimate goal is to reach those regional entrepreneurs and if that goes better under a regional name or approach, all the better.

The benefit of the collaboration lies also in learning from each other, and that goes both ways. We as JADS make our concept available, but at the same time we might also learn a lot from what is happening in Maastricht or Enschede. JADS mainly has a coordinating and facilitating role.

Is every SME AI Clinic linked to an educational institution?

“The SME data clinics are organized along the AI hubs of the Dutch AI Coalition (NL AIC). Regionally, the Clinics work together with knowledge institutions within the relevant region of their NL AIC hub. In Amsterdam, for example, you have the AI hub Amsterdam. There will be an SME AI Data Clinic that will initially be set up by the UvA, but also seeking collaboration with other knowledge institutions.”

Does the role of these knowledge institutions go beyond just supplying students for projects?

“What is funded from ROBUST is creating the infrastructure and setting up an organization so that you can do projects with students. The grant from ROBUST mainly provides a kickstart. The ambition is that the clinics will eventually be able to operate independently of this grant.

As for the link with education and research; at some locations the clinics link up with existing research programs. In other locations it is a bit more loose. What we see is if you work a lot with SMEs, it becomes easier to involve them in research consortia at a time when it becomes relevant to them. Think of it as a kind of preliminary stage or at least a kind of active community to involve SMEs in the university.”

Are the projects of the SME AI Clinics limited to AI only?

“In principle, yes, but it is mainly about engaging SMEs in the technology. The majority of SMEs are not yet involved with AI at all. So people may come in for AI, but many are not there yet and need to work with their data first. We help out with that too, so entrepreneurs can at least take a step in the right direction.”

Are you proud that this concept is now being rolled out nationwide?

“It’s definitely very cool to see. Almost 5 years ago, Ruud Sneep and I started the JADS MKB Datalab. A lot of people were involved back then who believed in the concept and made this success possible; within JADS but also at the municipality of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Province of North Brabant, the BIM, VNO NCW, the Rabobank and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate. I do see it as the crowning glory of our work as JADS SME Datalab, but without these organizations we would not have been able to do this. Nor without the entrepreneurs who, especially in the beginning, ventured to do this with us, and who brought along other entrepreneurs. So this success has many fathers. But it sure is cool to see it scaled up like this now.”

Locations of the new SME AI Clinics

  1. AI Hub Zuid-Holland – Rotterdam
  2. AI Hub Technology for the people – Amsterdam
  3. AI Hub East Netherlands – Enschede
  4. AI Hub Brainport – Eindhoven
  5. AI Hub Midden Nederland – Utrecht
  6. AI Hub Brightlands – Maastricht

More information

For more information about ROBUST, check our ROBUST page

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