Author: Douglas Heingartner
Amsterdam is well-known for being a creative, innovative and international business hotspot that serves as a gateway to Europe. (See the rest of this AMS, if you need any convincing.) But the city, and its greater metropolitan area, has another lesser-known strength: it is also one of the top knowledge cities in Europe.
Powered by world-leading universities and both scientific and corporate research institutes, plus the knowledge they create, Amsterdam is home to a thriving ecosystem of innovation that creates jobs, attracts talent and feeds entrepreneurship. The University of Amsterdam (UvA) and the Vrije Universiteit (VU) are now strengthening the scientific education in the region even further under the banner of ‘Science in Amsterdam’, a targeted campaign that reaches out to potential students around the world.
Whether academic or commercial, thousands of people build new innovations and technologies here, most focused on solving modern-day challenges. In this special knowledge edition of AMS, we highlight some of the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area’s indisputable scientific strengths. These include IT and Big Data; life sciences and health; solar and nanoscience; food and flowers; and the city as an urban lab. This list is by no means all-encompassing, but it provides a heretofore unseen look at the ways in which Amsterdam is leading the knowledge industry.
Information Technology & Big Data
Taming big-data energy demands
How do we deal with the growing amount of energy that Big Data consumes? According to Dr Patricia Lago, the head of Software and Services at the VU, the growing data sector now uses about 10% of the world’s electricity, and that amount is growing quickly. Yet many companies haven’t considered how they will deal with their future data demands, which partly explains why today’s datacentres use only 20-80% of their storage capacity. Dr Lago and her team at the VU’s Green Lab work on ways of reducing the amount of energy that data storage systems use, developing smart software that can accurately predict how much capacity will be needed. This is especially urgent in Amsterdam, which is now home to a third of all European data centres. Collaborating with industry players is critical to continued success in this field.
Granting greater vision to AI
A new computer-vision lab in the Amsterdam Science Park is reaping the fruits of a collaboration between Amsterdam’s university and industry sectors. The QUVA lab is a joint research laboratory recently opened by American tech giant Qualcomm and the UvA. The new lab, dedicated to machine-learning techniques, is an extension of ongoing academic research in the field. Professor Arnold Smeulders, who studies and teaches computer vision at the UvA, is excited to see the ways in which this once-obscure topic is increasingly relevant to industry and daily life. Amsterdam has a proud history in this area, and the researchers at the QUVA lab are now combining research from various fields to advance our understanding of ‘deep vision’ technologies. The hope is to achieve new breakthroughs in, for example, facial recognition, motion sensing and the analysis of security footage.
Building quantum security
QuSoft is the Netherlands’ first research centre devoted to quantum software. It focuses on developing software that can take advantage of the massive power offered by tomorrow’s quantum computers. The lab – a joint initiative of the VU, the UvA and the Center for Mathematics and Computer Science (CWI) – was opened in the Amsterdam Science Park in late 2015. It is the brainchild of Harry Buhrman, a professor of computer science at the UvA. He likens the current situation with quantum computing to the 1960s, when there was all manner of new computer hardware but a lack of clear uses for it. QuSoft, which will focus on fields such as encryption, builds on the excellent reputation of the Amsterdam institutions involved, strengthening the Netherlands’ position as a world-class centre of quantum computing.
Life Sciences & Health
Leading cancer research
Amsterdam has been a globally recognised hub of cancer expertise for more than a century, and in the process has devised impressive ways of translating knowledge from the lab into real solutions for patients as quickly as possible. Many established oncological research institutes call Amsterdam home, such as the Netherlands Cancer Institute, the VUmc Cancer Center Amsterdam and the Oncologic Research Centre AMC. Together they employ nearly 9,000 people and produce around 4,000 scientific articles every year. These institutions have recently united to create the Oncology Graduate School Amsterdam, training the new experts working on tomorrow’s cures and treatments.
In this way, Amsterdam is bringing these researchers closer together, fostering a true sense of community with shared goals. This is the strength of this city, and why two science parks were created: the Amsterdam Science Park and the Medical Business Park. Together they promote the integration of the oncological research emerging from Amsterdam’s research institutions into the work of the companies that can best use it. Each park offers companies space to work alongside the various scientific institutes and faculties, removing geographical obstacles to effective collaboration. The Innovation Exchange Amsterdam is another organisation that brings the accumulated knowledge of these institutes together, helping them bring their scientific discoveries to the greater public.
One vivid example of the benefits of this integrated approach is the newly established Hartwig Medical Foundation, a database of tumour DNA that will promote new cancer treatments and refine current methods. Another recent success story is thromboDx, a molecular diagnostics company established in 2012 to utilise Dr. Tom Würdinger’s ground-breaking research in neuro-oncology at the VUmc CCA. Dr Ton Schumacher and his colleagues at the Netherlands Cancer Institute have also been developing tailor-made treatments to help the body fight cancer. Finally, the T-Cell Factory was established in 2014 (and later acquired by Kite Pharma) to manage the relevant patents and intellectual property.
Collaborating on neuroscience
Amsterdam Neuroscience is a new research organisation that brings together the city’s top hospitals and universities. Focusing on Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, it will be one of the largest neuroscience research communities in Europe. The group is also forging business relationships with external stakeholders, from public-private partnerships to research alliances – a shining example of Amsterdam’s collaboration mission.
Ending child obesity
Professors Jaap Seidell and Arnoud Verhoeff are the brains behind the new, cross-disciplinary initiative known as Sarphati Amsterdam. This institute makes local children the focus of cutting-edge research on lifestyle-related diseases, especially obesity. Sarphati Amsterdam, to be launched this year, will pool together the best minds in scientific research, government strategy and the private sector to contribute to the health of Amsterdam’s youth. Its dynamic ‘living lab’ of patients includes about 150,000 children and young adults, which enables the group’s 30 researchers – from ethnographers and paediatricians to anthropologists and microbiologists – to uncover new understanding in preventing obesity.
Solar & nanotechnology
Melding solar and nano tech
Eminent scientist Albert Polman has dedicated his life to the technology of small things: the world of nanoscience. With a focus on photovoltaics (a method of converting solar energy into direct-current electricity) and the use of nanoscience in solar energy, Polman’s work is likely to have a major impact on our daily lives. Professor Polman previously headed a foundation at the AMOLF research laboratory in Amsterdam, and currently leads a scientific group working on photovoltaics there.
Alongside Japan and the USA, the Netherlands is one of the top three countries in nanotechnology research and innovation. The driving force behind this excellence in Amsterdam is a healthy ecosystem created by the collaboration between the government, universities, research institutes and commercial sector. But as Polman is quick to point out, it all comes down to the people drawn to this location: ‘Why do people come here? Because it’s Amsterdam; it’s the city itself.’
Collaborating on solar research
Solardam is Amsterdam’s network of solar collaborators. Its aim is to make solar panels a more efficient and cheaper source of energy. Solardam, also led by Albert Polman, has quickly become home to more than 100 international researchers from the fields of physics, chemistry and biology. It is also the base of AMOLF, one of the leading nanophotonics institutes in Europe. Another partner is the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands, the country’s largest energy-research institute. American researcher Dr. Mark Knight, a postdoctoral researcher at Solardam, promises that the consortium’s collaborative research will have a great environmental impact, both at home and abroad.
Writing at nano scales
Another Amsterdam-based initiative that’s helping to drive the nanotechnology industry forward is the Advanced Research Centre for Nanolithography, or ARCNL. Forged out of a collaboration between four prominent Amsterdam institutions, ARCNL focuses on the fundamental physics involved in key technologies in nanolithography, the art and science of microscopic etching, writing and printing. As with most things nano in Amsterdam, Polman is also at the forefront of this group’s ground-breaking work. ARCNL was created in response to the needs of the Dutch photolithography giant company ASML, which reached out to the Dutch scientific community for help in solving one of the fundamental challenges of nanoscience: how to create the tools needed to ensure long-term innovation in the field. ARCNL today functions as an independent research institute, housing about 100 Dutch and international researchers. Their breakthroughs will shape the technology behind everything from computers and smartphones to vehicles and household devices.
Food and flowers
The Amsterdam green campus
In addition to being a renowned centre of knowledge, the Netherlands is the world’s second-largest exporter of agricultural products and an important centre for sustainability development. That’s why the Amsterdam Green Campus was recently launched: to better translate scientific knowledge into the innovations needed by the green and plant-based businesses in the Amsterdam region. Its founder Michel Haring describes it as a platform for bringing together everyone involved in the green industries, with a focus on sustainable horticulture, the breeding of plants and vegetables, green cities, product innovation and sustainable raw materials.
One of its other main aims is to help educational institutions provide the right training and develop the skills the industry needs, from entry-level greenhouse staff to site managers, technicians, researchers and industry leaders. Everybody wins: companies get access to the Amsterdam Science Park and equipment they might not have themselves, and they also get talented students to work on their research, while the students benefit from practical experience and the universities get greater insight into what employers need. Together, these elements will help secure Amsterdam’s position as a leading exponent of green sciences for generations to come.
Leading seed development
Just north of Amsterdam, the firm Enza Zaden is changing the way we eat. The company has grown from a small family business founded in 1938 into a global force in the seed industry, with a staff of about 1,500 around the world. The Dutch are the world’s largest exporters of seeds, also producing about 40% of the world’s new varieties of horticulture seed every year. The country is responsible for a quarter of the global trade in horticultural products – half when it comes to floriculture, or growing flowers. Enza Zaden owner Jaap Mazereeuw says it can take 7 to 12 years to develop a new variety of seed, so keeping far ahead of the global competition is critical. The cooperation between commercial suppliers, research institutes and government bodies here makes that possible. Commercial research is also a key component, and Enza Zaden spends around 30% of its turnover on research and development. It is also one of the founders of the Seed Valley Foundation, whose goal it is to strengthen the economic position of this cluster.
Making Amsterdam (even) smarter
An initiative known as Amsterdam Smart City (ASC) is working on tech-driven solutions to the city’s most pressing urban challenges, including mobility and the transition to renewable energy. As explained by Ger Baron, the Chief Technology Officer of the City of Amsterdam and the head of ASC, the ASC provides the connectivity, energy and data necessary for start-ups and entrepreneurs to develop their solutions. With about 100 partners, including businesses, local authorities, research institutes and the city’s own residents, they are currently working on more than 90 innovative projects.
An example is the collaboration with the Amsterdam ArenA stadium, where real-time traffic information data will help improve mobility. Other projects focus on energy-saving lighting, public WiFi and even a self-steering garbage-collection boat to keep the city’s canals clean. Amsterdam aspires to have the best energy system of all the world’s capitals, and this ambition will benefit from its existing ecosystem of companies that combine their expertise in areas such as IT, electronics and energy.
The Knowledge Mile
Amsterdam’s Wibautstraat is known as the Knowledge Mile, because it has more students than any other street in the city. This dense concentration of students can help connect the creativity and technology of tomorrow with the urban challenges of today. And Amsterdam’s Knowledge Mile is about to get even smarter: Matthijs ten Berge, director of the Amsterdam Creative Industries Network (ACIN), plans to turn this two-kilometre stretch of road into an ‘applied research ecosystem’, a living laboratory where urban issues can be tackled.
The ACIN acts as an interface between the area’s industries, government bodies and educational organisations. One example is the Refugee Company, a start-up that connects refugees with jobs, giving them a chance to work as they await their legal status. The project has already helped set up a cheese factory in one refugee camp. Another collaboration, with the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, is the Amstelhuis, a home for able-bodied seniors. This privately run facility provides affordable rental apartments, and residents are encouraged to become more independent, for example via lessons on using an iPad, Skype or the Dutch train system.
Mastering the science of water
Another example of the city as a living lab is the new consortium known as Amsterdam Water Science, which brings together two university communities, local water authorities and businesses. Together they innovate in the field of water science, and Amsterdam and its water-rich environment serve as a testing ground for the group’s research and education. Dr. Elco Koks, for example, has been looking into the effects of extreme weather events on the Port of Amsterdam. His work considers a wide variety of ‘what if’ scenarios, which may also be of use to other regions and cities, as well as across different businesses, such as oil companies and data centres.