INNOVATION: THE NETHERLANDS TO THE TOP
Government presents new ideas how to become more competitive by 2020
The Netherlands is a prosperous country, a prosperity the nation largely owns to entrepreneurial spirit, a clever business mind and constant innovation. Clearly, prosperity is not something that one can take for granted. A rapidly changing international setting and new social-economic challenges require a smooth adaptation of society. Climate change, energy and food shortages, the loss of biodiversity, the ageing society and growing health care needs are a couple of factors that government leaders and policy makers have to deal with in a world that seems to become more complex every day. The continuing unrest in today's world brings uncertainty. It is important to realize that these challenges also offer opportunities: new economic powers mean new markets, food shortages can make alternative products suddenly attractive, and energy needs require more smart production methods.
The Dutch Government realizes the importance of stimulating creativity, innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit to come up with solutions for the needs of today and the markets of tomorrow. Investments in the Dutch competitiveness will lead to sustainable economic growth. Future prosperity demands a strong and ambitious industrial policy which stimulates companies and research institutes to do what they do best. It is up to the Government to set up excellent preconditions, to safeguard public interests while linking private parties.That the ambitions were high became clear when Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte presented his Government in October 2010. For the first time in Dutch history, 'Innovation' appeared in the name of a Ministry: Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation. That the Ministry of Agriculture ceased to exist as an independent ministry was definitely another novelty.
Minister Maxime Verhagen (http://bit.ly/ouxjB5) in February of this year announced he would concentrate new policies on nine priority sectors in which The Netherlands was considered to have a competitive edge, for historical and geographical reasons: water management, agriculture & food, horticulture, energy, high tech, life sciences (including 'healthy ageing' ), chemistry, logistics and creative industries. Attracting multinational corporate headquarters was formulated as a separate priority.
The ambitions of the Dutch are high. The Netherlands wants to be in the top-5 of most competitive economies by 2020. The country recently managed to rise to seventh spot, amongst others because of its innovation-policies. Investments in research and development should increase by 2020 to 2,5% of Gross Domestic Product whereas it still is 1,8% today.
The approach to formulating innovation policies changed considerably under the new Government. Basically, Government officials took the back seat and offered the steering wheel to entrepreneurs and researchers of the priority sectors, to ensure that policy priorities were demand driven and received sectorial support. The private sector and science were asked to come up with a policy agenda to make the most of opportunities and identify bottlenecks, to present a coherent sectorial vision for innovative future growth, for investments, for exports, for innovation.
'To The Top' is the document that contains the vision that representatives of the nine priority sectors have developed 'to let The Netherlands excel in the world market'. The paper was presented to Minister Maxime Verhagen in September this year. The Government is choosing different tools than its predecessors to implement the policies. Subsidies are no longer the way to go. It is through fiscal instruments that the private sector will be given a shot in the arm. Cost of researchers' salaries will be lowered through tax measures for which 800 mln euro will be available next year. Also, a budget of 250 mln euro is available to make purchasing research equipment more attractive, increasing to 500 mln euros per 2015. The total fiscal stimulus that will be available reaches 2 bln euros in 2015. Basically it is a shift of funds as subsidy instruments will cease to exist.
Companies in the priority sectors will now sit together with knowledge centers and the Government to conclude so called 'innovation contracts'. It will determine the most important research themes for the years to come, which institutes will tackle those themes and how the funding will be done. At least 40% of the funds for these public/private partnerships for knowledge and innovation will be contributed by the private sector. Policy makers speak of the 'golden triangle' when they refer to cooperation between Government, knowledge institutes and the industry.
The sector that has set the example for this kind of interaction is agriculture. Wageningen University and Research Center in itself is already an interesting example of how agricultural research and education are intertwined. The relation with the private sector has been carefully cultivated for which the Ministry of Agriculture set the preconditions. To ensure that the education centers, at all levels, cater to the future needs of the private sector is of utmost importance, and also research must serve future economic success. 'Researchers and businessmen are always sitting together here', minister Verhagen said at the opening of the academic year in Wageningen. 'And contrary to what critics may say, fundamental research has not at all suffered from this focus – on the contrary', the minister said.
Many regional authorities are creating similar conditions for fruitful interaction on specialized themes, like the Carbohydrate Competence Center in the province of North-Holland, the Food Valley Initiative in the province of Gelderland, Dairy Campus and Seed Valley. At the same time, all involved acknowledge that the international orientation of the sector must be strengthened further as well. The latter principle is also clearly reflected in the 'To the Top' report by the agricultural and horticultural sectors. Sustainability, health and logistics ('Greenport') will be three of the leading innovation priorities of the agricultural sector and horticulture, while eyeing every opportunity that international markets offer.
Small and medium sized companies setting the trend
The Dutch government realizes very well that in particular small and medium sized companies have an important role to play when it comes to innovation. "These companies are the engine of the economy", minister Verhagen points out, "and their capacity to come up with new ideas is impressive". The ministry will launch an innovation fund for this type of companies that provides venture capital and innovation credits. Universities like Wageningen, Delft and Eindhoven have flourishing business parks where start-up companies in a very stimulating environment can develop their ideas into new ventures.
The NRC, a leading Dutch quality newspaper, recently published a list called Innovation Top 100. It is an overview of companies considered frontrunners by the paper "of which we never have sufficient". Excellence can make the difference in this country, the editorial of the paper said. It should not come as a surprise that many of the listed companies are involved in the primary sector.
I will present seven companies here, as a tribute to the human capital, creativity and inventiveness at their origin. And believe me, there is a lot more where they come from: Holland, a small country, a great partner.
The company developed the TerraSen system for irrigation management. Soil sensors show the water uptake at various levels as to calculate the optimal moment of sprinkling. It reduces the waste of water and ensures the best growth for crops. In strawberries for example, the system reduced the water and nutrients uptake by 48% without damaging the production and quality levels.
Groasis (http://www.groasis.com )
The company invented the waterboxx, an 'intelligent water incubator' that produces and captures water from the air through condensation and rain. The condensation is caused by artificial stimulation and the water is captured because of the design of the device, without using energy. The Groasis waterboxx is a practical instrument without maintenance costs, capable of 1) solving the problem and improving the results of planting trees in moderate and arid areas and 2) causing a 15 to 30% higher production and 3) reducing the costs and improving the profit of planting trees or bushes with significant financial returns.
Plant-e (pronounced like 'plenty') is a company that develops and produces products in which living plants generate electricity. Many applications for the technology can be thought of. The electricity that is generated via the Plant-e technology is low-voltage direct current which can directly be applied to charge batteries, cell-phones and laptops and power LED-lights.
VDK Products (http://www.vdkproducts.com)
Sustainability and animal welfare are of crucial importance in animal husbandry. The company is leading the European market for housing systems for young cattle. "Calfotel' is easy to use, both for individual and group accommodation.
The company developed a crop protection system that combats pests with an accurate dosage of UV light. This method has many advantages compared with the conventional treatment by chemicals. UV leaves absolutely no residue, is safe for workers, improves food safety, and is beneficial for the environment. It is available for gardens, golf courses, rowcrops, flowers and vegetables.
Quick Plug (http://www.quickplug.nl)
The company is manufacturingf stabilized sew- and cutting media for professionals in horticulture. The plug prevents that the substrate's moisture buffer is inadequate when plants are transplanted. With a moisture-retaining coating, the plug becomes enveloped by a thin layer of moisture.
Food Technology (http://www.ftnon.nl)
Food Technology Noord-Oost Nederland (FTNON) developed a steam based method for disinfecting fruits. The company produces a wide range of food processing equipment for a number of different product groups from individual machines to fully integrated lines.