From a voice-controlled electronic ‘assistant’ to an anti-rape bracelet, the finale of the Philips Innovation Awards (Phia) was an eye-popping experience. Five start-ups fought for the main 50,000 euro prize last Thursday evening. What was on show? And which “innovative” idea was the winner?

On entering Rotterdamse Schouwburg, hired for the tenth Phia awards, a blue carpet led you to a room full of smartly-dressed students zealously exchanging business cards with serious businessmen. Networking, enjoying a free beer (or two) and then applauding five very new enterprises; not a bad evening for students with corporate ambitions. That’s what Phia’s about: giving students or recent graduates a helping hand with their start-up.

Not that this helping hand is easily won. Only five remained of the 150 teams that registered; all the others had fallen in the preliminary heats. And the pressure was really on this year as the cash prize has never been higher. At the first awards, the winner received 5,000 euro, this year, they’ve added a big fat extra zero. That’s possibly why so many international start-ups participated this year from various corners of the world (although they didn’t make the final).

Buzzwords: innovation, inspiration, sustainability

Before the pitches, former Prime Minister Balkenende gave an opening speech littered with buzzwords such as ‘inspiration’ and ‘innovation’. Neelie Kroes (introduced by host Han Leenhouts as ‘power lady’) continued with a speech on the value of start-ups. She suggested for example that coding should be a part of the curriculum: “We don’t need to go to Silicon Valley, but we do need to become more ambitious and bold.” She ended her motivational speech with a short message: “You can do it!” Then the jury members, including top managers from Philips, ABN Amro and KPMG, made themselves comfortable in Chesterfield armchairs on the stage. Ready to be blown away.

Student entrepreneurship: 5 variations

The start-ups were as different as day and night, with the following ideas being presented:

•    Homey – A spherical home assistant you can talk to, to control all wireless home equipment. This product achieved 203,918 euro on Kickstarter.

•    Pearltect– A bracelet that uses smell (skunk-effect) to deter attackers/rapists and DNA dye marking that’s activated when the wearer opens the bracelet.

•    Smart Blocks– White blocks that architects can use to construct model buildings. The blocks are powered by light.

•    Blue Battery– Storing electricity in a vat with water and table salt. Plus points for a truly strong presentation that the audience absolutely loved (and a bit of a roasting of Homey: “Homey, turn on the battery. Nothing works”).

•    Printr– 3D printing made very easy with an accessible control system.


Pearltect wins Philips Innovation Awards

Although Blue Battery and Homey were popular, Pearltect was the ultimate winner of the Philips Innovation Awards. Pearltect comprises a team of four people, the initiator, Roel van der Kamp, being a former Erasmus student. The jury liked the fact that there were three women on his team and rewarded Pearltect for the ‘diversity of the team’. Strange. They didn’t make this comment about the Blue Battery team, in which young men from Surinam, Italy, The Netherlands and China worked together. Although not gender diverse, they were certainly diverse in terms of ethnicity. But both teams were in any event a welcome surprise.

Combatting sexual violence

The main reason why Pearltect won both the jury as well as the audience award is its social impact – its pledge to combat sexual violence gives hope. If you’re curious as to whether the strong smell will actually deter attackers, Roel van der Kamp is confident that you’ll be able to order your own self-defence bracelet by the end of 2015. NB