Have you ever tried to look at your research with the eyes of a businessman? In this article, Science's Next Wave points you toward three Dutch initiatives which may help you to turn your scientific results into business.
According to the European Innovation Scoreboard 2004, published by the European Commission, the Netherlands is slowly "losing momentum" as a knowledge economy. The Netherlands' Summary Innovation Index, which is based on 20 innovation indicators, is still above European average, but the trend is heading in the wrong direction.
In an effort to reverse this trend, the Dutch government has been supporting several initiatives aimed at stimulating scientific and technological innovation. By helping young technology-based companies on their way, these initiatives are intended to extract more commercial activity from Netherlands-based research.
The government is not alone in its quest to assist technology-based business pioneers; industry also participates, since a good Dutch economy--and, in some cases, access to excellent early stage technology companies--puts participating companies in a stronger position.
Three major initiatives support innovation in the Netherlands. If you have an innovative idea but need some incentive--and perhaps a little help--to make the entrepreneurial leap, there's New Venture, a business-plan competition for young would-be entrepreneurs. Support at a similar level--but not in the form of a competition--comes from TechnoPartner, an organization that exists mainly to facilitate contact between investors and technology-based start-ups. Finally, there's LiveWire, which provides technological and scientific entrepreneurs with marketing support, management advice, and opportunities to network with other entrepreneurs.
You'll often hear people say that entrepreneurship is in the blood. "This is partially true," says Claire Arens, project leader of New Venture, "but even born entrepreneurs sometimes need a little push in the back." That--a little shove towards commercialization--is what New Venture aims to give. This yearly competition for would-be entrepreneurs, sponsored and managed by a business consultancy agency McKinsey & Company, helps turn innovative ideas into detailed business plans. In a three round competition, you get the chance to estimate the value of your idea, test its feasibility, and develop a plan that forms the basis of your future company. The top three competitors, elected by a professional jury, receive a ?25,000 prize.
"New Venture is actually an exercise on dry land," says Arens, who encourages you to see it as "the pre-starting phase of a business." During the competition, you're able to analyze the business potential of your idea, without any consequence on your career or bank account. New Venture offers potential entrepreneurs the opportunity to discuss their idea with research and business experts from universities, industry, and government. Should your idea prove to have potential, a team of professionals will coach you through the development of a business plan.
Additional training is provided in the form of seminars, where specialists tackle issues like marketing, sales, and how to pitch an idea to potential funders and partners. These meetings, which are freely accessible to all participants, serve two purposes: in addition to the training they provide, they are also excellent networking opportunities. Exact dates and places of these meetings are provided on the New Venture Web site.
In 2004, the Ministries of Economic Affairs and of Education, Culture and Science launched a programme with the motto "everything starts with pioneering" (' Alles begint met pioneren'). The motto emphasises that looking for new opportunities, taking risks, and creative thinking are the basis for a developing knowledge economy. The Ministry of Economic Affairs has earmarked ?218M for this program entitled TechnoPartner through 2010 to help create a more favourable environment for start-ups in the Netherlands.
TechnoPartner takes several approaches to stimulating entrepreneurship. Would-be pioneers should start by visiting the TechnoPartner Web site, which contains advice on how to write a business plan and useful information on the practical issues and financial aspects of starting a business. One interesting feature is the Pioneers Test, which will help you find out whether you fit the profile of an entrepreneur. You'll also find the Pioneers Advisor, a search engine that will guide you to the online information on entrepreneurialism that you're looking for. Finally, the Pioneers Forum will allow you to enter, free, an online community of over 4,000 technical pioneers, experienced scientists, business experts, and investors. You can ask questions, exchange ideas and experiences, and increase your chances of being spotted by investors.
Then there is the TechnoPartner Label. The high risks of start-up companies, along with the inevitable delays associated with technical innovation, may make banks reluctant to give you the funds you need to get started. If your bank isn't sure about the prospects of your business, it can send your business plan along with financial planning to TechnoPartner. A positive assessment means your company gets the TechnoPartner Label, which means that the TechnoPartner program assures the bank of 80% of the value of its loan.
Another TechnoPartner initiative, the funding programme Knowledge Exploitation (Subsidieprogramma KennisExploitatie, SKE), is open to collaborations instead of individuals. Consortia of knowledge centres and companies aiming to support technical and scientific entrepreneurs can get financial support of up to ?2.5M per project. With this money, the consortium can provide young entrepreneurs reasonable loans and coaching in basic business savvy. Knowledge centers and companies can also count on support for making their equipment available for pioneers. TechnoPartner also supports consortia in screening commercially interesting research, identifying would-be-entrepreneurs, and applying for patents.
TechnoPartner works mainly as a facilitator. Their role is to make sure that innovative entrepreneurs are visible to potential investors. TechnoPartner's goal is to raise the profile of all the participating companies and to encourage investors to participate in one (or more) of the new businesses. All you have to do is to make sure that you're the first or most outstanding entrepreneur they see.
You've written your business plan, found your first investors, and watched your start-up make its first baby steps into the big, wild world. That doesn't mean you can afford to sit back and wait for the money to come.
At this stage it's helpful to turn to LiveWIRE, an international network of start-up supporting programmes run by oil multinational Shell and active in 26 countries. Each LiveWIRE programme aims to help young companies develop a long-term marketing strategy. "Technical entrepreneurs generally don't have a high score on the marketing and presentation of their business," says Elsien Struif Bontkes of Syntens, the organisation that carries out the LiveWIRE programme in the Netherlands. You get a personal advisor for one year, who will assist in analysing the management and marketing requirements of your company, drawing up a development plan, and determining the need for further training or advice.
Only new technological companies--no older than 5 years--are accepted into the LiveWIRE programme. To register, you just fill in an online application form. An intake interview at your regional Syntens office will determine whether your company is viable and innovative enough. "This doesn't necessarily mean that the product has to be innovative," says Struif Bontkes, explaining that companies with novel marketing or management ideas may also be selected. If you qualify, you'll be one of 200-250 entrepreneurs that get help from LiveWIRE every year.
As an add-on to the regular program, entrepreneurs between the ages of 18 and 35 can join the Young Business Award competition. The winners of each of the six regional finals of this competition go to the national final, where a first prize of ?10,000 awaits the most innovative and promising technical entrepreneur.
Young scientific and technical entrepreneurs are not alone in the Netherlands. As a potential entrepreneur, you will find allies if you just take the time to seek them out. Over the next few months, Next Wave will be providing first-hand stories of Netherlands' scientists who have successfully commercialised their research results. These scientists will give you further insight of what it is like to be a budding entrepreneur and how to make the best of the support that is available.