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How do you survive the onslaught of the largest and most prestigious technology fair in the world as a start-up that is less than three years old? Unveiled Amsterdam is preparing 70 Dutch scale- and start-ups for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) being held early next year in Las Vegas. Seventeen of those companies are from the Brainport region.

It is the sixth time that a Dutch delegation of tech scale-ups and start-ups is travelling to Las Vegas. Today, the companies are presenting themselves to the general public at the CES Unveiled Amsterdam, one of the six pre-show events for the CES in Las Vegas. Initiator of the CES missions Willem Drost sees it as “a warm-up for the Dutch delegation. And the moment when all the PR campaigns should start.”

‘Bloody shame’

Drost spent thirty years working in the United States, thirteen of which were in Sillicon Valley, and has been attending CES for years. He found it strange that he never saw Dutch tech start-ups at the trade fair. “When you attend that conference as a Chinese person, you tend to think that all the tech in Europe is concentrated in France, who were always there with hundreds of stands. I found it really a bloody shame that the Netherlands wasn’t present there.”

According to Drost, Dutch tech start-ups are faced with two problems: Financing and internationalisation. “The Netherlands is often too small a market for a lot of technology. So, you have to start thinking at an early stage how you are going to enter the international market. That’s when the CES can be the deciding factor.”

Drost made a tour of the country in 2016 and in no time found 84 interested start-ups for a mission to CES. “Then I went to the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs (EZK) for funding. At first, they didn’t respond, but eventually, in cooperation with EZK, I decided to turn it into an economic mission.” Under that banner, together with Prince Constantijn and Minister Henk Kamp, 63 start-ups headed to Las Vegas for the first time in 2017.

Eureka Park

For start-ups, presenting themselves at the CES is a huge challenge. Strict rules apply in order to be allowed to appear at Eureka Park – “the breeding ground of the CES of the future.” Start-ups must not be older than three years, for one thing, and their product is not allowed to have been on the market for longer than six months. Moreover, a trip to the United States and accommodation is also quite expensive. On the other hand, there is a world stage where all the major technology companies are present.

In other words, these are very young start-ups. Solid preparation is essential. That starts with the careful selection of the right start-ups. Drost: “We look carefully at which teams have the right drive and knowledge to do well on such a major endeavour. This year, just under one hundred companies applied, of which seventy were selected.”

Coaching, coaching, coaching

Next, the coaching period begins. Unveiled organises a series of workshops in groups, e.g., growth hacking, investor readiness, pitch training. Also, all participants get individual coaching. Drost takes care of that. “Coaching, coaching, coaching. It is the only decent preparation. I have in-depth conversations with the start-ups: ‘How do they want to go about it? What do they want to learn?'”

The start-ups have to be prepared for rejection. Drost tries to teach them to keep on asking: ‘What needs to change in order to be able to deliver a product that is attractive?’

Humility is an obstacle

“For instance, we had an IoT (Internet of Things) start-up. I heard afterwards that Microsoft visited them and thought they were too young. So, I then asked Microsoft to come back and they had another chat. I kept on asking. Eight months later, the company was certified on the Microsoft Azur Cloud.”

Drost sees Dutch humility as the main obstacle. “In the Netherlands, we only start believing in our technology when half the world has validated it. While Americans just say: ‘We are the best.’ However Dutch that may be, at CES they have to set that humility aside. I really need to hammer that into them.”

Consumer Electronics Show

The technology trade fair was organised for the first time in 1967 and 54 editions later it has grown into the largest technology trade fair in the world. According to Drost, this is partly because there is not just room for giants such as Microsoft and Apple, but also for young, new companies.

“Eureka Park is an indispensable part of CES. Technology is cheap nowadays. For the development of a revolutionary algorithm, you only need a computer and someone with a good set of brains.” Drost knows from experience that there is a huge amount of interest from the big companies in scale-ups and start-ups.   

“Through organising the CES missions, we want to inspire not only the participants but also other start-ups and show the government again and again: Dutch tech start-ups matter.”

Meanwhile, the Netherlands pavilion at CES is one of the four biggest. Drost: “In January seventy young Dutch companies will be in Las Vegas proudly proclaiming that they are the best. I can hardly wait.”