Pieter Bas Leezenberg points with enthusiasm at his telephone screen, which displays a map of the Lauwersmeerdijk, the levee that separates Lauwer Lake from the Waddenzee area of the North Sea between the Dutch provinces of Groningen and Leeuwarden. The map is sprinkled with yellow, red and green dots, which mark deformations in the levee over time. “Amazing, right?” Leezenberg says as he puts away his phone. He isn’t talking about the deformations, of course. He’s proud of the satellite images and software that make it possible to track precisely whether and where a levee is in need of repairs.
Using data from satellite images, Leezenberg is currently working to unleash a minor revolution in the world of infrastructure inspection. His company, Hansje Brinker, analyzes locations such as levees, dams, railroad tracks and buildings using satellite images, which he purchases from the European Space Agency and others. The data enables Leezenberg to see at an early stage whether wind, water or other forces of nature have caused deformations in the levees at those locations.
An Easier Life
“That helps us make life a whole lot easier for a whole lot of people,” Leezenberg says. He mentions the people working on the Diamond Valley Lake dam and reservoir in Southern California. The dam is 30 miles away from an active fault zone. “So that gets rattled around every so often,” he says. By studying the satellite data, Hansje Brinker can see whether any damage has occurred. “Before, people had to inspect it by hand.” He also describes the town of Diemen near Amsterdam, which is built on a peat bog and is sinking in several places. A man there works to keep Diemen’s sewer system running. “We can help him,” says Leezenberg. “We’ve determined where the sewer is sinking the quickest, and where he needs to make repairs. Before, he had to inspect and measure every inch of the system himself.”
Hansje Brinker is a spinoff from the Delft University of Technology. A professor and several students there had been working for some time on new opportunities that satellite images enabled. Leezenberg encountered the technology in an early stage of its development and was eager to invest in and commercialize it. “I saw an extremely promising technology; all it needed was someone to turn it into a product.”
A Silicon Valley Regular
At that time, Leezenberg was already a familiar face in Silicon Valley. He left the Netherlands for the US not long after completing his studies in economy and geology in 1989. After earning a doctorate at Stanford, he stayed to work at IBM’s Almaden Research Center, among other places. In 2002, he became actively involved with startups, working for a venture capital fund, where he helped to grow the companies the fund invested in. He also advised Dutch companies looking to make the step to Silicon Valley.
“During that time, I also made a few attempts to start my own company,” Leezenberg says. “I discovered then that it’s very easy to spend a very long time discussing what the company should look like. When I look back, I wish I’d had some help getting past that conceptual phase. There are several incubators in Silicon Valley now that help companies do that.” He’s well on his way with Hansje Brinker. The company employs 13 people and has roughly 80 clients in countries around the globe, including Jordan, South Africa and Vietnam. “Now I want to really take off, expand the company, grow the team.”
An American Hero
Will he move the company to the Netherlands? Leezenberg hasn’t considered it for a second. “There’s so much expertise here on growing and expanding a startup like Hansje Brinker.” Moreover, Leezenberg has thoroughly adopted “the American mindset,” he says. “For me, the glass is always half-full. And that’s all I see, everywhere around me. People here are always cheering each other on; Americans are very supportive.” And if you’re thinking that Hansje Brinker is far too Dutch a name for an American company, you’re in for a surprise. Brinker is the well-known hero of the classic American novel Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates. Looks like it’s time for a sequel: Hans Brinker, or the Satellite Monitor.