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A promising marriage between Siemens and Leiden spin-off Culgi

Siemens recently took over the Leiden software company Culgi, founded by professor and inventor J.G.E.M. (Hans) Fraaije. We spoke to him about the algorithm that made him successful, the role of a university in our society and his ambitions at Siemens. ‘I was looking for Siemens, and they were looking for me.’

Hans Fraaije's smile rarely fades during the video interview. He talks enthusiastically about his extraordinary career, which always seems to hover between the academic world and the high-tech industry. ‘And because of the takeover, I am starting a whole new career now,’ says Fraaije. ‘Fantastic, a dream that comes true!’ 

‘A proper algorithm doesn't break down, so you don't have to do anything to it’

An indestructible algorithm

It all started 30 years ago, when Fraaije invented an algorithm for mixing paint. ‘With this algorithm, one can predict whether a new paint recipe will actually work.’ Fraaije's algorithm is still being sold in its original form. ‘That is the beauty of algorithms: if you come up with a good one, it can last an incredibly long time. It doesn't break down, you don't have to do anything to it,’ he laughs.

Hans Fraaije

Predicting chemical processes

‘I founded Culgi in 1999. In the meantime, my algorithm has developed into a comprehensive software package that can be used for all sorts of complicated chemical processes. From the original application in paint we have expanded into many more applications, such as plastics, oil recovery, drug delivery systems, cold wash detergents, toothpaste, glues and so on. Really very diverse. One could say: applications from everyday life.’

The software works as follows: before you make chemicals or materials, you can model the production process on the computer. Fraaije: 'This allows you to reflect on whether you are making the right choices, since the software predicts whether the process will run smoothly. You can put all kinds of chemical processes into it, from the production of plastics to the synthesis of medicines. It is much easier to put the computer to work looking at new possibilities than it would be to do it by hand. It also saves money and gives you a much better understanding of how a particular chemical process works. This insight can then be used to develop new products.’ 

The birth of computational chemistry

Computational chemistry, Fraaije's specialist field, did not yet exist when he founded Culgi. ‘Nowadays, every chemical company has a team to simulate chemical reactions and processes on the computer.’ So Fraaije was early with his software, an indication of his sense of entrepreneurship. And he has not been sitting idle since. ‘I know the high-tech computational chemistry industry inside out. I know what is happening in Silicon Valley, in London, and I even had an office in Beijing for a while. It's tremendously exciting to be at the forefront of the high-tech industry.’  

‘By far the best thing about being a professor is the interaction with young people’

The scientist 

In addition to being an entrepreneur, Fraaije is also an academic. After obtaining a PhD in colloid chemistry in Wageningen in the mid-1980s, he went to work in Groningen. After founding Culgi, he got the opportunity to become a professor at the Leiden Institute of Chemistry (LIC). ‘By far the best thing about being a professor is the interaction with young people. They are often idealistic, and sometimes demanding. That youthful energy around you is just a gift...I do miss it. What I also really enjoy is coming up with new algorithms, no matter what they are for.’

The role of the university

Because of his vast experience, Fraaije has a clear idea about the role of science in society. ‘I think that as a university, you should not work too much on applications. Companies are already proficient in this and, moreover, they have much more data and techniques at their disposal than universities. Fundamental research is a better fit for universities. What's more, fundamental research is extremely important, also for the industry.’

The head office of Siemens Netherlands (© Hans Oostrum)

Artificial intelligence

Fraaije also has a clear vision on artificial intelligence (AI). ‘AI has two sides: the purely technical side (hard) and the human side (soft). The soft side is much more important. It sounds crazy, but optimizing a neural network for a technical process is not rocket science, although not all my colleagues will agree. It is much more difficult to investigate the human aspects of AI, as in fields such as law, linguistics, psychology, pedagogy, philosophy, and sociology.’ 

‘Developments in AI are going so fast. What does this mean to us? The bottleneck is how we as humans deal with that technology,’ he continues. ‘If I ask someone at the gym, for example, what he or she thinks of AI, he or she will probably be worried and wonder what will happen to us. We should take this step, from technology to society, here in Leiden,’ says Fraaije. 

‘More money is needed for AI, really a lot. Especially for the soft side’

A robot judge

For example, how can you use AI to interpret legal texts? What role could AI play in healthcare or education? Fraaije: ‘I think we all horror at the thought of an AI judge, an AI doctor or an AI teacher. But could we have prevented the Dutch benefit scandal with AI? Artificial intelligence raises many practical and especially ethical issues. That is why it is important that we now have the university-wide AI program SAILS. More money is needed for AI. Really a lot. And especially for the soft side. Write that down,’ he laughs.

Although Fraaije enjoys his professorship, the entrepreneurial blood runs through his veins. ‘I think the nice thing about the high-tech industry is that the developments there go much faster than in the academic world. It would be great to bring both worlds together. I could help students and staff at the University to start an enterprise in AI.’

Investments to grow

Fraaije continues by explaining why he accepted Siemens’ offer. ‘With Culgi, everyone is working very hard to keep all customers happy and to develop new products. But above all, you need investments to really grow. In the Netherlands, investments are much harder to come by, as it is no California or England.’

Encounter with Siemens

The encounter with Siemens was no coincidence, Fraaije tells. ‘A befriended consultant from the UK, Gerhard Goldbeck, introduced us during a European network meeting. Without knowing it, Siemens and I were looking for each other. When I then spoke to Jan Leuridan (Senior Vice-President Siemens Digital Industries Software), we immediately knew that we could strengthen each other.’ 

It turned out Siemens’ division Digital Industries Software was looking for new opportunities to grow further in the process industry, in the framework of Digital Twin: to mimic, follow and predict reality by computer simulations. ‘Most people know Siemens from their washing machines, but the division Siemens Digital Industries Software is the second largest software company in Europe after SAP. They only deliver to companies, that is why most people don't know the digital branch, which employs more than 70,000 people!’ Siemens now also wants to enter the chemical market, Fraaije explains. ‘They were looking for software companies with an expertise in this field and we were looking for investments. One plus one is three, in this case.’

Hermen Overkleeft

Crowning achievement

Fraaije remains professor at LIC, but will be taking unpaid leave for a while. Hermen Overkleeft, Scientific Director of LIC, is pleased with the takeover: 'It is of course a very nice step for Hans, really a crowning achievement. However, it is also very good news for our institute and Leiden University. Hans has always had an eye for both the academic and the practical side of computational chemistry. His knowledge in this field is broad and at the same time profound, with a particular eye for computational tools - software packages, as they are called - that do not yet exist. And this applies to the entire field of chemistry, whether it concerns the development of polymers or medicines. I am therefore pleased that Hans is staying at the University so that, now from the perspective of a major international player such as Siemens, he can continue to advise us and help direct our education and research. Especially now that developments such as AI and machine learning are taking off; also in Leiden and also in our academic chemistry work.’

‘Dream come true’

Culgi is now incorporated into Siemens Digital Industries Software, where Fraaije's position is Chief Science Advisor. ‘It is my job to sell chemistry within Siemens. I think it is great, because at Siemens we are really on the edge of science. There are so many possibilities, almost infinite. It's almost like science fiction, it's a dream come true for me. Oh, and before I forget: we have several vacancies.’

Text: Bryce Benda
Header image: videoplasty.com (edited version)

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