This interview took place on December 15, 2020.
Techleap plays a crucial role in the Dutch startup and scale-up ecosystem. Can you tell us a little more about the organization?
Techleap is 100% government-funded. We work to connect and professionalize the tech-ecosystem and reduce barriers in terms of capital, markets, talent and technologies. Our goal is to produce more rapid growers who can make an important contribution to the development of the Dutch economy and society.
You have been appointed Special Envoy at Techleap. It sounds nice, but can you explain what your role entails, exactly? And what makes your work fun?
As Envoy, I tell the story of the Dutch startup and scale-up ecosystem. I make connections and help determine the organization’s strategy. In short, I keep the project on track. Internally, I am also involved on an operational level.
The great part of my job is working in an optimistic, positive world. The startups and scale-ups we work with focus on opportunities and possibilities. It is tremendously stimulating, and I really get to flex my creative muscles.
It is clear that you play a key role in the Dutch startup ecosystem, and that you have been part of it for a long time. What developments have you seen in this area in recent years?
We have made progress on all fronts, to be honest. The least progress was made in terms of diversity. The least progress was made in terms of diversity. The proportion of highly educated, white men is still very high. Apart from that, there is more capital and we are more attractive for talent. There is also much more attention for entrepreneurship, for example in universities. In short, tech is really breaking through, as reflected in the AEX index [stock exchange with the largest Dutch shares], for example, which now includes companies such as Adyen and Takeaway and, of course, more mature companies like ASML. The more traditional companies are struggling to transform in a rapidly changing world, while the scale-ups are far more flexible.
There’s always room for improvement, of course. What are the biggest barriers currently delaying the achievement of your objectives?
The biggest threshold is us. The subdued, moderate Dutch culture does not produce the greatest dreamers. For entrepreneurship, it is critical that you are encouraged to follow your dreams. We also often denigrate ourselves; “The Netherlands is only a small country.” However, we must remember that we are four times as big as Greater Los Angeles and twice the size of as Silicon Valley. I think we often disparage and fragment ourselves too much, and there’s no need for that.
It would also be good if more and more easily accessible capital was available. Sweden, for example, only has half as many startups as the Netherlands, but twice the capital. The capital there is available through large, relatively easily accessible funds. As a result, despite the lower number of startups, Sweden is producing more successful growers.
Lastly, I am concerned about the accessibility of the Netherlands for top talent from abroad. The debate in society is changing, while it is crucial for a successful tech-ecosystem that we attract and retain the greatest talents in the Netherlands.
There are several hubs throughout the Netherlands that support startups. Some are regional; others, such as the Water Campus, are sector-specific. How do we avoid competing with each other? More importantly, how can we ensure the right collaboration between Techleap and the startup hubs and between the hubs themselves to have an even bigger impact?
There’s nothing wrong with competition. Competition is what creates the best and strongest hubs and support facilities to emerge. In my opinion, it becomes a problem if a region tries to prevent a startup from leaving, despite the fact that the organization could flourish better elsewhere. An example of this is regional development companies financing an organization under the condition that the organization remains in a specific region. That could limit growth. I also think we sometimes put too much focus on national borders, whereas I see a lot of opportunity in connecting with hubs abroad, such as Stockholm.
I am literally surrounded by brilliant colleagues at and around the Water Campus. Brilliant researchers making truly groundbreaking discoveries. Discoveries that often have the potential to form the basis of a successful new company. The missing link is often entrepreneurs— entrepreneurs willing to launch a startup together with researchers— which inhibits knowledge valorisation from research. Do you recognize this? And what do you think is the right approach to tackle these challenges?
Designing a successful hub does not happen on its own. So yes, I definitely recognize this. A culture that rewards entrepreneurship is essential. It should be about more than the number of publications or the citation index. Don’t get me wrong, this is very important in science, but it is also very important to stimulate entrepreneurship among researchers. Fortunately, we are seeing that more and more.
The ecosystem around Wageningen is a good example. Wageningen University has been the authority in the field of nutrition for decades— really world-class. Nevertheless, it does not automatically result in a huge startup community around that knowledge. It requires more than just excellent knowledge. It’s about not shutting yourself off; there has to be a mix of companies, investors and related knowledge. In the case of Wageningen University, it requires more than excellent knowledge in the field of nutrition. The ecosystem needs to be opened up, and non-researchers must also be given space. By this I mean talent in commerce and sales, for example. Wageningen has been focusing on this for some time now, with initiatives such as StartLife, and there is definitely a community forming.
A university will often form the base of a successful hub as there is already some level of infrastructure available, for talent, for example. This is different in the case of the WaterCampus. I find it incredible how you have connected at a European level and are receiving international recognition for it. That worked out really well. It’s good that you are focused on water technology, but do make sure you stay broad enough. Unlike other hubs, you have no university, so that must be organized, by hosting events, for example. Make sure the right people meet each other. An alternative could be to establish certain departments from the university on the campus in Leeuwarden. An inspiring example of this is the Cybersecurity hub in Beer Sheva (Israel), where a hugely successful hub has been established in the middle of nowhere. In any case, it is essential to admit talent from other places into the ecosystem, because the key to success always lies in multidisciplinarity.
Over the past year, many of our water technology startups and scale-ups have won important innovation and business awards— companies such as Acquaint, CE-Line and SusPhos. The highlight was, of course, Hydraloop at the CES in Las Vegas which you also attended. Nevertheless, innovation and the successful launch of a water tech company is highly complex. It often requires large investments, margins are relatively low and many customers are risk-averse. It seems much harder to launch a company in the water sector than in IT, for example. As a relative outsider, how do you see this?
Water is not unique. It can be hard to launch a successful startup in many sectors with a relatively long time-to-market and high technical complexity, but it’s certainly not impossible. The entrepreneur’s creativity is also key to their success. The money is not in the technology but in the application. Make sure you are flexible and can change strategy quickly, and have the capacity to test the new strategy quickly. 3D Carbon is a good example. The company has a highly flexible business model that involves more than just selling 3D printers. They lease their printers, you can assemble your own polymers with an app, they earn money on prototypes, make their own products, etc. In short, they are fully focused on the application and monetize everything. As a result, the company has grown massively in just a few years. When we organized Startup Fest in the Netherlands in 2016, we initially focused on the strengths of the Netherlands. Agriculture, food, health, energy and water. What struck me then is the limited number of fast-growing companies in many of these areas, including water. A lot of valuable knowledge is held by public bodies and is often given away through international projects. There is little focus on economic growth and maximizing profit. In terms of knowledge, we are world leaders, but we give a lot of it away for free. Steps have been taken in the right direction in recent years, but there are still many challenges and opportunities. It’s great to see that you are also working on this at the WaterCampus!
Interested to learn more about entrepreneurship at WaterCampus?
Please contact Ronald Wielinga our manager entrepreneurship via +31 6 121 38 876 or Ronald Wielinga.
Constantijn van Oranje leads Techleap.nl, the accelerator for the tech ecosystem in the Netherlands. As Special Envoy, he is on a mission to make the Netherlands the home of tomorrow’s tech leaders. He and his team connect the Dutch tech ecosystem to help ambitious and promising Dutch tech companies achieve rapid international growth by improving their access to capital, markets, talent and technologies.
Van Oranje co-founded StartupFest Europe, which is still the biggest startup event ever organized in The Netherlands. He used to be Chief of Staff of VP Neelie Kroes at the European Commission in charge of the Digital Agenda and led the Brussels office of the RAND Corporation.
He is currently also Director Digital Technology & Macro Strategy at Macro Advisory Partners in London and New York and Edge Fellow at Deloitte Centre for the Edge. In addition to innovation and technology,
Van Oranje is passionate about art, music, photography and nature.