For September’s Portrait, we visited the creator of the ‘intelligent scalpel’, Doctor David Oliva Uribe, in his EIT Digital offices near Arts-Loi in Brussels, where he shared his passion for collaborative research and international cooperation between academia and industry to forge a strong digital Europe.
Name: David Oliva Uribe
Profession: Head of the Industrial Doctoral School – EIT Digital
“Trump’s protectionist policies help me to encourage Latin America to look more towards Europe as the best partner.”
Could you tell us a little about your journey and how you came to be in Brussels?
I’m 44 years old. I was born in Mexico City in 1975, but I’m a Belgian national now. I became a Belgian national in 2016. I went down the path where you show that you have more than five years working here. In addition, although it wasn’t necessary, I had several references from University rectors through my job – my scientific work, but also the work I have done to promote Belgian universities abroad. I help to enhance international cooperation between universities.
I came to Europe in 2005. I was interested in coming because at the time, in Mexico, I was working for one of the most important private universities, the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM) and I was involved in education and research. But I was not able to lead my own research because I didn’t have a PhD. Also, Mexico at that time was not really able to carry out research with an impact on society or industry. So, I was very interested to know how the European model works.
I decided to go to Germany where I started my journey in Europe. It was very funny because I didn’t start out doing a PhD. I got a job working in a research centre. I was helping to manage the centre, with a team leader role, but not really working on my PhD. Basically, when I started looking to go there, I talked to the research centre directors and professors, and I said, I’m not only interested in doing a PhD, I’m also interested in how universities and industries can work together and innovate. So I was in Germany when I got that opportunity.
I learned quite a lot there about how German universities really have strong links with industry. I was the leader of a research team working on projects for Airbus, Siemens, Bosch and Volkswagen – very varied, really big as well as small companies. This helped me to understand the various collaborative possibilities.
It was there that I got the chance to be involved in applying for funding from the European Commission for FP7, the framework programme, and it became clear how important it was also to collaborate with the rest of Europe, because for every project you need three countries at least to work together.
Then the time came for me to know more about the European Union and I got the chance to come to Brussels in 2010 for summer training with a professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels (VUB).
What were your first impressions of Brussels?
It was very interesting because people don’t necessarily imagine the things going on at Brussels’s universities. They may not be highly ranked although they are doing their best to improve, but they have real jewels in research: very highly renowned scientific researchers. The professor who ran this training course I went on is number two in the world for the research he does in modelling for non-linear systems, which you can apply everywhere. Finding the number two in the world in Brussels!
I spent one month here in the summer of 2010 and got to know the VUB and I found not only him but several professors who are really in the top echelons of research. You could say, I fell in love with the VUB – how they work, how they really want to promote collaboration and how they are very inclusive. It opened my eyes to Brussels as a very international city, a very friendly city, very open. For example, when you compare it to Paris – Paris is very international too but you still see it’s very closed and selfish. And Brussels is more open. Even just the different social days, for example on Thursday in Place Luxembourg or you can go to Chatelain. You can find people working in industry, working in the European Parliament or the Commission, and everybody can hang out with everybody. Nobody will be really ‘posh’ and say, ‘I will not talk to you!’. They really give you a smile, ask what you’re doing, you might find out they’re an MEP. You feel it’s a very friendly city.
By chance, the professor who was giving the training, was very interested in the research I’d started in Germany. While making things for industry was important, I had wanted to do something with a real impact for society and I had found a German neurosurgeon, Doctor Ralf Stroop, looking for a solution for local hospitals to better operate on brain tumours. He asked if I could develop something with him and we started working together. The prototypes were working very well, but very slowly. They were accurate but they took a very long time. So, I took this summer training to gain the knowledge and skills to make it really fast.
I presented this to the VUB professor, Johan Schoukens, and he told me, ‘I will give you a job here if you want to collaborate with me.’ For me, it was a nice opportunity to be in Brussels, to be with the number two in the world, and to continue my European path.
I decided to take the job. He gave me other responsibilities, such as the academic coordination of summer training. We receive PhD students from all over the world, and 17 countries in Europe. This has equipped me with great insight into European environments.
Around that time, I started a strong collaboration with the Mexican Embassy in Brussels and their mission to the EU, because they asked me to start creating professional networks for Mexicans living in Europe. So I created the first one in Germany, then one in Belgium, and I helped to structure the Mexican network in Europe which now has 17 associations in 16 different countries.
The main idea is to enhance collaboration between European countries and Mexican institutions and people. Previously Mexico’s focus had been the United States. But many things have happened to change that. First of all, we sent a strong message that Europe and the EU is a very good partner to work with. Education in Europe is stronger, richer, more inclusive. And this has changed the way Mexico views collaboration. 15 years ago, 90% of Mexican scholarships to go abroad were to the United States. Now, 65% of scholars want to come to Europe or are in Europe. So we changed that completely.
When you say Europe is stronger, richer, in terms of education, how does that fit with the impression people have of, for example, MIT in the States, their big name universities and all the private money that goes into those institutions? There’s a narrative that says that sort of approach drives innovation and research in a way that doesn’t happen here. But you think that Europe has a stronger academic offer than America?
Europe has a stronger academic scene and a completely different perspective on innovation, which is the social impact side of things. This is totally different from the vision of the United States. The US has a stronger, economy driven model of innovation. Money is the most important thing there, multiplication of investment. Creating value, economic value. But it’s not always thought-through: what are we placing into the market?
In Europe, on the other hand, there is a strong commitment to saying, ‘What we invest as public funds, plus what we win from private investors, drives innovation and yes, will generate economic benefits, but the tangible outputs are things that are good for society. Products that will improve health, improve the quality of life, that will give you a safer job.’ And when you look at these, the financial side has not been the aim. Of course, we have a gap, which we need to rebalance. We need to generate more successful companies. But still, we don’t need to change that social impact mission.
Through this collaboration with Mexico, I had more and more contact and attended events at the EU, so I really observed a lot of what’s happening in Brussels. At the time when I got my first offer of work with a European organisation, I had become a Belgian national and I was invited to work with the European University Association, the EUA. It’s the biggest university lobbying effort in the world. They gather universities in all European countries. They had on the association’s board the rectors conference of 30 countries, so it’s really global.
At the EUA, I was in charge of the Council for Doctoral Education, where I had contacts with 230 universities in 30 countries in Europe – not only the EU – so I became involved with policies and how we develop better opportunities for researchers. This has given me a great perspective to understand institutions, to understand what they do. But at the same time, I’ve never stopped collaborating with Mexico. That’s how and why I started bringing more and more ideas to Mexico and Latin America, from Brussels: how to do things that will promote development but with social impact. This is what Brussels can bring and I have been a big promoter of Brussels in Latin America. With Brussels you can reach every single part of Europe – you cannot imagine! I have meetings with the Helsinki office who are just downstairs. Through those windows there (pointing) you have the Association of Norwegian Universities. If I want to reach Russian universities, they have an office near Place Luxembourg. So, every single place in Europe can be reached in Brussels.
It’s a city where you can achieve your personal goals too. I lived a wonderful life here as a single person. I got married here with a German and we have a daughter and she was born in Brussels, raised here, educated here and we are very happy here. You can combine a good quality of life while still being in the most interesting and active region where you discuss the future of European development.
Those are very positive comments about Brussels. How would you compare those experiences with Germany or indeed, Mexico City? Would you draw any comparisons?
It’s different. I was in Hanover in Germany. Many German cities are still not really international. German companies see ‘internationalisation’ in terms of ‘how can we place things into foreign markets’, not ‘how do we integrate these things into our environment?’. In Belgium, in Brussels, it’s the latter. There, in Germany, you can see, everybody really pictures you as a foreigner. Here, the definition of ‘foreigner’ is gone. Actually, sometimes you feel that it’s the Belgians who feel foreign sometimes in Brussels! That’s the difference.
I joined EIT Digital. There are certain external organisations that depend on the European Commission called European Union Bodies. EIT is one of them, the European Institute for Innovation and Technology. The headquarters are in Budapest, and EIT has a mission to boost innovation in Europe. They are divided into different Knowledge Innovation Communities (KICs) and one of them is EIT Digital, which is in charge of the digital transformation of Europe. There is also EIT Climate, EIT Energy.
EIT Digital decided to put the headquarters in Brussels but we have offices in 17 different cities, including one in Silicon Valley. I joined EIT Digital last year to be the Head of the Industrial Doctoral School, so for me it’s a really dream job. In fact, every job I’ve ever had has been a dream job for me. But why do I enjoy this job? Because first we are talking about bringing innovation to Europe in the domain of digital transformation – where we are not the world leaders yet, and we have everything it takes to become the strongest. And for me, now I feel I’m really working for Europe and for Brussels.
Secondly, I have the opportunity both to promote programmes that will see companies and universities working together, and to communicate with young talent and tell them: doing research is something not only university-based, but also collaborative which gives you the opportunity to boost your career, to have a better position in your professional life and to develop solutions that will have an impact on society.
One of the things that is really a problem in Europe, is the fight for talent. Talent management is a huge topic. Talent retention. For example, Nordic countries have ideal places to work but nobody wants to go there. So they have even placed offices in Brussels to understand how to become more attractive. And we can retain talent if we show them the value of European companies.
So our mission in the industrial doctorates is to shape new talents, to shape new professionals for Europe who believe in European companies. We also have international companies with a great commitment to Europe, although we put emphasis on European ones. They can create and nurture their own companies, and we can provide them with the best ecosystem for innovation. We can connect them to all the programmes we are working on with the Commission’s vision. It just so happened with the change of Presidency, that the new Commissioner for Innovation and Youth, (Mariya Gabriel), was the Commissioner for Digital and this has helped to infuse digital research and education into all other agendas like climate and societal inclusion.
So we really want to expand the way we work: bring in more universities, more industries working together and inspiring young talent to believe that we can achieve a very powerful digital transformation. We already have around 120 participants in the Industrial Doctorate, but we’ll expand it to 300 – where we provide part of the scholarship funding and a complete international training in innovation and entrepreneurship. Actually, I would add that part of the training we provide, can take part here in Brussels so students can grasp how, through understanding Brussels and the EU, they can also reach many things.
Can you talk a little more about your own research work and give us an example of how research in the digital technology and biotech space can really have an impact on people’s lives?
Basically, where digital technologies can help is to do more complex tasks, because now we have the capacity to do it with artificial intelligence, numerical methods and powerful computers that can allow us to obtain better results. This has been, for instance, my focus with the ‘intelligent scalpel’ I designed: to develop technology that is accessible for all hospitals, that can be very precise and safe, and allows the surgeon to take the decisions, because he or she should take the decision. Human decision-making is really relevant for health. You should never take out the human approach from health and well-being.
With Doctor Stroop we aim to make an instrument that a surgeon will use to evaluate areas of the brain where he knows there is a tumour. The instrument will very thoroughly analyse the tissue being touched and confirm the surgeon’s judgement. Just through touch, the instrument starts making micro-vibrations using more than 4000 frequencies simultaneously. It’s like spectrum photography of how the tissue is vibrating. We analyse how the tissue vibrates and we extract complex models to decide if the tissue being touched is healthy or tumorous.
This requires material science as we decide on intelligent materials but these materials are only intelligent alongside digital technologies. We need to process a lot of information and calculations very quickly. Before, in Germany, we could do this in one minute per point, which is way too long! Waiting one minute for each bit of tissue analysis would mean the surgery would take ten days. Now, after working in Brussels with Professor Schoukens, we’ve managed to complete that task in 400 milliseconds per point. So really, you can just touch the tissue and see the result straightaway.
We are in the final phase of human trials and we hope to take it to market in a couple of years. But our aim is not really thinking about money, rather offering a solution that can be placed everywhere. That’s part of what I appreciate being here in Brussels, where many people here have that commitment. We believe that bringing things to society is the goal and as we come from different societies, so we try to ensure that the solutions match needs in different places.
Do you ever feel homesick for Mexico? Do you get the chance to go back?
In the past, before EIT I used to go back five times a year because I had a lot of projects but now EIT absorbs most of my time and my travels are more European. I try to go three times a year. But I don’t feel homesick because now, my family is here. My wife, my daughter. We really feel like une famille bruxelloise. So, Brussels is part of us.
If you were Mayor of one of the Communes, is there anything you would change, if you were in charge?
This is related to your first question. Why am I not homesick in Brussels? Because Brussels is like a small Mexico City. It is charming and chaotic. The only difference is that Mexico City is 30 times bigger because it has 30 million people, but still they are very similar. Very beautiful areas. Very dangerous areas. Chaotic. The traffic. Excellent transportation. Bad planning for street works.
You can get hysterical in Brussels but at the end of the day you don’t want to leave because Brussels offers many things. I think what makes Brussels beautiful is the people. The combined international community really makes Brussels very warm for everybody. You feel it in the schools and your kids. My daughter, for example, who is a Belgian but she comes from ‘foreign blood’ – if she were in a school where she was the only foreigner, as could happen in Germany, she would feel maybe a little bit isolated. But here, almost everybody comes from parents with different origins. Children who were born here have parents who speak different languages and different cultures. But they’re integrated and they generate tolerance since they are growing and being educated alongside others.
What I don’t like, and I think many of us complain about on social media, is the bad planning of street works. I think there are many issues. Security and sometimes the work of the police is not so effective. The streets are not properly prepared for cycling; they were just adapted and it’s interesting that they simply put a line down the traffic lane, but actually there is no room for both! I think the street planning is very bad. I would really change the signage and I think they should move to more one-way traffic, because there are such narrow streets.
Brussels is chaotic in that sense. My wife remarked that even in Mexico City, the traffic works. There are fewer accidents in percentage terms than Brussels. The formula is like this: in Germany, mostly everybody follows the rules, so you know what to expect. In Mexico, actually there are no rules, so you still know what to expect. But in Brussels, half the people follow the rules and the others don’t, so you never know what to expect. I think they could do something with civil education because we come from so many different places that people are not used to the same rules. You don’t know what is about to happen in front of you, so there is always a crash.
Do you have any anecdotes about experiencing Belgian surrealism?
I live in Ixelles and they took a year to repair the Chaussée d’Ixelles and exactly one day after re-opening it, they closed it again to fix something they had forgotten!
The other thing is, why on earth do children have so many holidays when we as workers only have 20 days? They have a lot of holidays. It’s not easy. They have the whole of July and August and then every two months they have another week. It’s impossible. Even if you had 40 holiday days you would never keep up with them.
Do you have any favourite places to frequent in Brussels?
We love to go to Volle Gas restaurant, in front of Ixelles commune. It’s one of my favourites. There is also the Fin de Siècle, which is an excellent restaurant towards Saint-Gery from the Bourse. Very nice, Belgian-style food. They only have the menu on a board, so you have to choose from there. After about 7pm, there’s a queue of people, but it’s nice because as you get closer to the bar you can ask for a drink. And usually when you’ve stopped eating, you have to go, to make room.
We also like to go to the Cinquantenaire Park and Bois de la Cambre. We live very close to the ULB and we are only one street away from Bois de la Cambre, so that’s our back garden.
Another thing I find wonderful in Brussels is the nightlife and all the festivals. So in summertime, even September, you find a lot of things to do. I’ve been several times to the Brussels Summer Festival, and all the local events, like the Fiesta Latina and when they open the beach at the canal.
And of course the beer. And the Christmas Market. Even though I’ve been to quite a few German Christmas Markets, I find the Brussels one really nice. It’s really, really nice. It’s a good one. I think it competes with the German ones. And what I like the most is that they open after Christmas, whereas the German ones close on the 23rd.
You mentioned Belgian food. What’s your favourite Belgian specialty?
Carbonnade. And mussels.
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Let’s hear it for brown food! #RecipeOfTheDay is Carbonnade à la Flamande, a gorgeous beef and beer stew from Belgium. Photograph by Lis Parsons And to get the recipe, proceed as follows: tap on my name, which will take you to a page that has a link on it that says www.nigella.com/instagram. When you click on this link, it will take you to a page of photographs: click on the photograph of the recipe in question! #nigella #carbonnadealaflamande #carbonnadeflamande #brownfood
Do you have a personal wish linked to Brussels?
There is the route, the Comic Strip Walk, which I would like to do because I love comics. I only know two of the murals on the walk. And I’ve never been to the Comic Book Museum or to the Magritte Museum.
Just on a different note finally, because I think it would be remiss not to ask you: do you have any remarks about Trump and his policies?
I think it’s curious because of course it’s a bad position, but in terms of me as a Mexican Belgian, his protectionist policies help me to encourage Latin America to look more towards Europe. In terms of the wall (the one he wants Mexicans to pay for!), what he has actually done is place a wall between Latin American and US collaboration. For me this was an interesting moment, because I was then able to really strengthen my message. I also collaborate with other Latin American countries, with Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Argentina – I help them to find strategic alliances. When they were faced with Trump stopping every means to collaborate, it was a perfect time for me to introduce the message: Europe is your partner.