An Orange Carpet for Entrepreneurs

oct orangeIn a rare face-to-face conversation with President Barack Obama recently, I referenced some of the positive yet unintended consequences unleashed by his effort to align U.S. Government agencies around the notion of “starting up” America. Four years after the White House launched the Startup America project, more than 60 nations have emulated the effort in different ways. One of them is the Netherlands.

You have to applaud any government when it sets up initiatives with not only start dates but end dates as well. It sends a message about focus, energy and impact and sends packing any of the rent-takers looking for a new gig. StartupDelta which was set up to establish the Netherlands as one of the top three most attractive startup ecosystems in Europe will sunset 18 months after its January 2015 launch. It caught our attention.

By current measures, the Netherlands already is among the most entrepreneurial nations in the world, taking the 13th place position in the overall ranking of the Global Entrepreneurship Index, and 8th among European nations. The Compass team, in turn, recently made the Amsterdam-StartupDelta area (geographically defined by the Amsterdam-The Hague-Eindhoven triangle), the only European newcomer in its newest report analyzing the top 20 entrepreneurship hubs in the world.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte wanted to improve on a position of strength and tapped ‘Internet Tsar’ and “grandmother of the EU's digital agenda” Neelie Kroes for the job. Her age is only a sign of her experience in matters related to startup creation and level of commitment. When the Prime Minister asked her to lead her country’s entrepreneurship efforts as Special Envoy for Startups, Ms. Kroes was leaving a 10-year career as a European Commissioner – five of them as Vice-president of the European Commission for the Digital Agenda.

As governments become smarter and more sophisticated in engaging with startup communities, it is becoming increasingly important not only to tap startup community talent into government – but enlightened bureaucrats into startup communities. In her previous position, Ms. Kroes set up the StartupEurope program to improve conditions for entrepreneurs in Europe at large. StartupEurope convened a group of startup leaders, such as the founders of Skype and Spotify, to write a Startup Leaders Manifesto, which was presented to the Chairman of the European Council. While I cannot find much trace of any direct impact of this manifesto in terms of regional policies, it seems to have at least inspired European countries to engage in different ways on the national level. 

So, what are some of the features of StartupDelta’s approach to give an impulse to startups in the Netherlands?

Inclusive and Collaborative
Headquartered in Amsterdam and working in close cooperation with the Ministry of Economic Affairs, StartUp Delta has called for connecting the Netherland’s major innovation hubs in order to attract more tech entrepreneurs of the likes of the Bluetooth co-inventor, Dutch electrical engineer Jaap Haartsen.

Like some of the other members of the global Startup Nations network, the challenge musters the notion of open and transparent collaboration among multiple stakeholders and including government bodies, startup investors, knowledge centers, businesses, and existing resource providers (such as the High Tech Campus Eindhoven and Utrecht Center for Entrepreneurship).

Practically all government agencies are starting to engage – something vital for other nations to learn especially where is appear just one agency is appointed to lead on entrepreneurship. Even the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency, StartupDelta has rolled out an ‘orange carpet’ for startups, allowing startups and scale-ups to ‘to land - and take off - in the country.’

Organic as well as imported talent
Beyond persuading innovative foreign startups to establish their businesses in The Netherlands, StartupDelta aims to strengthen the international position of local startups, with the goal of seeing more Dutch companies become large international enterprises, like the Dutch tech unicorn Ayden. This goal will involve building bridges with other ecosystems, particularly networks that can facilitate accessing local markets. The StartupDelta team has started out on the road, meeting with their opposites in places like Boston, Toronto and Dublin. And Ms. Kroes and her team have their eyes set on moving the host country of the Web Summit to the Netherlands.

To provide a new generation of startups the opportunity to develop their talent, Startup Delta is harnessing support from local as well as international education resources, such as the “Inspiring Fifty” project for girls. StartupDelta also initiated the national CodePact project, which aims to teach children in school how to program. StartupDelta has also persuaded the Cambridge Innovation Centre to establish its base in Rotterdam.

Working on all sides to expand the pool of capital
StartupDelta has been persuading both investors and regulatory bodies to put expanding access to early-stage capital high on their agendas. For example, Ms. Kroes travelled to Berlin to persuade AngelList to syndicate investment activities in the Netherlands, while the government is currently working on eliminating regulatory obstacles to enable them to do so.

Ten months after launch, Startup Delta has been successful in getting a spotlight on the commitment of all stakeholders to raising the bar higher for the ecosystem. The challenge for Kroes now will be showing tangible gains before the project expires on June 30, 2016.

There is plenty of leadership to take her initiatives forward. When I was in Amsterdam earlier this month I met with Pieter Waasdorp, Director of Entrepreneurship at the Ministry of Economic Affairs. Waasdorp understands research and data and is intent on ensuring that how his country continues to climb up the ladder in terms of entrepreneurial ecosystem performance is evidenced based. As we discussed over dinner, there is clearly plenty of enthusiasm. The challenge now in Europe remains turning that into tangible results about things that matter – innovations unleashed, jobs created, new firms scaled and Dutch communities more collaborative and resilient for trying.

The key for all thriving startup ecosystems especially in smaller economies is global engagement. Sustaining the energy and the dynamism Kroes has developed will require connecting the leadership of the broader Dutch ecosystem to the global community in a more systematic way.

The Netherlands already has a well-organized network of entrepreneurship centers that form the GEW Foundation in the Netherlands – which beyond Global Entrepreneurship Week itself hosts international events such as the Get in the Ring business plan competition. In 2016, that community - which includes Amsterdam (ACE), Eindhoven (Brainport), Groningen (Value050) Rotterdam (ECE), Utrecht (UtreachtCE) and Wageningen (Home Life) - will expand to become GEN Netherlands offering direct global engagement for initiatives like Startup Delta not just in terms of Europe and the United States, but with over 150 other GEN nations with information and communities to share.

Startup Delta’s approach will serve the EU well when the Netherlands assumes chairing the European Community in January 2016, offering some new leadership approaches for other EC countries to follow. It also sets an example for the rest of the world. Neelie Kroes has been nominated for an award at the Startup Nations Summit in Mexico next month.

The Dutch were the ultimate global early adaptors. After all, New York City was first a Dutch colony, it was the Dutch who discovered Australia and New Zealand and believe it or not, the Dutch who introduced tea to Europe (it came to Holland in 1610 but not to England until 1650). Perhaps we all have something to learn from policymakers in the Netherlands as governments jump in with both feet into getting results from their entrepreneurship promotion work.

Photo Credit: Flickr