All posts by Natalie Schuster

Cultivating a Startup Culture

Changing the game with incubators and the game changers mindset

Although the United States is known as the land of capitalism, I know that if I started a business today, it would undoubtedly fail. This is not due to my lack of business expertise, entrepreneurial experience, or connections, but the lack of infrastructure and resources for those ordinary citizens like myself who have an idea and want to make it a reality. Ideas originating with the common people are called bottom-up initiatives and have the potential to infiltrate the market dominated by larger, top-down corporations. This opens competition within the market, forces other companies to innovate to stay as the top competitor, and encourages smaller companies to pursue their business because they actually stand a chance against larger companies. So, is there a place that exists, where a small startup is given the resources to take on a large established company? Yes! Throughout Europe and larger cities within the United States there are places called incubators holding the resources startup companies need in order to network, create prototypes, collaborate, and basically get the starter pack to getting their company off the ground.

Source: Erin Danford Photography
Here is the Makerversity Workshop at Amsterdam Smart City where entrepreneurs and citizens can access resources such as 3D printers to produce prototypes. Rapid, in-house prototyping reduces production costs and allows for faster product evolution.

On our travels throughout Germany and the Netherlands, we visited many of these startup locations each with their own perks. Werkfabriek, stationed in The Hague, Netherlands, houses an eclectic assortment of businesses ranging from window washing to career advising to technology consulting. Even though the content of each of these companies is quite different, the companies are still able to collaborate, learn from each other’s experiences, and build their social capital. Amsterdam Smart City is a platform connecting citizen led initiatives and startups with resources such as established companies, the government, and workspaces. Unlike other startup incubators, Amsterdam Smart City does not require an established company to work there which helps bring ideas from ordinary citizens to the forefront. With this approach, many of the traditional barriers citizens face when starting a business are avoided which expands the wealth of available ideas and solutions. The High-Tech Campus in Eindhoven, Netherlands is the “smartest square km in Europe” housing over 150 established companies, research institutes, and high-tech startups. The Campus offers easy access to high tech facilities and a global network of partners such as Philips, NXP, IBM, and Intel. The High-Tech Campus hopes to bring the influence, knowledge, and R&D divisions of established companies to fuel the success of smaller startups in the areas of Heath, Energy, and Smart environments. The CleanTech Innovation Center and Business Park in Berlin, Germany work in tandem to first develop cleantech startups and later transition them to the CleanTech Business Park where the established cleantech companies are housed. Small startups in the Innovation Center benefit from the mentoring program, strong networking with global partners, and an exchange program all run in connection to the Business Park. Each of these campuses provide the necessary resources startups need to flourish in their developmental stages. Without these resources, many smaller companies would never accelerate and bring their idea to the market.

Here is an award winning home produced by students at the Delft University of Technology in the Green Village. The Green Village is an innovation site where new sustainable and innovative technologies can be tested in real life environments. Students combine the game changers mindset with their passion for technology, innovation, and the environment to invent the technologies tested here.

While it is vital to have these incubators available, it is often overlooked how important it is to have people who actually want to participate in them. Building an entrepreneurial society begins with its students and the way they are taught. A more interactive teaching style fosters a new “game changers” mindset and is the first step to creating the next generation of entrepreneurs. We experienced this teaching style, some for the first time, at Fontys University of Applied Sciences in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Here, lecture is much more interactive, focusing much of class time on actually applying the concepts instead of pure lecture (revolutionary!). The “learning by doing” method teaches students that success and failure go hand in hand; by using lessons learned from their failures to produce successes, students learn that failure is all part of the process and should not be viewed in a negative light. Developing intelligent, problem solving minds through this teaching method curates the “game changers” mindset. A game changer combines innovation, technology, and problem solving to produce intelligent solutions to real world problems. Additionally, students with this mindset are more confident in their ideas and actually pursue new and creative initiatives.

So, why does all of this matter? Teaching the game changers mindset, developing more student-run initiatives, and providing more incubator spaces will propel the United States into the future. My generation is the next set of movers and shakers who need the chance and resources to do what the world needs next. Our visit to The Green Village at the Delft University of Technology is a prime example of the game changers mindset and student led initiatives at work. Here we saw many new student-made technologies such as an autonomous shuttle, an award winning renovated house, a hyperloop, and new window technology that can capture sunlight without solar panels. Seeing these technologies and the capabilities of the students first hand was very inspiring. At UNC, I learn about projects other people are doing, but I don’t feel that I have the tools to pursue my own ideas. Beyond simply the inception of an idea, people in Europe then have the proper and necessary resources to curate their idea into a functioning startup. These are the different kinds of incubators as mentioned before that can focus on social, technological, or any other kind of solutions. Each startup space creates a collaborative, helpful, diverse, and useful environment for every company involved. The interaction between companies can be beneficial by providing fresh perspectives to solve problems, advising companies on problems tackled in the past, and using communal spaces to meet new people and make networking connections. These spaces also offer startups a low monthly rent to ensure they can continue developing their company in a productive space without breaking the bank. If we were to bring these kinds of incubators to the United States we would have much greater diversity in ideas and more competition between big and small companies. Combining these different aspects together will plant an entrepreneurial seed in students early on, provide the resources to make ideas into realities, and make the United States one of the top innovators in the world.

-Natalie Schuster

The Hague: Importance of Integration

Travels in the Hague and why integration matters

The day began with a recap of the past week in The Hague to solidify the concepts we had encountered throughout the week. Our first day in The Hague was centered around a tour of Parliament; this sparked a conversation on the differences between the United States and Netherlands government and which government is a better democracy. The Netherlands has a multiparty system which encourages coalitions, compromise, and diversity with a “marketplace of ideas”, a king born into power who serves as a figure head, and greater voter power as citizens vote for parties and ideas, not people. The United States has a dual-party system that promotes polarization, a president elected by the people, and a system that forces voters to elect one candidate to represent their views. A government is meant to be for the people, so the opinions of the people should be valued. In the Netherlands, citizen opinion is not filed away as it is in America, but is instead the driver of policy. A system that values my opinion in this way definitely has my attention and respect.

On our second day, we visited Quartier Laak, a company founded to improve the social-economic strength of Laak, a neighborhood of The Hague, through bottom-up initiatives. These initiatives include Werk Fabrique, a startup incubator, a school converted to an urban garden, a local park planned with ideas from locals, and Middin, a community center for the mentally disabled. A theme throughout this day was integration and connection between people; by providing activities and spaces such as urban gardens, parks, and community centers, people interact more and communities become more diverse and cohesive. In the United States, President Trump’s racist rhetoric ostracizes immigrants and rejects diversity creating an atmosphere that requires immigrants to assimilate to American culture rather than appreciate their own. Quartier Laak and other social entrepreneurship initiatives are the future for creating social wealth and well-being in the United States.

Our third day, we visited the Urban Farmers company and Ampyx Power, a wind energy company who harvests energy using a plane. At Ampyx Power, we saw the backbone of a startup and heard their struggles and successes with developing their planes throughout the past ten years. Our visit showed us how important it is to be passionate about your product, and that if you have an idea you should pursue it! I have never felt so encouraged to pursue my passions than here; this might be because I am on this specialized trip, the numerous incubators throughout the city make it easy for startups to thrive, or maybe people just want to inspire us. The Urban Farmers site is a renovated building with a massive green roof garden and hydroponic system. Green house urban farming reduces transportation costs, grows food right where it is needed, and uses empty spaces such as rooftops efficiently. On the other hand, to maximize efficiency and space, vertical farming might be the solution. Both forms of farming can be profitable, but rooftop gardening provides many social attributes while vertical farming maximizes efficiency and space.

On the fourth day, we visited The Hague University and NEN, a standardization company. At the University, we saw the energy and money saving renovations such as solar panels, a new heating and cooling system, and passive lighting that had been implemented during the buildings construction. NEN is a company that makes standards, or an agreement made between parties. Standards can be made for anything from emissions to bolt sizes to transportation cards such as the ones in The Hague. These transport cards, OV Cards, can be used on all transportation and all throughout the Netherlands which makes public transportation that much more accessible and user friendly. Unlike the Netherlands, the United States has numerous transportation companies all competing against each other, attempting to sell their system as the best. Instead of selling a system for a particular company, one master system should be standardized across all public transportation so companies can focus their efforts in other areas such as hospitality and service. This would eliminate the initial barrier/annoyance of figuring out how to purchase the appropriate ticket in the first place. Then, there would be no need for all these extraneous companies and they could pursue a new business similar to the ideas of the German Mittelstand.

For the following three days, we biked all over the Netherlands. Our biking tour showed us that proper bike infrastructure allows for safe and easy travel from village to village, making a car obsolete for short rides. In the Netherlands, there are dedicated bike lanes on all roads, bike paths that connect the inner city and peripheral suburbs, biking highways separated from cars, and even narrow car lanes to make more space for bikes and mopeds. This infrastructure was only possible due to the idea of a virtuous cycle; as more infrastructure is put into place, more people will bike on it, and then the cycle continues.

In the coming days, we visited the United States Embassy, Amsterdam, the HTM-public transport in Haag Centraal, and Priva, a company specializing in green house technology. The United States Embassy was under construction and we learned of the efficient technologies being installed; while the embassy has a few cool features like reflective white tiles on the roof to keep heat out, the majority of their technologies were pretty standard throughout Europe. This goes to show that American architects and designers are still behind on integrating new and efficient technologies into all their work. In Amsterdam, we visited Smart City Amsterdam, an incubator connecting people to resources and bigger businesses. This visit reinforced the importance of using communal spaces to make connections with others; without these spaces, many citizen projects and ideas would go unnoticed. HTM-Public Transport of The Hague showed us the importance of using a single integrated and robust system for transportation to make public transport easier to use and navigate. In terms of urban development, HTM is also looking into ways to reduce the number of cars in the city, expand the public transportation and cycling infrastructures, and find solutions such as car sharing, park and ride, and first and last mile to ensure people have efficient transportation to their final destination. Priva is a company specializing in the technology and software used to run a greenhouse farm. With their software, a farmer can create optimal conditions for their produce, increasing efficiency, quality, and yield. Priva does not currently offer specialized settings for each farmer’s produce, but leaves those decisions to the farmer; in the future, there could be a collusion between the precision in vertical farming and the greenhouse style to create optimal produce.

After our recap meeting, we visited the Mauritshuis Museum where we saw famous paintings such as Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer and The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt. I particularly enjoyed watching the progression of Rembrandt’s paintings throughout the museum with works ranging from those with large, bold brush strokes to the intricate detail found in The Anatomy Lesson. After visiting the Mauritshuis, we explored the Grand Thailand Festival right across the street from the museum. Thailand’s embassy organized a two-day celebration of Thai culture with tons of food vendors, craft stalls, massage parlors, and live Thai music and dancing. My friend, Charlie, and I began our food adventure with Som Tum (green papaya salad) and Thai beef skewers to be followed by Thai beef noodle soup. The salad was crunchy with a spicy-sweet dressing, the beef skewers were caramelized and unctuous, and the fragrant noodle soup coated each noodle in flavorful broth. We then ventured to another part of the city where we stumbled upon a Latin/Caribbean craft and dance festival with a Bob Marley cover band. These cultural festivals are common in the Netherlands, especially in the summer when a different festival is hosted each weekend. The Hague prioritizes culture, visibility, inclusivity, and diversity amongst its people. Through these events, the people of The Hague have greater interaction and connection with those around them and more events within their community to take part in. From a diversity perspective, these cultural festivals demystify unfamiliar cultures, provide the opportunity to witness and experiences new ones, and provide an area for minority populations to be included with the rest of the community. Creating spaces and events like those from The Hague in the United States would bring populations together to create a more productive and cohesive community.

Two bowls of fresh Thai Beef Noodle soup topped with dried chillies, fresh lime, and chopped cilantro.
Noodles are dunked in a vat of Beef Noodle broth that has been simmering for 24 hours.
Som tam, or green papaya salad, is a staple amongst the Thai. Pounded in a traditional wooden mortar and pestle, unripe green papaya, carrots, palm sugar, chilies, and fish sauce come together to make this sweet and spicy salad.
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer uses the style ‘tronie’- a painting of an imaginary figure – to depict a woman in exotic dress with a large pearl earring.
A vendor at the Grand Thai Festival makes Pad Thai, a classic Thai street food.
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt is one of his most famous works painted for the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons depicting a practical anatomy lesson in the surgical theater.
Apelles schildert Campaspe by Willem van Haecht is a technical masterpiece with Italian, Flemish, and German works of art.

Our time in The Hague has shown us the importance of integration between people, cities, infrastructures, and government. All of these cogs must mesh together to form a productive, efficient, and overall smart city. I am excited to bring the lessons we have learned in Europe back to the United States, and to put these changes into action.

-Natalie Schuster

Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems: Current Research and Special Projects

A review of the Fraunhofer ISE research and special projects

The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE is the largest solar energy research institute in Europe with subsidiaries and branches reaching all over the world. Fraunhofer ISE uses application-oriented research to develop energy efficient and environmentally friendly technologies covering their five main research areas: photovoltaics, solar-thermal, building energy, hydrogen, and energy systems. In the last year, Fraunhofer ISE earned an 81.1 million Euro budget funded heavily through government grants and industry investment; this budget allows the minds at Fraunhofer to pursue groundbreaking research driving industry and competition forward.

Photovoltaics, or solar panels, produced by Fraunhofer ISE are just one of the areas in high demand from the institute. Over the years, their research has yielded products with increased efficiency, a better price to performance ratio, and overall greater stability of the final product. With changes to their silicon crystallization process and reduced thickness of their solar cell, Fraunhofer has been able to increase their cell efficiency, reduce their material use and cost per solar panel. This work known as the Laser Fired Contact Project earned the Fraunhofer Institute the prestigious Joseph von Frauberg 2016 Prize and to this day the production of 20 million of these panels. Their research with photovoltaics expands beyond the solar cell itself; the module, or casing for the cell containing the mechanics of the panel, also requires attention. Fraunhofer ISE has taken special measures to develop modules adaptable to specific areas and climates to limit module degradation and integrity. Finally, panels are subjected to a rigorous yield assessment, module accreditation, system testing, and performance verification to ensure each product meets the quality and efficacy standards affiliated with this institute.

Rooftop solar panels at the Fraunhofer Institute that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

Solar Thermal Technology is increasingly in high demand as homes and businesses work to combine their water and heating systems as well as harness the ability to store extra energy gained throughout the day. Research into the materials used for this technology, thermal collection and storage, and the innovative use of thermal membrane distillation for water treatment are a few of the technologies being developed by the Fraunhofer ISE.

By 2022, a directive states that all buildings must be zero energy, or produce as much energy as it uses. This directive alone has created a greater need to revolutionize the building structure including the building envelope, heating and cooling systems, thermal storage, and lighting. Through capturing and storing the heat generated by windows in the building envelope, buildings could produce a portion of their energy and save money by installing fewer rooftop solar panels. The Fraunhofer ISE currently heats their buildings through heat reclamation systems and their windows; the cooling process passes warm air through cold concrete pipes before the air enters the building. There is a large market for thermal storage today as much of the energy gained throughout the day is later lost or cannot be stored for long amounts of time in large enough quantities. By improving storage technology, businesses will more reasonably be expected to meet this energy directive.

The Fraunhofer ISE has a special relationship with the many universities in the area allowing researchers to teach their specialty at the university while also conducting research at Fraunhofer. Students have the unique opportunity to take these classes and conduct research alongside professionals. This apprenticeship program and others like it allow students to gain relevant and professional experience and a potential job in the future. Numerous faculty at Fraunhofer ISE take part in this program connecting industry with university to provide students with an in-depth look at the real world.

Students patiently await our meeting with Dr. Bruno Burger and Dr. Anne Kovach-Hebling of the Fraunhofer Institute to learn about revolutionary renewable technologies.

Aside from conducting cutting edge research on tomorrow’s technology, specialized projects such as documenting energy production also take place at the Fraunhofer ISE. Dr. Bruno Burger demonstrated his work with an impressive and comprehensive data collection website ( that updates hourly to provide real time results on energy production in Germany. This website features everything from daily production from all energy sources to energy exports and imports to country energy comparisons. Fraunhofer ISE is doing some impressive things; whether it be researching the technology of the future or educating the next generation of brilliant minds, the Fraunhofer Institute will surely be at the forefront of innovation and a leader in revolutionary technology.

-Natalie Schuster