“My passion is working on challenges together with others. I’m most passionate about teamwork— particularly multidisciplinary teamwork.
When people with diverse expertise come together, all speaking different languages, it isn’t easy to understand each other. Yet as everyone begins communicating and learning from each other, you figure out how to put complex puzzles together. Gathering diverse perspectives and expertise around the table produces incredible energy, results, and innovations.”
His multidisciplinary approach to teamwork, coupled with the agility of imec, has allowed Chris Van Hoof, an imec fellow and manager, a unique, hybrid career path that has led to many innovations and spin-offs during his 33 years at imec.
Evolving with imec
“Imec has reinvented itself many times over the years,” Chris said, “And while technology is of course still a primary focus of imec, the organization has evolved into using technology, deploying it, and benefiting from it.”
“Many of us are engineers at heart, and that means never losing track of the goal of a project. We’ll do everything to reach the goal, and that’s great, that’s an imec strength,” Chris said. “However, we often get surprising new insights along the way, deploy them in totally different fields, and those tracks become way more successful than the initial goal we set out to reach. That agility to see fresh opportunities, and act on them, is a strength that I’ve seen at imec, benefited from, and hopefully contributed to myself.”
While some researchers find success by pushing innovation and disruptions in one domain as it evolves, Chris is an example of finding success by broadening into different domains. His career spans materials to device research, cameras to systems, health to algorithms and analytics, and most recently into agrifoods via OnePlanet Research Center. “I think imec provides the freedom to move in different fields. As imec CEO Luc Van den hove says, ‘find something you want to do and then make sure you can be in the top three worldwide.’”
Diverse achievements under one common goal
With career highlights as diverse as his career itself, what drives Chris is creating technology disruptions that will improve the world.
During the early stages in his career, he and his team embarked on an enormous research collaboration that sent complex pieces of mature and robust imec hardware into space via satellites and a rocket. The research, which focused on far-infrared imaging and spectroscopy, produced thousands of scientific papers and established notable credibility for imec. Even though it wasn’t a consumer business, the effects of imec’s innovations were highly visible. “Those who used the technology acknowledged that the trajectory towards launch was not straightforward and that overcoming the many battles and stressors along the way could only have been achieved at imec. I’m still proud of the team and that we pulled that off.”
Similarly, years later, he led a team that created components for a customer in the health domain, that made it through the FDA approval process. “We helped develop a technology that ended up helping millions of people. I feel pride when the technology that I am involved with makes a difference. Whether it’s small volume and high added-value or mass-market, these types of projects give me energy. It’s not innovation for the sake of innovation. It’s innovation for the sake of changing a part of the world once it’s adopted.”
Chris’ work in the health domain has also led to several imec spin-offs. "It means a lot to me to have contributed to fostering and helping people grow, excel, and start ventures that make a difference in the world.”
A legacy of empowerment
“I think the most important role I have, is giving people the trust and room to tackle something they are passionate about. I love seeing people take initiative and go for it. I tell my teams, ‘don’t ask permission, ask for forgiveness later and know that I’ll have your back.’ In nearly all cases, giving such trust enables outstanding achievements because people give their all. The difference that imec makes in the world happens through our talent. I’ve found that the more room you give to people to let their ideas grow, the better the results.” Chris says he learned this through an endless list of people that gave him credit and along the way.
His first boss boldly told him, “go find your own money to get yourself paid.” Chris explains that though some may interpret such a statement as negative or even harsh, he viewed it as trust—a credit to create his own career through his research. Another leader who gave him such trust was imec founder, Roger Van Overstraeten, who was on his masters and Ph.D. jury. Chris said that to have someone with such stature, credibility, and worldwide recognition, extend him trust to conduct high-risk research was impactful. “And I have been fortunate to have gotten this trust from many of my line managers along the way. I believe the positive energy and sense of responsibility that this type of trust generates is what leads to success. It’s always about people. I’ve had very different bosses that prioritized very different things: people management, finance, strategy, sales and marketing, research. That’s how you learn. With each new leader, you learn to tackle something new.”
Advice for up and comers
- Use and contribute to other teams. “Consider everyone on a first-name basis, and you don’t hit a glass ceiling when you try to talk to people. Every person can talk to any level to discuss ideas, all the way up to the CEO. Use the unique connectivity to rely on other teams and contribute to them.”
- Don’t come with small ideas. Dream big. “Set your bar high, because that works much better than taking incremental steps. Go for a big jump, with guts and passion.”
- Take on responsibility—don’t wait for someone to give it to you. “Don’t wait for a promotion, because responsibility and leadership are not about that. Just take on the responsibility, and the rest will follow. If you are a natural leader, you will be a leader at every level. Don’t wait for someone to tell you that you may be ready for something because then you might wait forever.”
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5 February 2021