- You are driven by innovation in everything you do in business— specifically, cleantech innovation. Can you tell us something about your background? How did you end up where you are today?
The answer is simple, really. My interest in sustainability started when I was a teenager. I considered the environmental issue, along with peace, to be the biggest issues. I decided to study environmental technology in Wageningen. Wageningen didn’t have a policy direction at the time. After my first year, I concluded that something had to be done on the government side in addition to engineering. I searched for a policy-based environmental study to include this in my studies. It did not exist in the Netherlands at the time, so I decided to create it. That’s how I ended up studying political science at the UvA in Amsterdam. I worked with several professors to design a programme that combined environmental technology and policy. I had also become politically active by then. Out of the blue, a council member in Amsterdam asked me to be their assistant. The offer was initially for three months, but I ended up doing it for a year. When the council member was not re-elected, I lost my position as an assistant. That was around the time municipalities first had to make environmental policies, so the environmental department of Amsterdam was looking for policy staff. The director of the environmental department, Jan Klei, thought it would be nice to hire a newcomer from politics.
After a few years, I decided that the role of civil servant didn’t suit me. Environmental policy is often about limitations, which started to bother me. The Internet caught my attention during that period. I set up my own foundation, the KnowledgeLand Foundation. For me, it was mostly about the sustainable economic growth of the Netherlands. The foundation was like a startup. I also became involved in the innovation platform during the Second Balkenende Cabinet. Along the way, I had the insight that a startup is the best way to introduce something new, so I started working even more on my development in that area.
- What part of your career are you most proud of today, and why? What would you still like to achieve?
Without a doubt, that would be setting up ClimateLaunchpad, a European programme that is growing exponentially and is now running in 60 countries. I’m also proud of the feedback from participants—you can tell that you really helped them achieve their dream. One of the nicest comments I heard, which I remember well, was “If fixing climate change was always so much fun, we would have solved it ages ago”. And emails from founders years later thanking us for the insights we gave them. I am, of course, aware that this is not entirely true. The entrepreneur is the one doing the work, of course, but you are there during their development, and it’s amazing to see.
- You have now trained hundreds of cleantech startups in dozens of countries all over the world. Naturally, those startups run into all sorts of challenges. While each company’s specific challenges are unique, there will certainly be similarities. What do you consider the main challenges for cleantech startups?
Cleantech covers many different markets, and the challenges vary from market to market. It is a semi-government sector, so there is a lot of government pressure, because it is so critical. It has upsides and downsides. For entrepreneurs, the downside is that there isn’t actually much innovation pressure in this market. The customer experiences it as something that always works. It is only noticed when there is an outage, which means you temporarily have no power or water. If you are a startup that needs to conquer a market, your customer needs to be eager, which is often not the case. The customer’s incentive lies mostly in government regulation. If the regulation doesn’t move in the right direction, you’re basically dead in the water as a startup. I find this the most difficult component of our work, and I fully agree with Piers Clark’s analysis in your previous interview. I, too, have mentored several startups that have developed amazing technology for water utilities. Taking on an innovation project with a utility often works out very well, but actually getting a signed purchase contract rarely works out in the end.
- We have shaped an entrepreneurship programme around five pillars within the WaterCampus ecosystem (see here). The goal of the ecosystem—specifically, this programme—is to create more startups, grow existing startups and SMEs, and connect companies from outside the ecosystem. What do you consider to be the strongest and weakest points of this ecosystem and programme?
The strongest point is hyper-focus. Wetsus as a starting point is one of the strongest cases in the Netherlands. This could never have been achieved without leaders like Cees Buisman and Johannes Boonstra and the tremendous energy they put into developing the ecosystem. They are true entrepreneurs in their own right. I recently asked Cees why he thinks it worked out. He said that there was so much focus that no one actually felt threatened, and I agree. The link with market participants also really makes the WaterCampus ecosystem extraordinary, in my opinion. Its only weakness is its limited critical mass, making it somewhat fragile. I think structural funding is the most important issue.
- What opportunities for improvement do you see in the entrepreneurship programme itself?
First of all, I think it would be good to recruit even more international startups. Recruiting startups from abroad is expensive and time-consuming, but it should be possible for such a specific niche. This will create even more buzz, helping the WaterCampus grow and become indispensable. That, of course, is the ultimate goal. Only then can you achieve the intended social and economic impact.
Secondly, I see room for improvement in the programme content. I am focussing on the talent pillar here, which is closest to my expertise, and I am looking at all accelerators in the Netherlands. Everyone focuses on developing entrepreneurial competencies, which is crucial to turning inventions into actual innovations that have an impact. This whole pillar is really a form of post-graduate education. Education which, compared to MBA programmes, for example, is not provided by colleges and universities, if at all. It makes sense, as the business case is not there. This business case does exist for MBA programmes. Big companies send their young talents there and pay heavily for it. It is a great way to develop their talents further while getting them to commit to the organization. Startups don’t have that luxury. If you are an entrepreneur with €200,000 in the bank, you will invest it in your business, not in education. So this bit of education is picked up by the numerous accelerators worldwide, including in the Netherlands. To tackle the missing business case problem, Y-Combinator (USA) had the brilliant idea of letting startups pay with future value (via shares). The concept has been copied heavily around the world. In most cases, the approach proves a burden rather than a boon for startups. The alternative is to fund the accelerator in some other way, often through government grants or corporate clients. However, this often makes long-term planning difficult, as the funding is still relatively short-term. What I wish for us as the Netherlands and, therefore, the WaterCampus, is more standardization with each other. We should develop a standard curriculum. The Dutch Open Entrepreneurship Curriculum with standard modules that all the accelerators use and which we jointly manage. This gives the accelerators much more time and space to help the startups with sector-specific challenges.
- You are currently working on the Faculty of Impact, a programme for researchers who want to turn their research into business with impact. Can you tell us a bit more about the initiative and how it differs from existing programmes and initiatives? Do you also expect a call for water-tech researchers?
In my opinion, the Faculty of Impact should develop into a national support organization for everyone engaged in knowledge valorization in the Netherlands. The great thing is that with the Faculty of Impact, we have the support of all universities and teaching hospitals. I would also like to connect the universities of applied sciences. We have a programme for researchers who want to turn their research into business with impact. They get two years for that, including a salary, lab, office—you name it. During this period, they remain within their research group and can continue to tap into the latest knowledge. They can also return to their role of researcher if the business does not work out or is not to their liking. We started with the first group of researchers in May. One of the other first actions I want to focus on is implementing a library of standard curricula, as mentioned in my previous answer.
- I find working with researchers to valorize their knowledge extremely inspiring. That is what we try to do at WaterCampus Leeuwarden, too. I often find that researchers don’t have the necessary business competencies. What I would like to see is a pool of entrepreneurs ready to work with our researchers to build the companies. We are working on this with the University of Groningen, among others, but I still really consider this a huge challenge. How would you handle it?
That is a great and very valid question. Over the past few years, I have tried all sorts of things to deal with that problem, but I certainly haven’t solved it yet. This really is a joint problem. I expect to encounter many researchers at the Faculty of Impact who fit that profile. The first thought, of course, is to create a pool of highly experienced entrepreneurs with the ability to focus on the development of the startup for several years. However, I see two problems there. First of all, this group is not that large at all in the Netherlands. Also, extremely rich people are not always the best people to make a startup a success—if you have enough money, you can abandon ship whenever you want. Making a startup a success requires tremendous perseverance, and preferably no fallback option.
There are more than enough seniors, like myself, who would love to get into a startup but don’t have enough assets to last without income for years. Most of us still have a mortgage and family responsibilities. If you want to tap into this group, I think the solution is to be able to fully or partially compensate income for these seniors. Call it the Senior Founders Facility and use it to guarantee senior professionals an income of, say, sixty per cent of their current income for three years. This creates a situation where getting involved in a startup is much easier. If the startup is a success, they can repay the funding they received—with shares, for example. If the startup doesn’t make it, they are not up to their ears in debt. It would be great to try and shape such a facility together!
About Ronald Wielinga
Ronald Wielinga has worked as entrepreneurship manager at WaterCampus Leeuwarden since July 2020. Every month, Wielinga interviews inspirers who play a prominent role in entrepreneurship or the water technology sector.
He uses these interviews to reflect on and strengthen the WaterCampus’ entrepreneurship programme, which has strong ambitions for growth. The interviews can also be found online at www.watercampus.nl and are also regularly published in WaterProof magazine.
For more information, contact Ronald at +31 6 121 38 876 / firstname.lastname@example.org.