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If there is one category of companies that are responsible for innovation in the Netherlands, it would have to be the start-ups. Innovation Origins is always looking for relevant innovations, therefore there is every reason to really capture the complete Dutch start-up ecosystem. Armed with the data sets of  StartupDelta, we visited all Dutch provinces. In 14 episodes, published between December 24, 2018, and January 7, 2019, we’re giving an overview of the start-up ecosystem in the Netherlands. The series has been made by the journalists of cooperation PitchProducties, commissioned by Innovation Origins. Today: Limburg. Read the other episodes of the series here (as far as already published).

“South Limburg, imagine living there”, it was said in the television campaign with which South Limburg tried to improve her image since 2008. The area was seen as a nice place for a short vacation at the time, but not for a glorious career. There was a lot of unemployment and Limburg was having trouble with the ageing of the population.

In the coalition agreement of the province of Limburg for the periods 2011-2015 en 2015-2019, a number of economical challenges were therefore identified. Besides reducing unemployment, the province set the goal of creating a favourable business climate for starting entrepreneurs. The television spot aroused sympathy for the region, but did the province of Limburg also succeed in creating a good ecosystem for start-ups?

The Central Statistical Office (CBS) analyzed the economy in Limburg in 2017 in collaboration with research organisation TNO, which showed that Limburg has developed economically fully in line with the rest of the Netherlands.  ING research even showed that Limburg climbed two spots on the national index.

A characteristic of Limburg was that it was, until recently, highly dependent on a number of large multinationals, as explained by a spokesman of the province. Many materials and products for other countries were produced in Limburg, which made the provincial economy cyclical. If the foreign countries were doing well, Limburg was very active, but when there was a reduction in demand for materials, people from Limburg lost their jobs.

That had to change and that’s why the province of Limburg decided to follow the example of Brainport Eindhoven in collaboration with the University of Maastricht and a number of large companies. Work was done on the so-called Brightlands campuses where knowledge-intensive jobs were developed, starting from the regional qualities.

Brightlands campuses

Limburg now has four Brightlands Campuses which can best be defined as a central place where knowledge is shared and innovation is central. There are over twenty thousand employees and each campus has its own central theme. The Chemelot campus in Sittard-Geleen, for example, focuses on chemistry, the Health Campus in Maastricht focuses on health innovation, the Greenport campus in Venlo is engaged in agricultural sustainability and the Smart Services campus in Heerlen is characterized by developments in the field of digitization.

Among others, start-ups settle on these campuses and they are crucial for the further development of the economy in Limburg. That’s why the “Brightlands Innovation Factory” started in 2016. Leon Klinkers, director of this initiative, says: “Brightlands is the collective name of the previously mentioned key strategic areas with which we want to excel in Limburg and become a big world player.”

Since the start in 2016, 3,000 start-ups have been researched and eventually, 84 of them were selected to follow an accelerator program within the Innovation Factory. The goal of this program is to turn these start-ups into full-fledged companies, named scale-ups. The guidance varies from facilitating housing to financing projects, and from helping set up laboratories to getting start-ups in touch with experts.

Explanation: In StartupDelta’s dataset, it is indicated that eleven start-ups are active in two “industries”. To portray the industry distribution best, the data has been adjusted by counting the start-ups to both categories.

The priorities of Brightlands are sustainability, health, digitization and nutrition. StartupDelta is keeping up with the Dutch start-ups and their data shows that start-ups from Limburg often focus on innovation in the field of health (no other province performs better in this respect, just look at the map that was published with our article on start-ups in Gelderland), sustainability and nutrition. It’s, therefore, no surprise that most start-ups settle around the Brightlands campuses.

Other initiatives

But what about start-ups that are focusing on other things than what Brightlands has to offer? To help these start-ups, Joyce Verheijden has started the “Inspiration House” in Maastricht. Along with her colleague Marlies Heeringa, she’s helping start-ups find their way to the market. They do that by asking start-ups in their initial phase critically what makes their enterprise unique. “You can only become a successful company if you have a clear view of what you are and what you do exactly”, says Verheijden.

health Limburg
Health-related start-ups in Limburg

Thereafter, the start-ups that can provide insight on their added value are supported in, for example, handling finances and legal matters. In addition, a monthly meeting is organized, where entrepreneurs come together and where it is central to learn from other start-ups.

This thought is also central at Startersvalley, another initiative from Maastricht that accompanies start-ups. “We facilitate young entrepreneurs by offering them workspace and by bringing them in contact with experts,” says Nando Ngundu, initiator of Startersvalley.

For him, the most important goal is to set up a community with the entrepreneurs. “We have one rule and that is that everyone has to invest 10% of his time into the community.” For example by giving presentations and inviting experts, so that everyone who’s affiliated can benefit from it.

Critical note

“People in the Netherlands are too often thinking in terms of mutual competition between provinces. The vision has to change to a national perspective.”

Despite Brightlands, the Inspiration House and Startersvalley working together under the name of Limburg Startup and, for example, organize activities, Ngundu and Verheijden still believe things could be better. They endorse that Brightlands has a positive impact on the development of Limburg, but also state that there is too much focus on the campuses and not on for example on SMEs.

“Brightlands is doing good things, but it is based on the existing infrastructure in Limburg, causing mainly large companies to profit”, says Ngundu. Verheijden agrees, and she believes that the SMEs have to be brought together from a central vision. “The Brightlands campuses can only function properly if the SMEs are well organized.”

Klinkers also sees room for improvement. He thinks that people in the Netherlands are too often thinking in terms of mutual competition between provinces. “The vision has to change to a national perspective.” He then compares it to Silicon Valley. There they have one total vision for the whole area. “Every region in the Netherlands has its own qualities and innovation power and I think we should recognize them and further develop from there.”

He does think that some matters in Limburg have substantially improved. Twenty years ago, he decided to move the key activities of his company to America, mainly due to economic reasons. At the time, he was convinced that more success could be achieved with an American headquarters. Nowadays, he wouldn’t make that decision anymore. “Today, I would confidently stay in Limburg.”

Main photo: DSM, Brightlands Geleen