WHICH CAME FIRST: THE ECOSYSTEM OR THE STP?
You'd think a country like Holland didn't have any pressing national challenges that needed to be tackled. But Floris de Gelder, Managing Director of the Utrecht Science Park in the Netherlands, puts us straight. “We do have several looming challenges to address. Other countries seem to think it should be the rising sea levels, but we have 800 years of experience in water management in a country below sea level,” he laughs. “It's important, of course, and it's expensive and we have a lot of wonderful knowledge which we use in our own country to showcase. Another important challenge is the aging population. The mix is changing very fast and maintaining the price of healthcare is becoming a priority. We need to take steps now to make sure that when we have more of the elderly and less of the working population, we can still keep healthcare standards high,” he says.
At Utrecht STP, incidentally, life sciences and sustainability are two prominent areas of focus. Like many instances in the Netherlands of sector-specific STPs evolving in certain areas, de Gelder assures us this is not by design but is something that just transpired organically. “No STP is
“OUR AGENDA NOW IS TO TELL A GOOD DUTCH STORY. THE NETHERLANDS IS PRACTICALLY ONE LARGE CITY – WE ARE 17 MILLION PEOPLE, HOME TO FIVE OF THE WORLD’S 100 BEST UNIVERSITIES, HAVE ONE VERY BIG AIRPORT AND ONE HARBOUR. WITH INCREASINGLY BIG CITIES BECOMING SUCCESSFUL PLACES OF INNOVATION, WE CAN TELL OUR STORY BETTER IF ALL THE STPS IN THE COUNTRY SAID IT TOGETHER.”
FLORIS DE GELDER Managing Director Utrecht Science Park
directly owned by the government so there is really no overarching mandate dictating the sectors and areas that we should focus on,” he says. For a sophisticated society like Holland's, it's neither necessary nor good for the government to be on the front line of the STP business, de Gelder says. “We can act much faster and be more dynamic the farther we are from government oversight. What we have, and prefer, is a small government working at the highest level of abstraction and people on the ground working with the businesses.” By and large, all STPs in the Netherlands are centred on universities and the ecosystems that evolve around them are understandably linked to the university's specialisation. “In the case of Eindhoven, the STP was influenced by the environment Phillips had created over the decades and also the Eindhoven University of Technology,” he says. Similarly, Delft University of Technology, with its expertise in typical Dutch ingenuity in water management and civil engineering, led to the spawning of similar companies around it, and the Wageningen University spawned Food Valley which is regarded as one of the largest food, nutrition and food security clusters in the world. “The stronger and better focused your ecosystem is, the more business it attracts,” he says.
De Gelder believes that their capability around life sciences probably started with a small group of professors and scientists with the right kind of entrepreneurial spirit. “They were a small part of a large university but they had great relationships with the business community. Soon the businesses around life sciences picked up the fastest, attracting more companies,” he says. This way the companies and ecosystem were feeding into each other and it is difficult to say which came first, only that they can now offer one of the best and stimulating environments for research in that area. Also, because over 2,500 students live on the STP campus, there is an air of constant activity, no matter what time of the day, he says.
Though Utrecht Science Park is situated on the campus of the University of Utrecht, it is not formally connected to the
university. This was a conscious decision made during its formation, according to de Gelder. They chose be a non-profit organisation which works for the provincial government, city council, the universities in the area, and the business community. “Though the land is owned by the university and it is part of our board of directors, the science park is independent. For the university, the core business is education and research and this is something else altogether. To run a good STP, you need excellent hospitality skills, be outgoing and speak the language of entrepreneurs; knowledge that the university by definition doesn't have. Now, all of us are part of the ecosystem, on an equal basis and fulfilling different roles. So with a small, dynamic, credible and independent organisation leading development within a university campus, we have managed to combine the best of both worlds.”
Most of the 82 companies at Utrecht are Dutch and a majority of them specialise in life sciences research. The year 2009 was a turning point for the STP with the entry of its first MNC, the French company Danone. “Danone decided to establish the research headquarters for Europe in medical and baby nutrition in USP. Before this we too were grappling with questions like should we have large companies in our STP and, if so, do we need to impose special conditions on them to ensure they don't become too dominant. For us it was an important development. We had small companies emerging from our incubators, we had medium-sized, fast-growing companies, but the big MNCs were good for reputation and creating volume. They also have larger research budgets and attract international scientists. That year was also when we were thinking about our value proposition, whether we were telling a good story and delivering something the world was waiting for. But being able to attract a company like Danone, which believes in open innovation, showed us we were on the right track,” he says. Utrecht doesn't want fences. When you stand outside Danone, you can see what's happening in the building. You can see the pilot plans, look into the rooms where the new products are tasted, de Gelder says. “And a company with a great reputation and high level of knowledge is always great for a science park. They act as a magnet for other companies. Danone's entry invigorated the stakeholders, made a real team out of us and helped accelerate the development of the next phase of the STP