The Rise of Dutch Start Ups

Known for its open culture and a strengthening focus on entrepreneurship and innovation, the Netherlands is now home to a flourishing startup ecosystem.

Growth in the startup sector has been steady since the financial crisis of a decade ago. It cost many of the country’s skilled and educated people their jobs, but prompted them to think about creating their own. Since then the number and quality of startups has increased, reaching its highest point in the last two years due to the favorable economy.

The country offers an attractive fiscal climate and a relatively easy and fast registration process for companies compared to other EU countries, while its physical and digital infrastructure has been described as ‘close to perfection’ by many of its successful entrepreneurs.

“In Dutch culture, being humble is seen as something positive, but we often forget just how much our little country has achieved,” says Ellen de Visser, founder of translation company AccessEast Translations.

 “We have a well developed infrastructure, connections to Germany, U.K. and Belgium by train, a major international airport Schiphol and the port of Rotterdam, making meetings with clients in person easier and exporting products onto foreign markets faster.”
Having started out four years ago as a German-Dutch freelance translator she has transformed her business into a global company, providing translations for large German companies like GetYourGuide and Limango, as well as Dutch and British SMEs from a range of sectors.

Like many founders, de Visser has benefited from Dutch government efforts to create a better startup scene. This includes working with the Enterprise Europe Network to help companies grow internationally, and encouraging and promoting new businesses via the Startup Deltaprogram, aimed at merging the Dutch startup ecosystem into one single connected hub.

Another bonus for Dutch startups is the ready access to a skilled, and highly workforce that is also multilingual, thanks to the Dutch educational system, where it is quite usual for people to speak up to four foreign languages on a conversational level by the time they graduate.

“This is particularly positive for the internationally focused and scalable nature of startups,” adds de Visser.

The country boasts a number of flourishing sectors, among them biotech, with institutions like Nijmegen University, University of Amsterdam and VU Amsterdam contributing to developments in this field, and electric mobility, where innovation in areas such as smart software for charging posts, electric vehicles and navigation systems is strong and attracting investment.

Healthcare is another flourishing sector. Roeland Pater is CEO of Nori Health, a chatbot digital assistant that helps people living with chronic bowel conditions such crohn’s disease to identify and change lifestyle factors that negatively impact their quality of life.

“We are seeing more and more government and EU initiatives to support Dutch startups in bringing innovations to market,” says Pater. “For example, we won a grant from the EU Horizon 2020 project that helped us to build our first prototype. Without that opportunity I don’t know if we’d have made it.”

In January Nori Health carried out its first trial in partnership with the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, with promising outcomes, and is preparing to go to the market publicly at the end of the year.

Access to business funding is also improving, with an upward trend in the number of funding deals and opportunities for startups. Dimi Albers, CEO of Amsterdam-based digital agency Dept has certainly witnessed a strengthening of the ecosystem over the last five years.

He says: “Many incubators are now finding their way to the Netherlands and coworking spaces for startups have popped up everywhere. The success of many Dutch startups and scaleups in the tech sector has boosted confidence and available funding.”

Brexit, he says, has also had a positive impact, as Amsterdam and the Netherlands are rapidly becoming natural alternative bases for many businesses and, therefore, investments.

“Combine these elements with a healthy appetite at our major banks to support business and relatively large pension funds that need to invest their money, and you have a very healthy environment for entrepreneurs in the Netherlands,” says Albers.

There are also more early stage venture capitalists focusing on tech startups and investing in smaller pre-seed rounds, and a vibrant community of private angel investors.

The Netherlands is proving attractive to entrepreneurs from outside the country. Outi Pietilanaho, CEO and cofounder of Vimma, a challenger ad network that runs on people’s opinions, hails from Finland, which also has a strong startup ecosystem, but has chosen to base her business operations in Amsterdam.

“Last year while starting Vimma I relocated to London, as that is the place to be for marketers and advertisers,” she explains. “However, the political situation is starting to impact and it seems everyone is very conservative right now because of Brexit.

Towards the end of last year she joined a media and commerce-focused startup accelerator program in the Netherlands, something she couldn’t find in the U.K., and headed for Amsterdam.

“It was the best decision for our business,” she says. “We’ve been here for three months and during that time we’ve quadrupled our customer count, onboarded mentors from Fortune500 companies, and made invaluable connections to partners, clients and investors.”

Although still technically U.K.-registered, by tapping into the Dutch ecosystem Vimma has flourished. “Many global companies have their European headquarters here, and more are relocating here due to Brexit, which gives a company like ours fantastic access to large client base,” he says.

Pietilanaho praises the country’s renowned open attitude towards doing business, the fact that everyone speaks English, and says the reception to innovative technology such as theirs has been warmly welcomed.

“This is great for an innovative startup trying to break the age-old norm of how advertisement is done,” he says. “There aren’t many drawbacks in the Netherlands, and it is a well balanced option for a startup. That said, it’s no Silicon Valley either, and most likely the very ambitious startups have to look for growth and funding from bigger markets sooner or later.