Ask any foreigner for the absolute Dutch highlights and chances are high that he or she will mention quite a few from the province of South Holland. The port of Rotterdam, three top universities, the country’s administrative centre in The Hague, an art history to be envied and what not. And yet, it was precisely this region that, until a few years ago, did not perform very well. Growth was lagging behind, the province lacked the resources to stimulate the economy, unemployment was high, big parts of the industry were outdated, there was little interest from foreign companies and local entrepreneurs wanted to scale up outside the province.
When Rinke Zonneveld started in 2014 as director of InnovationQuarter, the Regional Development Agency for South Holland, he had the challenging task to change all this. Now, six years later, we look back and forward, together with the man who is still at the head of the organisation. What has changed with the arrival of InnovationQuarter? What has it meant for the local economy and how does it relate to the rest of the country?
The interview has only just started, and Rinke Zonneveld has already explained exactly how big the difference is between 2014 and 2020. Of all the foreign companies that opted for the Netherlands in 2014, 20% landed in South Holland at the time; in 2018 it raised to 31%. The province that consistently scored below the national average in terms of economic growth is now above that line. And when it comes to Venture Capital Deals, the province climbed from place 4 to place 1. “I may not be the most independent person for a comment on this, but anyone can see that our results are impressive. There’s a different dynamic now and everybody has noticed. Just look at last year: 56 foreign companies settled in South Holland, 2,800 new jobs were created, there were 33 investments from 3 funds and we started 43 new innovation programmes and projects. In those six years, we’ve really made a huge difference.”
Also on the ‘softer’ elements, the difference is big, says Zonneveld. “Thanks to InnovationQuarter, there is executing power and cooperation all the way. It used to be The Hague against Rotterdam, together against the province, everyone only looking after their own interest. Now, we have joined forces. No envy, no egoism. InnovationQuarter has been essential in that process. Everyone benefits from InnovationQuarter; we are the first product of better regional cooperation and also its most important catalyst”.
“We managed to get this region into a different gear”
No matter how young InnovationQuarter – which houses not only the Regional Development Agency (ROM) but also the secretariat of the Economic Board Zuid-Holland – is, other regions are now looking to South Holland to learn how the game works. “Soon Utrecht will also start with a ROM and I am proud to say that it will be set up according to our example. Of course, we are also constantly learning from others, but the time has passed when South Holland was looked at with pity. We have managed to get this region into a different gear. It’s not a real word, but it says exactly what I mean: we can’t be thought away anymore”.
From Brainport Development, an organisation with similar objectives, IQ learned about the power of collaboration between industry, knowledge institutes and governments. “But we still differ a lot from them. Most striking is that in Brainport Eindhoven there is real leadership from the business community. This has come about through regional involvement and intrinsic care for the environment. We haven’t gotten that far yet.”
But, according to Zonneveld, that’s not very strange either. “The scale in South Holland is many times larger than it is around Eindhoven. We are less monolithic, with all our clusters and ecosystems, and that makes our business a lot more complex. The temptation to pick everything up is immense, it sometimes feels like we’re working in a candy store here”. The growth that South Holland has experienced is mainly visible on the public side. “The public investments in Research & Development are also much higher than average in the Netherlands; private investments are much lower. In Brainport it’s exactly the other way around.”
The motto for InnovationQuarter is Innovate – Internationalize – Invest. “We forge a new type of collaborations, completely focused on ecosystems and cluster reinforcement. In this way, we can give full attention to promising themes such as smart industry and the maritime manufacturing industry”. The nine focus sectors are grouped into three clusters: sustainable & clean (energy and circular economy, mainly around the port), green & healthy (horticulture and life sciences) and smart & safe (around high-tech, digital and cybersecurity, aerospace and the maritime sector).
“I like to put my teeth into everything”
The biggest challenge for Zonneveld and his 90 colleagues is to keep all the balls in the air. “Of course, there are also themes we don’t pick up, such as photonics or nanotechnology. But I do like to put my teeth into everything. I sometimes say ‘Give us twice as many resources and you’ll get twice as much result’. Of course, that’s not quite the case, but I’m sure with ten extra people in my acquisition team I can add a factor of 0.8 to the result”. InnovationQuarter is now twice as big as originally planned. “And yet, there are still so many opportunities! Unfortunately, it can’t all be done at my pace.”
The latter is also caused by the continuous growth of the organisation. “We have grown very quickly, but of course there are limits to that. Culture is enormously important to us, I am convinced that it has determined a large part of our success. We are becoming more critical, smarter and more impactful. That’s how we create a sustainable strategic economic impact”. The flywheel is now running at full speed, taking advantage of the positive mode that InnovationQuarter has entered. “At the start, it may have been like a Hail Mary, but since we were able to show the first results, confidence started to grow around us. That gave us more room as an organisation, we got more tasks to perform, which in turn was good for our image. That’s how we were able to achieve the result that this province needed so much.”
Talking about culture: every week there is an IQ lunch, with external and internal speakers, once a year there is a self-organized big event where the partners of IQ can present themselves to about a thousand interested people, and at Christmas the big boss prepares a meal for the entire staff. “Well, now that there are 90 of us, it’s getting harder to know all the details of everybody’s job, but I’m confident that every one of us still feels part of that same green InnovationQuarter culture that existed when we were still half as big.”
When asked about the themes or sectors that really stand out, Zonneveld has a hard time making a choice. He is proud of the innovation programme SMITZH (the Regional Agenda for the Smart Industry), now with a budget of €15 million and several large companies as partners. He also mentions AI as a technology where his region has really taken the lead. And this is also the case for Cybersecurity. But above all, it is the port of Rotterdam that stands out, says Zonneveld. “The transformation of the port’s industrial complex has an urgency of national scale. Do we realise that enough in this country? It was once the largest port in the world, it is still the largest outside Asia. And now it has to become the most innovative and sustainable port in the world. We are helping to achieve that, even though we are not the biggest player and there are many dependencies, even globally. All in all, it’s a huge task, but it’s also a huge opportunity.”
And no matter how big the challenge of the port, Zonneveld also points out how much has already happened. “We have a special investment fund, the Rotterdam Port Fund, we have an accelerator PortXL, the SmartPort knowledge institute and several important smaller initiatives. For example, we have set up a field lab around 3D printing, where ship propellers for Damen Shipyards are currently being manufactured. We can be very proud of that.”
What else is on Rinke Zonneveld’s wish list? Where are the ambitions of InnovationQuarter for the coming years? “To be even better at what we are already doing. That means making sharper choices, for example by not necessarily inviting the complete lead list of foreign companies, but rather choosing the candidates with the greatest potential impact. Always keep the long term in mind, also for our short term decisions. And yes, there are some topics we can really improve on. Like what we do around Human Capital: balancing supply and demand on the labour market, improving the international talent acquisition, I find that exciting, especially in view of the geopolitical developments that will continue to affect us in the coming years.”
There’s still plenty of innovation and development to prepare for, says Zonneveld. “As soon as my tasks become too predictable, I will no longer be the right person for the job. But that won’t happen. This is my baby, I was literally the first employee here. No worries, my role has already changed a hundred times in the past six years. And it will continue to do so for some time to come.”