Prins Constantijn. Beeld: Techleap
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Constantijn van Oranje-Nassau, special envoy for Techleap, is passionately committed to a better start-up ecosystem in the Netherlands. One thing he knows for sure is that if the Netherlands wants to progress, entrepreneurship has to take a much more prominent place at the negotiating table.

About a year ago, you were interviewed by my colleague Erzsó Alföldy. At the time, as far as Covid-19 is concerned to start-ups your message was: ‘Assume that things will not get any better this year.’ We are one year on – and it is still not okay. What is your message now?

“There’s really not much of a message anymore when it comes to Covid. For specific industries, such as the events sector, it’s a different story, but for the innovation and technology sector it’s really primarily a case of: Accelerate. Responding to the opportunities that are now presenting themselves, because there are tremendous transitions underway, such as the food, digital and energy transitions.”

Is that also the vibe you are sensing among start-ups?

“Yes, definitely. Of course there are start-ups that are struggling, but overall the mood is pretty good. There was a lot of money out there this year; three times as much venture capital as last year. As cynical as this may sound, the crisis is a huge opportunity for a lot of companies.”

The policy surrounding R&D has not yet been fleshed out in detail in the new coalition agreement. Do you see that as a missed opportunity, or rather as a challenge?

“The latter. I think you have to make policy together with the people it concerns, you can’t do it all at the negotiation table. But, I do think it’s rather short-term oriented. For example, it doesn’t say much about where the earning potential should come from. And it doesn’t say much either about the whole valorization process of start-ups and scale-ups in concrete terms. So, it seems like we have to make do with the tools that are already here.”

“Fortunately, there is plenty of potential for us to do it more effectively and better. In the end, money is not the only solution either; more public money is not always a good thing by a long shot. There are always more conditions attached to that and it is messy.”

What do you think the government can do to better to leverage that potential of our start-up and scale-up ecosystem?

“A lot. Speed up innovation by setting clear standards, for example. If the government says: ‘We are going to phase out fossil-based plastics by 2030’, then that has a huge impact on innovation. Or: ‘We are going to improve data infrastructure in the medical sector so that digital innovation can be financed more easily.’ Paying out employees in stock options in order to make it easier for companies to attract talent is also an important matter for start-ups. This was promised over two years ago, but it’s still not sorted out yet. All kinds of things that the government can do to make sure that innovations that are already out there continue to move forward. I am hoping that this government is going to do something about that.”

“It makes me cringe when I see how the Netherlands can stand in the way of start-ups. Then I tend to think; ‘For goodness sake, there’s so much potential, but if we want to progress, the people who do it have to be at the negotiating table,” Constantijn of Orange-Nassau

Do you see many leads for the start-up and scale-up ecosystem in the coalition agreement?

“They are there. But there has to be an express will to push for that. If you look at the difference between the Netherlands and other countries where there are a lot of start-ups, that seems to be in terms of recognition. We don’t seem to want to understand in the Netherlands that start-ups are the entities that spawn innovation. Of course, innovation also comes from universities or large companies. But the really novel innovations – the latest ASML – do not come from large companies. They don’t need it, they already have optimized processes.”

Constantijn thinks for a moment.

“In the Netherlands, the focus is still on the triple helix: government, science and business. But entrepreneurs, the ones who have to actually do it, who put their time into an idea, who take out a double mortgage, are not at the negotiation table. For all of the innovative thinking and vision that the Netherlands has, I really hope that we start giving entrepreneurs and investors a much more pivotal role to break that cycle. It makes me cringe when I see how the Netherlands can stand in the way of start-ups. Then I tend to think; ‘For goodness sake, there’s so much potential, but if we want to progress, the people who do it have to be at the negotiating table.”

The second part of this two-part interview will be published on Monday. You can read last year’s interview here.