Bert-Jan Woertman: ‘Keep stirring Brainport’s magic potion’

In the Brainport region, anaverage of 8 out of 10 winners of the Gerard & Anton Awards are able to build successful livelihoods. That’s a high score for high-tech. Because if you look at the figures across all the sectors, only 20% of start-ups survive. What does that say about the state of our tech region? “That things are going well,” says Bert-Jan Woertman with a bit of an understatement. “Especially when you see that the Dutch economy is shrinking, whereas we’re still growing here. The key to this success stopped being a secret a long time ago: it lies in our unique ecosystem. And we need to keep feeding it to remain successful, according to Bert-Jan, who actively contributes himself to this endeavour.

Text Paul van Vugt
Image Bart van Overbeeke

Until recently, Bert-Jan Woertman was Director of Mikrocentrum, the knowledge and networking organisation for the high-tech and manufacturing industry. Here, he built self-reinforcing innovation ecosystems. A role he combines with ambitious volunteer work: the annual organisation of the Gerard Anton Awards for promising start-ups in the high-tech scene. The winner of these Awards? Ultimately, it’s the entire Brainport region.

‘The Oude Rechtbank on Stratumseind became the centrepiece of a veritable feast of innovations.’

Hidden gems
The idea for the Awards originated with Bert-Jan 10 years ago. “More and more start-ups were emerging, but there was hardly any communication about them. When you searched online, you couldn’t find anything. There wasn’t any fanfare for their new businesses. They remained hidden gems. An article on start-ups to watch out for in New York was an eye-opener. That set me on the track to help tell all these stories about promising start-ups from our region.”

The following year, the companies behind the stories were also literally given a platform. The Oude Rechtbank on Stratumseind became the centrepiece of a veritable feast of innovations. The regional high-tech scene was massively represented and the energy of that night left us wanting more. Not much later, the Gerard & Anton Awards were born. With awards for the ten most promising start-ups.

People make the difference
According to Bert-Jan, the word ‘promising’ encompasses much more than just ‘a clever idea’. “The innovative element of the start-up is important, but equally relevant are the people from the founding team. You have to look past their plan. Get to know the people behind the idea. The drivers. They are the foundation of their innovation. Their ability ultimately determines whether it will progress.”

“A prototype is easy to come up with, but once you’re on the road, you come across so many bumps. From technical challenges and funding, to clinical trials and CE markings. Before you get through that, you’ll be five years down the line. And if your team isn’t right, you can forget it. This is why our ecosystem is so important. All the knowledge you don’t have yourself is literally there for the taking in our region. People who have been successful in the past want to give something back to the up and coming. It’s so nice as a young techie to be able to look behind the scenes at ASML. Looking over someone else’s shoulder can be a game changer for start-ups.”

‘Guys,’ as Fred would say, ‘what you came up with isn’t working, I’ll help take a look’

“One great example is the nesting function taken up by 70-year-old Fred Roozeboom. He’s unknown to the general public, but he has played an essential role in our region. Working for Philips, he and his research group developed smart ideas that you now find in all kinds of devices that we all use every day. In the process, he took the industry and society a step further. For this, he even recently received a prestigious inventor award in America: the Gordon Moore Medal. These people make Eindhoven unique. And he remains important to us as he still works among the young techies. ‘Guys,’ as Fred would say, ‘what you came up with isn’t working, I’ll help take a look’

“That helpfulness is a hallmark of our region. With each other and for each other. Every first Wednesday of the month, we make that happen during Demos Pitches and Drinks, located at a different venue each time in our beautiful region. With successful seniors – like the ever-present co-founders Hans Meeske of Holland Innovative and Bart Brouwers of Innovation Origins – investing in the future generation. Every single day. In the process, we’re creating a catalyst that will take us forward and ensure that we’re an international hotspot as a region.”

Silicon Valley vs Veldhoven
Ten years ago, Bert-Jan was inspired by New York start-ups. Today, people are watching our operations here from the US. The Economist devoted an article to it with the apt message: ‘Ask people to pinpoint the digital centre of the economy and many would finger Silicon Valley, but the case of Veldhoven, a non descript suburb of the fifth biggest city of the Netherlands, looks compelling.’

“Not a word of that is a lie,” according to Bert-Jan. “We receive one international delegation after another here. Keep ‘em coming. Let them inspire. We don’t need to worry about anyone potentially copying our success. Because you can’t. Here, we have a different kind of technical history. A different culture based on collaboration. The difference isn’t so much in the technology, but in our ability to work together.”

“Take one of the complex machines from ASML. It actually consists of a very complex network of people and companies interacting with each other. That machine is made up of puzzle pieces from company x and y, who then pass it on to company z. We’re not competing from company to company here, but making each other stronger in our ecosystem.”

Our Brabant confidence: can’t be copied
If you ask me about the ‘secret’ ingredient of our magic potion, I’d bet on ‘confidence’. That element is specific to our culture and woven into our geniality. Our mindset is one of ‘Let’s have a beer together and we’ll figure it out’. It is well worth noting that internationals also thrive in this climate. It’s not based on science, but I can take a stab at why this is the case. These are smart people who like being listened to and who, with their knowledge, can contribute to solving the complex challenges we are working on together. In say, India, there’s much more of a hierarchy. There, your position is more important than your talent. That’s an assumption of mine, but it would be worth investigating whether this is how it actually works.”

“Another catalyst of our success is the growing number of platforms supporting start-ups, such as The Gate at TU/e Campus, HighTechXL and LumoLabs at High Tech Campus. And a lot of great things are also happening in the student teams at TU/e Innovation Space. This is fertile ground for entrepreneurship. Ambitious techies find each other in those teams and then transform their knowledge into practice in their ambition to improve the world. That is another hugely powerful catalyst. Those teams learn a lot from each other in a short time and quickly move into the corporate world or set up their own companies.”

‘We are in our infancy, but already making a world of difference with our high-tech’

“Like our Awards, these kinds of ecosystems did not exist about 10-20 years ago. Can you imagine how fledgling our high-tech region actually is. We are in our infancy, but already making a world of difference with our high-tech solutions. And the next generation is already there in the starting blocks. Take for example someone like Beatrix Bos. Once a world champion with Solar Team Eindhoven’s solar car, she is now a key employee of Carbyon, one of those great start-ups. The fact that she is presenting the Gerard Anton Awards with me makes it even more wonderful and natural.”

But none of this happens automatically, Bert-Jan warns in conclusion. “It’s up to every stakeholder to continue investing time and energy into the ecosystem. To take a break from their own work. To be open to valuable encounters with others. This is how we organise chance and keep our system moving organically. This is how we keep stirring our magic potion that we use to cast our international impact spell.”

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