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Behind London and Berlin, the Dutch startup scene is already considered to be one of the most prominent in Europe. (If it feels unfair to weigh an entire country against individual cities, consider that the Netherlands has 17 million people crammed into an area half the size of South Carolina.)
It’s a fascinating time to take stock of startup innovation in the Netherlands, a rare turning point where you can watch the hard work of the past give way to the immense promise of the future.
Startup Juncture reported 75 major deals in 2014, for a total of roughly $560 million in investment. Ten companies raised over $9 million. In the past few years, especially, each successive quarter has seemingly brought a new standard for sheer volume of activity. The road to this point has been long and deliberate, and Dutch entrepreneurs deserve credit for what they’ve managed to achieve thus far.
And yet, to herald Dutch innovation as it currently stands is to unveil a project that’s still only just underway.
The Dutch, on the whole, speak better English than probably any non-native population in continental Europe, one of the hallmarks of a consistently excellent education system that also scores among the highest worldwide in math and science metrics. Strong economic foundations in industry and commerce offer a dependable framework for continued growth.
Talk to the people at the heart of the Dutch startup scene about how things got to this point, and the first two names you’ll hear are almost always the same. Founded in 1991 and 1996, respectively, Booking.com and TomTom are among the most successful Dutch companies in any field.
Booking.com has gone through two nine-figure acquisitions and facilitated tens of millions of reservations since its launch as a foundational travel site. TomTom, which once made watches and basic GPS devices, now has more than 4,000 employees and high-tech software products in 41 countries. Both are still based out of Amsterdam, but the startup scene around them has changed dramatically in the meantime.
For many years, industry leaders told me, growth was plodding and disjointed. The Netherlands has a strong tradition of entrepreneurship, but the transition toward startup culture was a slow one, and it was years before the corresponding success stories started to emerge.
2006 brought a watershed moment, in that respect: The Next Web held its first conference in Amsterdam. The now-annual event offered budding local leaders a unique window into the global startup world, and offered the world a unique window into the potential waiting to be tapped in the Netherlands.
To this day, no business gathering has done as much to foster international transactions or showcase the Netherlands and its capital.
The global financial crisis of 2008 was a doubly sharp blow, arriving just as the Netherlands’ startup scene was starting to take coherent form. But in the past five years, Dutch entrepreneurs have bounced back in a big way. Where name-brand multinationals like Heineken, Shell and Phillips have struggled to grow, startup entrepreneurship has taken root, giving younger, more agile companies the support system they need to flourish.
In 2011, Rockstart, one of the country’s most prominent incubators, accepted its first class. Startupbootcamp, founded a few months later, has gone on to become one of the most well-recognized names across Europe.
At around this same time, a steady, decade-long shift within the Netherlands’ major universities began to manifest in strong, localized ecosystems that retain more and more of the tech talent that previously went to more traditional industries.
As is usually the case, the government’s involvement lagged behind the rest of the market, but StartupDelta, a publicly backed initiative launched in 2014 and led by Neelie Kroes, has taken on an important coordinating, supporting and promotional role within the broader ecosystem.