The Netherlands: World Champion in Innovation?

The Netherlands is the best country of the world, after Switzerland, according to journalist Matthijs Bouman. He states that, regarding competition and innovation, there are only 3 countries better than the Netherlands. Add the factor happiness to that and the only competitors left are the Swiss.

One of the biggest drivers for this success is the favorable innovation climate in the Netherlands, which has remarkably increased in attractiveness over the past years. We are Europe’s number one on the Startup Nation Scoreboard and Amsterdam is known as the Capital of Innovation of Europe, as well as the highest newcomer in the top 20 of the Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking. Additionally, the Netherlands has risen from the 10th (in 2011) to the 5th spot in the Global Competitiveness Report and the Global Innovation Index has rewarded us with the 4th place.  And so there are endless lists showing that “we” are completely back in the game and are again a force to be reckoned with, compared to a few years ago.

There are obvious signs that, although our country is small, we play in the major league for Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Because of the exceptionally strong foundation for innovation from which the Netherlands can facilitate the success of thousands of start-ups. Initiatives such as the football playing robots from Tech United of TU Eindhoven (see photo below), who won the WC Robot football in 2014 and 2016, and the smart robots from Delft University & RoboValley who won the Amazon Picking Challenge in Leipzig are proof of the exceptional talent and facilities around our Universities.

Football playing robots from Tech United of TU Eindhoven. Source:

Where Are the KLM’s, Unilevers and Heinekens?

However – we lack track record in scaling up the high potential start-ups. In the past the Netherlands has proven to be able to be very successful in scaling – think of KLM, Unilever, Heineken, Shell, Ahold, Akzo Nobel. These are all names of leading companies that have made the transition from start-up to scale-up and are still part of the global leading companies.  Their success provides them an outstanding position in the world economy and gives them access to consumers, goods and global brand awareness. 

In the past ten to twenty years, only few global leaders have emerged from the Netherlands, with the exception of, TomTom and Adyen. These are good examples of Dutch start-ups that have scaled. However, the next wave of fast growing start-ups is not surfacing as fast as we would like. Who will follow their lead? Catawiki is currently the fastest growing company of Europe, and Elastic, Mendix and have good momentum. Wetransfer and Shapeways are hauling in big investments. But world domination? Not quite yet…

The Conditions Are There

Many things are well arranged in the Netherlands. Compared to the rest of Europe we have the lowest business expenses for start-ups. Moreover, the average knowledge and education level is high. According to the top 200 of best European universities, the average score of Dutch universities is the best of Europe. Also, the amount of social media user in the Netherlands tops the chart. With a user penetration of 72.3% we are three percentage points ahead of the Norwegians. And in the Digital Density Index we also rank first. For this worldwide research it has been analyzed which foundations a Digital Economy requires to facilitate an accelerated growth – with the Netherlands as leader and example for other countries in this report.

The Digital Density Index (DDI) measures the digital economic productivity of countries around the world and is based on more than fifty indicators spread over four terrains. As far as countries’ economic performances are concerned, the higher the score, the better the assimilation of digital technology. Therefore, as their skillset increases, they will increase their economic potential.

the Netherlands rank first in Accenture's Digital Density Index

Now Bring in That Championship!

So the conditions are there. The Netherlands has proven time and again that we are a world market leader. The government is working hard to create a favorable climate that allows breakthroughs to be realized.

Now we need to accelerate to beat the Swiss and take their first place – and become the real World Champion of Innovation. Our ecosystem of start-ups and scale-ups is much more powerful than the one of the Swiss. If we can manage to accelerate in that area, then we will shoot past Switzerland like Max Verstappen past Daniil Kvyat.

There are four ways of which we believe they will accelerate innovation:

  1. Build Bridges between start-ups and corporates to realize the right partnerships. The creativity and innovation power of start-ups combined with the execution power and worldwide market access of corporates creates mutual value. We are committed to help these collaborations flourish by providing services like Innovation Scouting and then building the bridges between start-ups and corporate EG by rapid development of joint prototypes. For this we combine the power of our global open innovation network with our innovation database based on 10 years of Innovation Awards research.
  1. Dutch start-ups: think bigger! Take the initiative to also seek individually for ways to realize a big breakthrough. Do not settle for the ‘success’ of being taken over by a big (American) company. Aim to be the big fish yourself.
  1. Dutch Government – increase your support for entrepreneurship. Regulations and slow decision-making are key risks for scale-ups. If you can intensify and connect initiatives such as Startup Delta, Startup Amsterdam and the worldwide Innovation Attaché Network - to name but a few – this will make a huge impact.
  1. The Netherlands is the perfect test market for innovations – which can be expanded globally after proven success. Especially complex innovations with several parties involved can be realized here faster than in other countries. We suggest to form coalitions of businesses, government and start-ups to work on breakthroughs for the key innovation themes of the Netherlands.  Many much needed breakthroughs are technologically feasible yet need a consortium of organizations to be realized. Let’s step up and solve some of these challenges together – and then scale globally.

Connecting start-ups, corporates, research institutes, universities, venture capital and the government we can build a bridge between innovation and execution. Or in other words: Bring start-ups to scale-ups. Let me know if and how you would like to get involved. Together, we can win big. 

If we can realize this impact together, then we can raise our glasses to celebrate our championship soon.

This article was previously published on (in Dutch).