Tilburg wants to profile itself as the place-to-be for impact start-ups: new, young companies that are not only committed to profit but above all want to be of social importance. That’s a hopeful horizon, but the city’s key players are aware that they have to roll up their sleeves considerably to achieve that image. This is the second story in a series about the university region of Tilburg.
“This one is very pink though. Normally they are redder. Not that I order the same one every time, mind you,” says August de Vocht. He has just ordered a smoothie at a sandwich store in Tilburg’s Spoorzone (The Railway Zone). Across the street is Building 88, a former NS hall that houses his workspace. De Vocht regularly uses the sandwich store to work in, but before long, the lunchroom will have to make room for new businesses. “In fact, this will become a center for start-ups,” De Vocht says.
And the sandwich store is not the only place where start-ups may eventually seek refuge. In other places on the former NS site, too, space is literally and figuratively being made for young, new companies with good ideas. In the striking Building 90, for example, eleven offices have been created where the first start-ups will probably be able to move in this year. Tilburg wants to become a true startup city and is now even referring to itself on the Internet as “Startup City. The city must therefore become the center of the new economy of Central Brabant, with the Spoorzone as its beating heart.
August de Vocht is the director of entrepreneurial house Station88; with four people strong, one of the parties trying hard to make that regional economy run as smoothly as possible. The “house for entrepreneurship and innovation” acts as a hub in this regard, says De Vocht. “A traffic circle, a switchboard, a GP; we’ve heard all the terms pass by. You can walk into us if you have questions as an entrepreneur, and we can advise you on what step to take or refer you to one of our partners,” he explains.
The director comes from afar. For a while, he ran his own start-up with which he wanted to combat food waste, and to do so he traveled to Silicon Valley, among other places. According to him, start-ups think in a substantially different way than “normal” companies. “Seeing opportunities, thinking around, and looking outside your own world is at the heart of what start-ups do. After a while, you see with many entrepreneurs that it is difficult to implement innovation because they are so busy with their daily business. Start-ups don’t have that daily pressure yet and are a little fresher in entrepreneurship. That fresh look you hope to be able to give to all companies.”
Quite a job
Station88 and everyone else who wants to stimulate the germination of start-ups in the region is facing quite a task. In fact, a report by Strategy Unit – in the hands of these editors – shows that of all the cities in the Netherlands with a university, Tilburg scores the worst when it comes to spawning new start-ups. In a city like Eindhoven, of all 1000 establishments, 10.8 are start-ups; in Delft, we are even talking about 21.9 start-ups out of 1000 companies. Tilburg, with its 1.6 start-ups per 1000 companies, dangles at the bottom of the list. So the start-up climate in Tilburg is pretty bad compared to that of other university cities.
“Rub it in again. That actually makes us extra motivated,” laughs Bas Kapitein in an office on the top floor of Building 88. He is the director of Midpoint Brabant, a regional development organization that links nine municipalities, education, and business in the Central Brabant region. Kapitein was one of the commissioners of the report. A report that made the state of affairs clear to all parties. “We are hanging around the middle of the pack in various lists at best. You would expect something different from a university region like Central Brabant which is also close to Brainport. And you would also want something different. There is work to be done,” Kapitein admits.
“But we are increasingly facing the facts,” he says. “We have the ambition as a region to end up in the left row. With 50,000 students, our knowledge potential is enormous in the areas of people, behavior, society, and data. The municipality of Tilburg is already investing in housing and literally making the connection between the Spoorzone and, for example, Tilburg University’s campus. The municipality, therefore, wants to make the city so attractive to new entrepreneurs.” And that is bearing fruit, Kapitein thinks. “When office building Plan-t was built, people were skeptical. Now it’s full of interesting scale-up companies from day one. That, like MindLabs, is going to attract talent,” Kapitein hopes.
The main causes
To tackle these tasks, the report proposed 24 so-called “interventions,” all of which Van Gestel linked to one of the five tasks. These are large and sometimes woolly tasks, such as “setting up a physical testing space with tools to validate market demand as early as possible,” and smaller interventions, such as “setting up pitch meetings where start-ups can present their ideas to relevant investors. All involved have 1,000 days to implement those interventions to the best of their ability.
So in less than three years, Tilburg should have the start-up climate the city so longs for. The action plan is optimistic in this regard, but Strategy Unit’s research also exposes weaknesses in the ecosystem. “For example, there is an important link between the quality of the ecosystem, the degree of digitalization of the existing business community, and the generation of start-ups and scale-ups,” says Kapitein. In other words: Tilburg companies often do not operate digitally enough to innovate much and spawn start-ups. “And on leadership and networking, our region also scores below average. That’s about the extent to which companies in the region participate in research and development projects,” Kapitein notes.
“But there is no single identifiable cause,” adds Van Gestel. “It’s a mix of ingredients that may or may not be present in the ecosystem. You can think about how easily companies can find support or have access to capital.” It is also sometimes not clear to the organizations what the state of the environment for start-ups currently is. “All the individual organizations like Tilburg University, Fontys, Avans, Midpoint Brabant, and the municipality all have some information themselves, but also at very varying levels. The overall picture is just very diffuse. But in our new program, we are going for a joint approach. Also in terms of communication, so that start-ups know their way around more easily,” says Van Gestel.
The online city hall
All these different interpretations for a better start-up climate go a bit past Luuk van Hoogstraten. As CEO – “I kind of hate that term” – of the Tilburg start-up Genius Voice, he and his two co-owners are mostly busy running his company. A company dedicated to making government websites, for example, accessible to everyone through speech technology. “It’s pretty weird that you have to have a wheelchair entrance at the town hall, but online nothing at all is mandatory in that regard. That’s where we make strides: we provide software to arrange online accessibility perfectly at once,” Van Hoogstraten says.
And ‘we’, is a mixed group of graduated master’s students and current students from Tilburg University. At their office in the Intermezzo building on the university campus, they speak both English and Dutch among themselves and work hard on the software that is now used by the municipality of Rotterdam and the NPO, among others. Genius Voice is still part of Tilburg University’s Incubator program that supports new start-ups emerging from the university. Although he expects that support to scale down organically in the near future. “Within a year, we are probably already too big for our office here,” he said.
In the start-up phase, the young company has approached several parties in the region for questions about setting up such a start-up. “We first talked to someone from the municipality of Tilburg, and he referred us to Midpoint Brabant. Through Midpoint, we ended up at Braventure’s start-up program. On the recommendation of some people, we became clients of Rabobank and through that bank, we also ended up at Station88 again,” Van Hoogstraten describes. “I don’t know exactly how all those organizations are connected, but left or right you do end up at a place where people help you. That did help us a lot.”
Still, it is not immediately clear to all new start-ups where they can apply in the city with a good idea. “There are already at least seven parties that new start-ups can go to for help. There really is a lot, but it is also hugely fragmented,” August de Vocht believes. “We all already work together among ourselves, but we need to make sure that we turn this archipelago that we are now into one state. That is the next step, that as an entrepreneur I only have to call one person and that person can guide me to find a place that fits me as an entrepreneur. We need to make our organizations as efficient as possible for our entrepreneurs,” he says.
To give immediate shape to this, De Vocht is thinking, for example, of perhaps merging his own organization Station88 with Midpoint Brabant in time to have a clear point of contact for entrepreneurs in the region. This is entirely in line with a recommendation from the report, which states that there should be one organization that entrepreneurs can turn to and then refer entrepreneurs to. “We are already growing closer and closer together. In the long run, I don’t think we will remain two separate organizations.”
Becoming a strong brand
Intensive cooperation is one of the spearheads for the coming years. Government, education, and business work together in various projects such as Midpoint Brabant, Station88, and MindLabs to create the best version of the BV Midden-Brabant. But good cooperation is nothing if the marketing is not in order, those involved also know. Brainport is a strong brand in Southeast Brabant that is internationally known as a high-tech region, with major partners such as ASML and Philips. That contrasts sharply with the image of Central Brabant, which is known at most as a logistics hotspot but not necessarily as an innovative region.
“We have a lot to learn from Brainport,” Bas Kapitein therefore thinks. “Sometimes it helps to celebrate as if you’re already there. That helps to motivate new parties to join as well. There’s a bit of a ‘don’t dick around’ mentality here. If we achieve some success in this region, we forget to celebrate it again.” Kapitein feels that the region could be more outward-looking and a little less modest. “For example, we have attractive housing, but do we radiate that we have it?” agrees Daniëlle van Gestel. “We need to make the region recognized as the breeding ground for impact start-ups.”
And profiling the Central Brabant region can start now, August de Vocht also thinks. “Here are very nice, good and cool companies. Here is a company that does the customer program of FrieslandCampina and a start-up that does that of Etos. They have been doing this for ten years and nobody knows. We are all far too modest here and that is what we are trying to change. Be proud and shout,” De Vocht tells entrepreneurs.
The question that remains is whether the region will manage to produce more start-ups once all the bears on the road are gone. “You never have guarantees,” thinks Bas Kapitein. “But it is good to set inspiring and ambitious final goals. That parties now know each other much better and know how to find each other much better I find at least already hopeful. I don’t dare say how many start-ups it has to be or what place we have to reach in the ranking, but there have to be visibly and measurably more start-ups. If that is not happening, you are not doing something right together. The noses are in the same direction, so it is almost inevitable that in the coming years, there will be more start-ups that will contribute to our society.”
This series also appears at Brabants Dagblad and was created in part with support from the Tilburg Media Fund.