Zeeland is not the first province you think of when it comes to innovation. All the more reason for Innovation Origins to adjust that image. In six episodes we show a cross-section of Zeeland’s organizations that give innovation a face.

The story of Dockwize is filled with contradictions. They are about small vs big, fragmented vs collaborating, about pride vs doubt and about keeping inside vs letting go. It always comes down to these questions: how can you convince the big outside world of the innovative quality of the small but diverse province of Zeeland? How can you combine the efforts of all the islands? When is your performance high enough to speak of a success? And should we be happy with the start-ups that leave the Zeeland nest to take their next steps outside the province, or is it important to keep them inside?

Dockwize, Matthijs Lugtenburg, © IO

These are considerable dilemmas that director Matthijs Lugtenburg and his team at Dockwize face every day. In order to get his incubator ever at the top of Google’s searches (“now, unfortunately, we can’t be found there yet”), he is working hard to further professionalize both his own team and the entire Zeeland innovation ecosystem. As far as the former is concerned, the ten people in his organisation will soon be on Dockwize’s payroll, marking the end of a 9-year period in which Dockwize had to operate as a project. And what about that innovation climate? Dockwize has already demonstrably played an important role in this: dozens of companies have successfully outflowed, more than 100 start-ups have been accommodated, 300 companies have gone through one of the innovation and growth programmes and more than a thousand students have been supported in one way or another in their first steps towards entrepreneurship.

Director Lugtenburg indeed has reason enough for pride. On the outskirts of Vlissingen, in the old buildings of the Provincial Zeeland Energy Company PZEM, he explains how he sees the role of Dockwize. Lugtenberg is a realist (“It’s not Amsterdam or Eindhoven here”), but that doesn’t stop him from being ambitious. “There are plenty of talents in the province, but they need a little help.” This is mainly about entrepreneurship, he says. “And about raising our profile. If we only had a little bit of the self-esteem that you see everywhere in Brabant, we would be much more visible”.

Coordinating innovation

There are also advantages to a small scale. Whereas in the Randstad and Brabant many different organizations are needed for a combination of functions, in Zeeland they are all bundled together at Dockwize. Students, start-ups, individual innovators, larger companies and even complete industries can go there for programmes, housing, matching events, financing and knowledge: Dockwize coordinates innovation in Zeeland. “It’s building and executing at the same time here. We are the director of connections”, says Lugtenburg, the born Vlissinger who landed at the Zeeland incubator after studying in Brabant and a career as a marketer in the energy industry. “It is important that there is a connector that offers the shortest route to the right connections, knowledge and possibilities. One that creates a breeding ground for ideas, a place where you can make a successful start, where education and business come together, where innovative entrepreneurship is stimulated and where companies are prepared for the future. For all these reasons we not only offer programs for students and start-ups, but also for experienced entrepreneurs. We provide housing so that they can grow in the best conditions, as well as providing the moments when the right networks can meet”.

“It’s building and executing at the same time here. We are the director of connections”

Lugtenburg has a good example of this: “The other day we got a question from a start-up from the food industry. We offered this team a room in which also an ICT start-up was located – we were sure that this combination would bring a solution for both. We weren’t disappointed, in this case even three solutions appeared! That shows how important we are as a connector.”

Dockwize, © IO

Lugtenburg knows that he needs more time before Dockwize will be mentioned in the same breath as YES!delft or Brainport Eindhoven. “Our strength is our reliability. Our programme methods are unique as far as Breda and Rotterdam, I dare say. But in order to get that into the heads of the relevant people inside and outside the province, we will first have to have everything in order in Zeeland itself”. What does that mean for the coming period? “Focus on our strengths and effective communication,” Lugtenburg says resolutely, “both in methods and programmes as well as more thematically. Water & energy will remain important, as will industry & maintenance. We will tackle the biobased and circularity sector together with West-Brabant. And then there’s agrifood, which is a sector that we also see emerging in Zeeland.”

Focus also means that not everyone is welcome. “We are looking for start-ups and innovators who are technical, creative and innovative. Their product or service has to be scalable and you have to want to work together here, otherwise, it doesn’t make sense anyway”. But all this doesn’t exclude that a cake baker and a lawyer also make use of Dockwize’s housing services. “They are also part of our innovative ecosystem, both on their own and as service providers for the rest.”

“It is essential for Zeeland to have an attractive working environment and to build a sustainable economy.”

For the start-ups that have been able to take the first successful steps, there is help towards financing. Lugtenburg: “That starts with vouchers worth up to around €5,000, but it goes further than that: we help to obtain loans of up to €100,000 and there is even an option to actually participate in certain start-ups. Think of amounts up to over a million.”

All this is done in close consultation with the existing Zeeland business community, local and provincial authorities and educational institutions. Dockwize’s funding is 50% public and 50% private. The board of the foundation reflects this. Board member Evelien de Visser, HR manager at Yara, emphasizes the importance of an initiative like Dockwize: “Innovation is essential for Zeeland if we want to have an attractive working environment and to achieve a sustainable economy. Dockwize gives people the opportunity to turn innovative ideas into start-ups”. Mr Alex de Fauw, Director of Customer Support at Rabobank, also sees that this is desperately needed: “Every euro invested in innovation generates double the economic growth. Dockwize shows start-ups and scale-ups how they can set up a business model for this”.

There is plenty of support within the province. But there are also connections that reach across provincial and even national borders, says Lugtenburg. He shows a drawing with just about all Dutch and Flemish innovation clusters and economic boards. “We are actively seeking connections with this network of incubators and other hubs that focus on innovation and entrepreneurship. From our own experience, we now know that it is possible to exchange knowledge with practically anyone, as long as you realise that this can never be a one-to-one translation. We will always have to look at local conditions and look for translations that do justice to the characteristics of Zeeland.”

Read also: startups in Zeeland – it’s definitely not quiet.

Dockwize, © IO