Jaap Beernink: "We should be as entrepreneurial as the people we help."
Entrepreneurship and innovation are in Twente’s DNA. You see it when you take a cursory look at the history of the region: from the industrious textile industry to Rector Magnificus Harry van den Kroonenberg, who introduced the entrepreneurial university to the Netherlands with advancing insight. We are now years further down the line and the world looks completely different. What is the role of innovation and entrepreneurship in Twente in 2022? And what will the region look like in the future? Together with Novel-T CEO Jaap Beernink, we look at the role Novel-T has played in this story – and will undoubtedly play in the future.
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Novel-T helps new businesses get off the ground and existing businesses innovate. That’s basically what this non-profit organization does. In reality, the support goes even further than that. Jaap: “Novel-T started out with the aim of converting knowledge from the University and the University of Applied Sciences into specific added value for regional businesses that would allow new businesses that could be the driving forces of the regional economy in the future. For that to happen, knowledge had to flow into society. That is why we guide researchers in marketing their research and we make the connection between SMEs, students and researchers.”
Novel-T continued to develop from that position. “Gradually, we’ve grown from support for spinoffs and startups only to growing businesses and existing SMEs,” says Jaap. “Now, we help the frontrunners of tomorrow, whether they are startups, researchers or SMEs. The entrepreneurs who can make a difference, no matter what phase they are in. You could consider Novel-T a fertile breeding ground for entrepreneurs. We support them in their growth but of course, that growth can be attributed mainly to themselves.”
Ecosystem formation and accelerated pace of innovation
Let’s go back to the beginning for a moment. Because although Novel-T may be a fairly new name for some, its origins go back some years. The foundation was established in 2007, then under the name Kennispark Twente. The founders of the foundation are the University of Twente, Saxion University of Applied Sciences, the Province of Overijssel, the Municipality of Enschede, and the Twente Board. At the time, area development and building an ecosystem were key themes, with the aim of accelerating innovation. This was done by bringing together talented people, knowledge, money and businesses. The foundation thus bridged the gap, as it were, between the knowledge institutions with talented people and knowledge on the one hand, and businesses on the other. This paid off, so it was decided in 2017 to split the area development and innovation acceleration. Kennispark Twente continued as an innovation campus, and the ecosystem formation and innovation acceleration were brought together under a new name: Novel-T.
“We should be as entrepreneurial as the people we help.”
Although Novel-T now has a slightly different focus than before, the founders still play an important role. Jaap explains why: “We create synergy and can build on broad support. This allows us to achieve more impact. Of course, the knowledge institutions are still our focal point. That is our access to talent and knowledge: the source for new entrepreneurship and innovative power of existing SMEs. Conversely, we also form a valuable bridge to the outside world for the knowledge institutions, because we are in contact with SMEs from an independent role. That is a nice interaction.” Moreover, it is an interaction that is in line with the economic policy of the founders. “Our tasks fit the goals of our founders,” says Jaap. “Together with a couple of other parties, we’re forming the structure with which the government can indirectly support entrepreneurs. And because we are an independent foundation, we can respond very quickly to the large organizations of our founders and are close to the target group.”
And that also shows the unique character of Novel-T: an independent foundation with several founders, which has a good relationship with both the knowledge institutions and the entrepreneurs in the region. A recipe for success? Jaap: “We should be as entrepreneurial as the people we help. And with these preconditions, we can. We also have a lot of talent in our own team, people who’ve been entrepreneurs themselves, who’ve worked in the industry or still do so in addition to their work for Novel-T. This enables us to understand entrepreneurs. While we may have the background of a semi-public organization in some areas, we don’t behave that way. I still feel as enterprising as I did when I was an entrepreneur. ”
“We continue to develop along with the region, raise our ambitions even higher and allow entrepreneurs to grow with us.”
Out of sleep mode
The year 2017 saw a tipping point for Novel-T. Jaap Beernink came on board as the new helmsman and immediately changed course. “I do think that was really necessary. We were in a kind of sleep mode, perhaps taken hostage by our founders a bit in the sense that we mainly looked at these parties to determine our activities. I don’t think that was the intention. We know what it takes to boost and accelerate entrepreneurship and innovation. My principle is that our plans and especially results are so good that our founders would like to contribute to them. We have to deliver instant value for entrepreneurs, very specifically and tangible and based on clear goals. In recent years, we’ve scaled up considerably, in particular because we have started to combine 1-on-1 services with support via high-quality programs in which several entrepreneurs (in the making) can participate. Great highlights for me were the launch of Innovate GO for SMEs, and the launch of imec.istart.nl for startups in the presence of the Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate and Techleap’s special envoy Constantine of Orange.”
Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal
Novel-T’s ambition is reflected in its BHAG: the Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. It reads as follows: ‘On March 3, 2033, our book ‘How we helped 100,000 entrepreneurs change the world with innovation’ is a bestseller.’ “The BHAG may sound a bit abstract at first, but it gives our organization a surprising amount of direction. That becomes clear when you start dissecting it. The date is the time frame in which we want to achieve our goal. ‘100,000 entrepreneurs’ indicates that we want to help a large number of entrepreneurs. ‘Changing the world with innovation’ is the impact we want to achieve with our support. And the fact that our book is a bestseller is not because it sounds cool, but to show that our method works, is of high quality and inspires others. All these elements give us direction in our own development.”
“Twente is well prepared to play a major role in the current transitions.”
Right to exist in the future
A good prospect for the future, then. But is an organization like Novel-T still needed when that big, hairy, audacious goal has been achieved? To that question, Jaap pauses for a moment, with a slight smile around his mouth. “My predecessor Kees Eijkel always said: we try to make ourselves redundant. I share that principle, but at the same time, we’re raising our ambitions and continue to push our boundaries, just like those of the region. From first division to the Premier League and from there to Champions League level. So in 2033, we’ll no longer be doing what we’re doing now – just like we’re no longer doing the same thing we were doing in 2017. That’s just not sustainable. We should be as ambitious and innovative as the businesses we help. Then we still have the right to exist, but at a different level.”
Twente leads in transitions
When we turn our sights even further to the future of the region, Jaap’s cautious smile turns into laughter out loud. With a twinkle in his eye he lets his imagination run wild. “What Twente will look like in 2044? A quarter of the 100,000 entrepreneurs we’ve helped out stay here in Twente and continue to grow. Twente will then have more businesses that sell products, large tech businesses. I’m thinking perhaps 20 companies like Demcon. Businesses from Twente will be more dominant in the value chain than they are now. Today’s Next Icons will all have grown into solid businesses by 2044 that will take other businesses in their wake. All these businesses then contribute to the important transitions we face as a society, so that the world becomes more beautiful and remains livable. Innovation is crucial if you want to make these transitions a reality. I’m optimistic about that, and Twente is well prepared to play a major role in that.”