A conversation with Willem Endhoven, managing director at HighTechNL, about the high-tech sector in Brabant – and throughout the Netherlands. More about Brabant’s ambition in the European High tech Industry.

Brabant high-tech is not an island

High-tech innovation in the Netherlands is too small to think of it in terms of regions. There is no doubt that Brabant has a very high density of high-tech companies and high-tech successes. But, any project that works in high tech, needs partners throughout the Netherlands and all throughout the world.

A Dutch habit of working together

There are very smart people everywhere in the world. But a distinguishing feature in the Netherlands is our national characteristic of being an open society, that engages in open collaboration. It is a Dutch habit to approach one another, even those we do not know, with a positive mindset of: What can we do together? Undoubtedly we feel that as a small country we had better work together because the world is so big. This strong attitude in the Netherlands is also evident in the high-tech industry.

In Brabant, a strong sense of practicality in choosing to work together

I travel between the various tech focal points in the Netherlands, aiming to link companies who want to work together over several different subjects. What I notice is that there is a very well-cultivated attitude in the Brabant region of: Let’s sit together, have a coffee and see what we have in common. It is a sense of practicality, that most likely we will move forward better if we move together. In the high-tech industry, the basics are so capital intensive and knowledge-intensive, that there is an appreciation for the practical reality that we should perhaps sort the basics out together, and then each can work out the niche on top of that.

Complexity in high tech requires strong collaboration across the value chain

The basic notion of suppliers and customers is perhaps not exactly applicable in the high-tech sector. It is a complex arrangement, with several layers of suppliers and customers that are linked to each other, and are considered part of the design team. Those lower down in the value chain are invited to bring in their knowledge about specific things that are of use in a later stage in the value chain. In many cases, it is a matter of sitting around the table to say: This is the final problem at the end of the chain, and how can you bring new insights or solutions, or lower prices. So, it is a very open discussion. After all, things have to provide value for money. People see that, because things are very complex, let us first try to lower the barriers where we can.

The single biggest threat to the high-tech sector is a lack of skills

The lack of trained technical people is a major problem. And even if you acknowledge that this is a problem, it means that you should have done something about it 20 years ago. The attitude of schools and families to a career in technology is crucial. I come from an era when technology was considered to be dirty and evil; at that time, everyone wanted to work in a bank or in arts-type of business. This has had an enormous impact on our society. We have not grown proportionately in the number of skilled engineers and a passion for technology, and in looking at how technology can help solve societal issues. That has only come up in the last couple of years. It will take years before these people are skilled and trained for the industry. So, we have a very strong limitation on how we can grow, in prosperity in the high-tech industry. These skilled people just do not exist, so there is very little that you can do about it.

Technology is the solution for the future

I hope that more people will choose a career in technology and that we are able to keep and improve the skills and positions we have in several branches. In the Netherlands, we are unparalleled in areas such as fine mechatronics and machine building. So we should be able to pass that on to the next generations. You see new technologies coming up, in photonics and nanotechnology, that we should embark on and bring into our skills sets, to make the next level of innovation possible.

The most important aspect in looking to the future is that we don’t do technology for technology’s sake, but rather that we are developing technology because we feel it brings solutions to society, in terms of health, ageing, security and more. We need technical solutions for that. Not least of which is in the field of robotics. We simply don’t have enough people to do everything that we need done.