Serious Fun on the Fourth Floor
Things are buzzing on the 4th floor of the iconic Groot Handelsgebouw (literally the large wholesale building in Dutch), directly adjacent to the Rotterdam Central Station. Completed in 1953 it’s one of the first major buildings built after the bombing of Rotterdam in the Second World War. Its design was inspired by the equally imposing Merchandise Mart in Chicago. The walls breathe history on every floor. But today this place is becoming more of a symbol of a vibrant present and a highly promising future.
Over the last few months, a fresh wave of inspiration from the US has been the talk of Rotterdam entrepreneurs in TV broadcasts, magazines and newspaper articles. Venture Café is a concept which started as a not-for-profit initiative of the Cambridge Innovation Centre (CIC).
Clear and different aims
“We’re here with three main goals” explains Dieuwke Hoogland, who’s quartermaster for Venture Café Rotterdam. “We build and connect existing innovative communities in new and original ways. By doing so, we enlarge and enrich the standard definition of innovation and entrepreneurship. The tech ecosystem, for instance, is much broader than just the technology and those who build it. We also believe in building a more inclusive innovation economy. We want to make sure that questions about inequality and inclusion are part of the innovation and entrepreneurship conversation –not an afterthought.”
“It’s been important to be part of an international network from day one, since we opened in November 2015. Venture Café is also in St Louis, Missouri, Miami Florida, as well as in Boston. The first one in Europe has deliberately landed in the Port of Rotterdam.”
“We're based in this grand industrial trade building opposite Rotterdam Central Station. But our catchment area is most of the Western part of the Netherlands – including Leiden, The Hague, Delft and the greater Rotterdam area. We are deliberately complementing rather than competing with all the existing initiatives like Yes!Delft and the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship. We all have a shared goal to help startups scale and find their match to the right sources of capital. But we’re casting our net over the whole startup delta region, using our overview to understand the benefit of connecting and enriching existing initiatives that trigger the start of new ones.”
Ethan Zuckerman of MIT Labs noted in a keynote a few years ago that many innovative clusters tend to attract like-minded people. Legal people naturally look to network with their peers. Artists look for others within the creative sector.
“In contrast, our concept tries to stimulate cross-fertilization between professions” continues Dieuwke. “Innovation gets accelerated when there is interaction between the sectors with open sharing of relevant expertise. That could mean helping a cluster improve female entrepreneurship. Or it might be that a group of nano-technology health specialists benefit from access to artists and musicians.”
“The simple fact that we have a regular open and informal gathering each Thursday afternoon is important. It encourages people to make the Venture Cafe part of their weekly routine, even if it's just dropping by for drinks on the way home. Our central location means we’re just minutes away from a whole range of innovative clusters. The secret is that we have gathered a diverse circle of friends, all of whom are willing to open their network when they find a partner they can do business with.”
Building strong arguments for Rotterdam
Jurriën Veldhuizen of Deloitte was closely involved in bringing CIC and Venture Café to Rotterdam.
“Cambridge Innovation Center is the world's largest cluster of startups” beams Jurriën. “It’s HQ in Boston is right next to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Three years ago we had a discussion with the city of Rotterdam, brainstorming on ways to accelerate the region’s ambitions to foster innovation and entrepreneurship. Together with Vice Mayor Jeannette Baljeu we organized a fact-finding mission to the US East Coast in search of like-minded partners.”
“We were fortunate that at the same time CIC was looking to branch out their activities to Europe. They were already talking to London, Berlin and others. But we decided to make a concerted effort to show that the ecosystem in this part of Western Holland is vibrant, open and ready for a different approach. We spent time doing our homework, preparing a very strong case for the greater Rotterdam area. We ended up taking a deck of 80+ slides with us on a second trip to Boston. It was a superb team effort – and we were able to give comprehensive and convincing answers to the many questions CIC had for us.”
“We share a common vision with CIC that the success of any region comes down to the density of innovation. So far, CIC has housed more than 2000 companies, raising over US$2 billion in venture capital. On this side of the Atlantic, we see more than 200 initiatives of different sizes in this region alone. But they're all doing their own thing and efforts get lost in the noise, especially when they try to scale up internationally. Venture Cafe Rotterdam brings focus to these initiatives, connecting them at different levels and with parties they may not have thought of.”
Duke Urbanik is Chairman of the Board for Venture Café. How is their approach different from what’s already been established?
“We believe in collaboration from the start” says Duke. “We think Rotterdam Partners is terrific. They are the organization charged with promoting this Port City and they were instrumental in bringing Venture Café to Rotterdam. So we often do events together. There are also several other great groups organizing innovation events in Rotterdam, such as Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship. All this leads to the question: Is there a right level of innovation ecosystem programming for a city like Rotterdam?”
“I believe it’s instructive to look to the example set in the US. In Boston, there are literally thousands of innovation-ecosystem related events that happen each year. In Venture Café’s District Hall facility alone, there will be over 800 public innovation-related events held this year. These are just part of what make Boston strong and vibrant. We believe that the City of Rotterdam is far from the point where it has realized the full potential in bringing together potential collaborators to build the local innovation ecosystem. Venture Café is pleased to be doing its part to get closer to that goal.”
Is there evidence from Boston or elsewhere that this broader approach to networking and creating a “serendipity” leads to accelerated innovation?
It is certainly difficult to prove a direct connection between a highly networked innovation community and a successful one. But few would debate that Boston and San Francisco have more such programming and events than any other city, and Bloomberg just ranked Massachusetts and California, #1 and #2 for innovation, respectively, amongst US states. Anecdotally, we regularly hear from entrepreneurs that they “found their partners” or “found their investors” at Venture Café events, and, indeed, such an occurrence was reported at one of the first Venture Café events in Rotterdam.”
“At the end of the day, innovation is driven by bringing together three key resources: money, ideas and talent. Venture Café seeks to accomplish this goal, and is pleased to be collaborating with many other organizations in Rotterdam to do so. The fact that Venture Café is already drawing as many as 300 people each week to explore connections like this is very encouraging.”
Has Venture Café helped CIC to grow and why is it a separate non-profit from CIC?
“CIC is a shared facility for entrepreneurs, and its mission is to fix the world by supporting the exceptional entrepreneurs in its physically in its facility to make their innovations a reality. CIC must have a laser focus on this to be successful. Around five years ago CIC’s Founder and CEO, Tim Rowe, realized that given its inward focus, CIC was not able to properly support the rest of the city and region. So he launched Venture Café to make a larger contribution to the rest of the ecosystem. CIC provided its know-how and connections to help Venture Café get established, developed software, etc. The fact that Venture Café can take advantage of the physical locations of CIC and the on-site concentration of startups physically present at CIC has clearly helped Venture Café get established in each city in which it operates. The fact that Venture Café accelerates the startup ecosystem in the city itself, may well give rise to new startups. It definitely benefits CIC and the rest of the city’s ecosystem.”
Signing the first deal. Startup Venster & PopUpLED