First published in AMS business magazine. Author: Hans Kops

“We are in a strong position,” says Kajsa Ollongren, who, as Alderperson for Economic Affairs and Arts & Culture, and as the figurehead of StartupAmsterdam, is politically responsible for maintaining the age-old tradition of innovative entrepreneurship in the Dutch capital. “In all the lists, we are in the top three most attractive startup locations in Europe. Which isn’t surprising as we have a great deal of things to offer startups. There is a stable IT infrastructure, for instance. Almost everyone has broadband, which makes the region an ideal testing ground for new digital products and services.”

Amsterdam is an open-minded and internationally oriented city, where mavericks and talented professionals like to live and work, and it’s a city where they can afford to do so too. Starting a business here is easy and inexpensive. There are plenty of starter platforms where new entrepreneurs are actively supported and supervised, and the knowledge and facilities of this city’s science and research institutions are increasingly accessible.

“What really stands out for me is that Amsterdam is a city that offers unexpected alliances. Collaborations occur here that would not be so easy to establish elsewhere. This is perhaps our most important selling point for start-ups who are looking for their next phase of growth with regards to markets, capital and partners who can help them further.”

Startup Amsterdam

To support the city’s ambitions of being a hub for entrepreneurs, StartupAmsterdam was set up a year ago as part of a nationwide startup programme. StartupDelta promotes the Netherlands as a place where startups thrive and can grow (faster than anywhere else) into companies that create jobs and develop new markets. The Amsterdam metropolitan area plays a leading role in this, and therefore deserves special attention. Or, as Ollongren says: “The Amsterdam brand is the Netherlands’ calling card when it comes to promoting itself as a startup country. It has all the characteristics and location benefits that many entrepreneurs are looking for. And we are also the gateway to similar initiatives in other growth centres in the Netherlands, such as the agro-food clusters in Wageningen, the mechatronics cluster around Eindhoven, and Delft’s water-management network. StartupDelta is responsible for the overall coordination of the national programme, while StartupAmsterdam is responsible for creating an environment that is as attractive as possible for startups in our metropolitan area.”

Like her StartupDelta colleague and former EU commissioner and minister Neelie Kroes, Liberal Democrat Ollongren knows the political path in The Hague and is aware of the importance of attracting enough startups with growth opportunities for the future development of the Dutch economy and the city itself. “We are in a transition period. There are more and more technologies available that require different business models and custom solutions. Even from our government. Additionally, we can see the emergence of the sharing and circular economies, and we’re increasingly competing as a conurbation against a few other major ‘smart urban regions’ in Europe. To be able to participate in that game – which is something we want to do, and which is something we, as a municipality, have declared as our mission – you need new ideas and concepts. And that’s what startups have.”

“Startups are not inhibited or burdened by the past; they tap into new markets, create new jobs and professions that we have not seen before, and pioneer new technologies and applications. Moreover, they revitalise the ecosystem, in the sense that existing businesses are inspired (or forced) by them to renew their own business models. In turn, these existing businesses can help the startups reach the market and accompany them in their growth to maturity. All in all, startups and scale-ups add much more value this way than they do in percentage of contributions (especially in the first years) to the gross regional product. StartupAmsterdam is there to help them contribute as much as possible as quickly as possible.”

Startup visas

Ollongren spent much of the past year travelling to research inspiring (policy) examples in cities that Amsterdam can emulate. She visited startup initiatives in San Francisco, Tel Aviv, London, Berlin and New York, and entrepreneurs travelled with her to get acquainted with local startups and see if they can work together. Amsterdam itself has now entered into a startup coalition with New York, with the aim of sharing policy experiences. 

“Both cities began conducting an active startup policy later than, say, San Francisco, but a lot has happened in the meantime, and it appears that, thanks to our dynamic city environments, we now have an edge. We exchange experiences and research with New York: What works for you and why? How have you dealt with this, and what results have been achieved? This way, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time, and we gather additional support. Paris is to joining us now too.”

What’s more, many practical issues have been addressed and problems solved in recent months. As a result, a budding entrepreneur from outside the EU can now apply for a startup visa, as a close cooperation with IN Amsterdam has eased visa applications. Previously, if an entrepreneur came here with promising plans but not such a certain income, they were ineligible for a lengthy stay in the Netherlands. Now, they can appeal for a startup status. Within a few days, we can determine whether the applicant is legally allowed to stay in the Netherlands for two years and try to build a business here.

Startup in residence

In addition to this, there is also StartupAmsterdam’s Startup in Residence programme. “With this programme, the city of Amsterdam acts as a client. We are one of the largest players in the market and use our market position to give initiatives we deem valuable a chance. Therefore we have launched a pilot project in which only startup companies are allowed to participate. We ask them to develop solutions for seven major urban problems. One such issue is how we can further limit our waste and prepare it for reuse, with a requirement that every collection point must have a chip that informs us if it is ready to be emptied or not.

Then there is the problem of abandoned bikes that are no longer functioning: how can we map out where they all are and how can they be collected faster and cheaper? We commission the startups to work on these issues for four months and develop groundbreaking solutions. The knife cuts both ways, incidentally. We give startups a growth opportunity, while simultaneously introducing a different way of thinking and approach within our own organisation.”

Social startups

The latter initiative gives a chance to startups with a social orientation in particular, social enterprises and non-profit organisations whose primary purpose is to contribute to help solve a social or environmental problem. “I think Amsterdam is distinguished by our number of social enterprises and the attention we give them. We support many startup initiatives that place more importance on having an impact than on profit. It’s something I’m really proud of, both as an administrator and as a human being. It also fits very well with today’s younger generation – they want challenging work that contributes to the things they care about. And so, together with all those concerned – from advocacy groups to research institutions and potential investors – we have set up a Social Enterprise Action Plan.”

Amsterdam capital week

And so, by offering a broad spectrum of initiatives to make Amsterdam attractive to startups, the following policy challenge is being tackled: the empirical fact that half of startup companies cease to exist within just five years of their launch. But now that there is a growing focus on attracting more startups to the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area, the goal is to guide them successfully to maturity, to help them grow. “That’s why we are paying extra attention to the programme components that are important in this respect: to ensure that there is sufficient growth capital available, and that promising startups and existing corporations join forces to develop markets together,” says Ollongren. 

“This year, we organised the very first Amsterdam Capital Week, with the main objective of putting financiers and entrepreneurs in touch with each other and teaching them to understand each other’s languages. It was a great success, and we’ll now be repeating it on an annual basis. ‘There’s another good outcome from it too: I am very enthusiastic about initiatives such as TSO Munt Square. It’s a physical and digital platform set up by ABN AMRO bank where both large and startup companies can collaborate on innovative projects and also, for example, share market and organisational knowledge. This way, the cross-fertilisation becomes increasingly more potent, and both types of businesses can build the future together.’”

For all the latest news about startups in Amsterdam, visit #StartupAMS