Various kinds of startup accelerators are emerging in the Netherlands. As the lean startup methodology is tried out in other sectors, it turns out that the disruptive approach to innovation is a proven winner.
On the edge of Eindhoven city centre stands a former military police barracks and a warehouse. Both had been derelict for decades. Two creatives, designer Annemoon Geurts and her partner musician Koen Rijnbeek, saw the potential to experiment with an innovative cultural and social concept, attracting both the artistic and high-tech communities in the Brainport Eindhoven region. It took 7 years of planning and extensive renovation but the hard work is already starting to pay off. Each building has been renovated from the ground up, installing underfloor heating, acoustically treated walls and the latest LED lighting. A fine restaurant, a separate function room and a design shop opened its doors just over a year ago in October 2014. Curator and CEO Annemoon Geurts explains their new philosophy.
“Eindhoven is home to many world-class designers. Forbes Magazine also called it the most inventive city in the world. Living here, I know it’s true – really smart world-changing technology is being developed around us, like at the Eindhoven University of Technology and the High Tech Campus just down the road. We’re a creative startup, building a unique space in the heart of this innovation district.”
“If you visit this city during Dutch Design Week or Dutch Technology Week, you’ll see a festival of brilliant ideas. But what about the other 350 days each year? I think we have a tendency to hide away in labs and design studios. We’re determined to change that. And we’re delighted that the New York Times recently discovered what we’re up to.”
Tapping into an idea from the past.
Their activities have attracted the attention of both startups and international VC’s. During the summer, for instance, Afghan-Dutch designer Massoud Hassani showed his new plans for trying to rid the world of landmines.
As the majority of international troops pull out of Afghanistan, they leave behind them a lethal legacy of unexploded bombs and shells. Around 10 million land mines still contaminate more than 500 square kilometres of land. They are still killing and maiming people at a rate approaching 400 a year. The vast majority of the victims are children. Sadly, the situation in Afghanistan is not unique. There are other countries like Angola, Iraq, Cambodia and Bosnia where the continued presence of millions of landmines brings daily misery to families living in the legacy of conflict zones.
“I grew up in Qasaba, Kabul” recalls Massoud. “My family moved there when I was 5. We had little money or possessions. So we learned to make our own toys”
“One of my favourites was a small rolling object that was powered by the wind. We used to race them against the other kids on the open fields that surrounded our neighbourhood. There was always a strong wind blowing towards the mountains. I noticed that our toys often rolled too fast and too far. But they would end up in areas where we couldn’t go to rescue them because of landmines. I still remember those toys I’d made that we lost and watching them just beyond where we could go. That gave me an idea.”
“In 2011, for my graduation project for the Design Academy in Eindhoven, I returned to Qasaba. We decided to re-make those toys. But this time, we made them 20 times larger, heavier and stronger, renaming the device “Mine Kafon” (which means Mine Detonator in the local Dari language).”
“When it rolls over a mine the device destroys itself and the landmine at the same time.
The Mine Tagger Drone is next
During this year’s Dutch Technology Week, Massoud showed the next stage of the project. Following a successful Kickstarter funding round two years ago, Massoud has been working with several partners to perfect the design, yet cut the costs of production. They have been experimenting with smart materials developed in this region of the Netherlands.
“So we built a drone which has a sensitive mine detector attached to a robotic arm that is positioned below it. It hovers above the area which is being de-mined. When a mine is detected, the drone spray paints the area directly below it and sends the exact coordinates to a digital map on the area. We have to use special non-ferrous materials to make the drone, otherwise there is a danger the drone and the robot arm would trigger the mine below it. So, although it is a simple idea, making it into a working prototype has been a team effort.
“I’ve been fascinated with drones for a while” says Massoud, “but this time I want to use them to save lives instead of ending them. We therefore looked at ways in which we deploy a drone to identify the exact position of a landmine. It is so much easier for de-mining teams to operate in an area if they know the exact location of the mine.”
Strong Interest from the California VC Community
The activities in Kazerne during Dutch Technology Week triggered the interest of the California based Fox Consulting Group. Founder Michael Fox knows the Silicon Valley venture capital community like no other, being very active in deal sourcing, due diligence & advisory services to both institutional & corporate venture capital funds
"A world-class creative cluster of the stature of Kazerne comes at just the right time”. says founder Michael Fox. “Brainport Eindhoven wants to grow from 220,000 to 300,000 within 5 years, primarily by attracting high tech industries and growing specialized ecosystems.”
“Rather than copying existing initiatives, like Silicon Valley or MIT Boston, our approach uses the “Silicon Valley State of Mind” to build and grow innovative regions in a different way. For example, we think Brainport Eindhoven should build on its own technology heritage but shape it to think and act as a global player, not a regional one.”
"There are various initiatives currently running to try and bridge the entrepreneurial culture of Brainport with the mindset of Silicon Valley, New York, Waterloo Canada, etc. Whilst orientation is always valuable, we believe that if the goal to make a brain gain, preparation activities should be concentrated in the Brainport region rather than Silicon Valley."
"We have met too many naïve startups wandering aimless in Stanford rather like the way people hung around Hollywood in the hope of starring in a film. It doesn’t work. Reputable investors in the valley won’t even look at you unless you have established a US presence – and that you have done the paperwork to operate there (start-up visa, incorporation, etc.). It takes several meetings in order to win anybody’s trust. They often head back off home a couple of weeks later disillusioned because the visit didn’t go to plan and no lasting contacts were made. There is a need for education in how the various ecosystems operate. But this should be done in the Netherlands before European companies even consider looking for foreign investment."
“The good news is that much of the original Philips core expertise was spun out into separate companies. ASML and NXP are probably the best known locally. But there are also smart companies like Silicon Hive, Civolution (90% of Hollywood studios use their digital watermarking) and Medtronic (Deep Brain Stimulation). We also found some amazing things going on in Medical Robotics and automotive on our last trip to the region.”
“Remember, the presence of Philips in the city also gave birth to the Design Academy Eindhoven in 1947. It became world class under leadership of Lidewij Edelkoort. So, it is no coincidence that Kazerne is currently hosting an exhibition curated by Lidewij, celebrating works from world-class designers from all over the world. Add to this recent design sprints with Renault and the new series of Enlightening Thursdays with VPRO and the Baltan Labs and you have a cluster of fresh thinkers and doers which is essential to maintain a lead in innovation. I wish we had such a magical space in downtown San Francisco”.