Limburg must focus on being complementary
Although the economic crisis was accompanied by deep troughs, it also provided new insight: Limburg had to become more independent. Technological ingenuity is part of this new direction, but competing with large clusters elsewhere is not, according to Deputy for Economic Affairs, Twan Beurskens. A conversation about the power of being complementary.
It has been 44 years since the last mine closed its doors and the need for economic restructuring has meant tremendous challenges for the current Parkstad Limburg area in particular. The southern province’s capacity for innovation has been put to the test, but the area is undergoing yet another transformation. Although this change may be less dramatic in terms of the landscape, it is nonetheless crucial for the coming decades according to those in the know. With the Brightlands Smart Services Campus in Heerlen at the center of all this activity, major investments are being made in big data, technological innovations and smart services. Together with the well-known mainstays of chemistry, logistics and health care, the goal is for these new technologies to make Limburg future-proof. These days, nearly every region is promoting its technological ingenuity. The trick however is to be complementary, emphasizes Deputy for Economic Affairs Twan Beurskens, focusing on supplementary instead of competitive strengths.
“Differentiation was necessary in order to ultimately enable pursuing a more independent course,”
At the peak of the economic crisis around six or seven years ago, the realization of “how dependent Limburg’s economic structure was on other periods of economic boom” became even clearer to those working within the walls of the provincial government building. When things were going well in the Randstad, the south would benefit from a knock-on effect. However, in 2012, the Randstad was also struggling. Limburg found itself facing high unemployment figures, yet also needed to find a solution for tricky issues such as a decline in the number of young people and the ageing of the population. At the time, the area was characterized by a dwindling manufacturing industry and a dominant service sector. The conclusion? “Differentiation was necessary in order to ultimately enable pursuing a more independent course,” Beurskens concludes now. Diversity. The first step in this direction was to create a strong knowledge infrastructure; this is essential to putting Limburg on the map as an appealing climate for companies considering moving to the area. In 2013, Maastricht University, Zuyd University of Applied Sciences and the Maastricht University Medical Center+ joined forces to start the Knowledge Axis. Fontys quickly joined them. Reinforcing and connecting the four Limburg Brightlands campuses, beneficiaries of 380 million Euros in investments by the previously mentioned parties and the Province, takes priority in the ten-year strategy. In the meantime, the European Commission was also emphasizing the importance of strong regions. In 2011, the Netherlands launched the Top Sectors Policy, the goal of which was to yield groundbreaking solutions to social problems. This also meant an intensification of the partnerships between science and business within the nine top sectors that were identified, including logistics, life sciences and the creative industry. Substantial investments in the major economic clusters followed.
The fourth industrial revolution is now at the gate, and according to some, it has already begun. Techruption is where this revolution is destined to take shape in Limburg and the (Eu)region. This initiative is all about “innovative, entrepreneurial capacity”, a breeding ground for disruption. Competing with the enormous investments in the United States and China is however a daunting, if not impossible, task. According to Beurskens, it is vital to secure a position that appeals to large clusters. Heerlen is “decidedly the campus of crossovers” as it is. Limburg’s strength lies in these crossovers. With a hint of pride, Beurskens adds, “Just look at the developments in the bio-medical field. The fact that someone like Van Blitterswijk has decided to set up operations here is fantastic.” Famous researcher and pioneer in regenerative medicine, Clemens Van Blitterswijk came to the capital of the province four years ago. In 2016, the UM professor was awarded a prestigious research grant of 2.5 million Euros to develop new tissues. Beurskens: “Thanks to crossovers, the number of successful companies active in bio-medicine has gone through the roof here.”
Since the added value is “always entrepreneurship,” and Limburg “didn’t score very high” in terms of startups in the past, Beurskens is now aiming to ensure a continuous influx of young and innovative minds. These pioneers aren’t afraid to take risks in a mischievous setting, and force established parties to think. Is Techruption looking hard enough for solutions in the niche markets? As Tuomas Sandholm, expert in algorithms and artificial intelligence, recommended during his visit to the campus last year, investing in artificial intelligence is a good strategy for small countries, provided you specialize. Tackling large-scale social problems such as climate change using blockchain technology and artificial intelligence has a nice ring to it. For now, however, outsiders see a broad spectrum of use cases at Techruption. According to Beurskens, a broader orientation was (and still is) desirable in the beginning in order to limit the risk of a lack of valorisation. “It always starts as a search, followed by reflection.” The deputy wants more focus in another year or two, or even three. “This focus should be on one or two themes.”
He would rather “invest in 100 startups than in one major player,”
And then there is the all-important question of “how”. The answer to this must ultimately result in sufficient numbers of people, the masses. “So many that you hardly notice when someone leaves.” Beurskens actually compares the province with a hub, for knowledge, manpower, traffic and logistics, and students. A hub implies interaction, and a coming and going of companies and people. This is a concept that the deputy clearly embraces. Instead of worrying about the percentage of graduates in Limburg who will stay on and settle down within the province boundaries, he would rather focus on looking for the right balance between attracting these people and keeping them here. He cites the example of the Amsterdam company Avantium that put a pilot plant into operation at the Chemelot campus in Geleen in 2016. “We have invested in Avantium, as well as giants like Coca-Cola.” Avantium is developing plastic from renewable raw materials and wants to open a plant in Antwerp together with the chemical giant BASF for this purpose. However, significant delays in construction were announced earlier this year. This means that we will have to wait a few years to see bioplastic PEF come to fruition. This product is expected to become the ultimate alternative for petroleum-based PET bottles.
Focus on strengths
Diversifying risk is Beurskens’s motto. He would rather “invest in 100 startups than in one major player,” attract and connect them, and optimally facilitate them. After all, corporate businesses take a hard line in their evaluations: if it’s not profitable, there’s no point in sticking around. At the same time, it is important to feed budding talent and “invest very early” in entrepreneurs, the way this is being done at Techruption. What is the task ahead? “Offensive acquisition!” After all, as Beurskens knows all too well, “Big data, smart services; this is a vulnerable sector we’re talking about. This is why we really need more market-driven parties now such as Accenture and Conclusion.” He qualifies this by specifying European offices of major market parties; it’s not realistic to set your sights on attracting headquarters. Beurskens doesn’t seem to waste any time daydreaming about unrealistic goals for Limburg as it is. He thinks that “being part of the community and adopting the right attitude” are more valuable than re-inventing the wheel. In other words, Limburg shouldn’t be looking for solutions in the high-end segment when it comes to technological ingenuity, but mostly “in those areas where we already excel.” Thinking out loud, Beurskens says it’s better to aim for real markets that may sound less exciting but have clear potential for the region. The Limburg call center market for example, a sector people sometimes take a rather condescending view of now and then. A focus on service and support just happens to be one of the strengths of the south. This is where we need to look for potential connections. He also wants to zero in more on public-private partnerships and trying to attract secondary and higher vocational education students locally and across the border. After graduating, RWTH Aachen students often go straight to Munich to start their careers (“where they’re 20 or 30 years ahead of us”), even though vocational education students have a variety of career opportunities right here in the area. This is a fact that Limburg really should work more actively to promote. It also offers prospects for the labor shortage the region is currently experiencing. Besides, a good hub opens doors “to everyone and everything”. Beurskens expects that we will start seeing the (first) social effects of this new direction in another five to ten years, the results of the current transition. “Less dependence on large processes and more pro-active control.” Limburg at the complementary helm, in other words.