UtrechtInc has been helping UUers start companies for ten years


For years now, students, alumni and scientists at Utrecht University have taken their ideas for start-ups to UtrechtInc. The incubator for starting entrepreneurs has since helped realise start-ups with millions of euros in revenue.

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Since its creation in 2009, UtrechtInc, which focuses on helping starting entrepreneurs, has been growing steadily. After ten years, the entrepreneurs who started their companies with help of UtrechtInc have a shared revenue of 526 million euros, and 1,735 jobs have been created thanks to the organisation.

The incubator’s growth is partially thanks to the economic crisis that started in 2008. In 2009, when Alexander Pechtold, frontman of political party D66, officially opened UtrechtInc, the world was still in the grips of the financial crisis, which led – among other things – to the downfall of several large banks. It wasn’t until 2017 that there was some light at the end of the tunnel, when unemployment rates in the Netherlands finally started to drop. “A crisis is a catalyst for entrepreneurship,” says Herman van den Berg, who’s in charge of UtrechtInc communication, among other things. “Those who can’t find jobs, create their own.”

Many students, PhD candidates, and established scientists have followed the same path, and worked on turning their ideas into a company the market’s interested in. “We mostly focus on innovation in the fields of sustainability, education, and health.” One example of a company whose roots lie with UtrechtInc and which has since become very successful, is Snappcar. The company saw an opportunity in renting out individuals’ cars to fellow city residents, and brings together demand and supply online. Van den Berg also proudly mentions tech company Gitlab, which intends to be listed on the stock exchange and is already worth more than a billion euros. This company developed a platform to simplify the entire life cycle of a software product, which helps increase efficiency in the production process, among other things. In 2010, DUB interviewed Eric Lammertma, from the company Crimsonbase, which also started out at UtrechtInc. The company started with the development of user-friendly software for biomedical research, and still exists today.

Content-wise, the ideas are immensely varied, but they all have in common that the company is able to grow in a fairly simple way, Van den Berg says, or in other words: it has to be ‘scaleable’. Many start-ups are internet-based companies like Snappcar. “If growth means that you constantly need a bigger space, or your growth depends on specialised staff, it’s harder to realise than when you just need to buy more server space.” Not all ideas were able to be transformed into companies. But the number of failed ideas is decreasing, Van den Berg says. “Out of all the start-ups that started in the past ten years, 66 percent still exists after five years, or has been bought out by a third party. The chance of survival of companies that started out with us, is greater than the Dutch average of all start-ups.”

From question to idea to company
Not all companies are the product of the person who came up with the idea for it. Van den Berg: “There are around 6,500 scientists at Utrecht Science Park. Of this group, around 60 have started companies, but there are a lot more scientists who’ve come up with great ideas but aren’t interested at all in becoming entrepreneurs. We estimate that group to be around 600 people.”

In order to find these scientists and realise their ideas, UtrechtInc uses a network at the Science Park that follows scientists. The network consists of, among others, scouts of Utrecht Holding, of which UtrechtInc is a part. “Utrecht Holding has the goal of taking as much knowledge to the market as possible. We’re one means to do so. If we find scientists through our network who have great ideas but aren’t interested in becoming entrepreneurs, we ask whether we can connect them to someone who does want to become an entrepreneur. In that case, the scientists do stay involved in the development of the product.” An example of a scientist with an idea but without the ambition of starting a company, is AMT Medical, Van den Berg says. This is a company that marketed an invention which makes open-heart surgery redundant. “The father, Cees Tulleken, was a doctor at UMC Utrecht, and the inventor, his son, was the entrepreneur.”

Another thing that can happen is that starting entrepreneurs search for partners to help them develop their product. “Like StuComm, which developed a communication app for students and teachers. It needed a client in order to further develop the product. The UU was the first party to join (the MyUU app, ed.) and now, the company is market leader. Their app is used by 700,000 students, and the company now has 35 employees.”

Calculating the chance of success in a workshop
The start-ups that knock on UtrechtInc’s door have several options for support. There’s a beginners’ programme, but also an acceleration programme for existing companies that wish to grow. The programmes are free for employees and students, although existing companies pay between 900 and 1,500 euros to participate.

Through UtrechtInc, the start-ups can also obtain loans, and get in contact with the market. If the company becomes successful, UtrechtInc expects the start-up to pay a success fee. “Depending on the revenue of the company, they’ll pay several thousand euros. Other incubators and accelerators often ask for shares.”

The ten-year anniversary of UtrechtInc is celebrated on October 10 with (former) participants who share their stories with each other.

With technological programmes, UtrechtInc would be able to do even better

UUer Frank van Rijnsover researches the interaction between the corporate world and the university, in the fields of innovation, sustainability, and entrepreneurship. He was a columnist for the Financieele Dagblad for several years, and in those days, university incubators were the object of a lot of criticism. And although he’s still critical, he’s seeing more and more benefits of the incubator.

“The reason universities establish incubators, is to transform top-notch knowledge into useful information or real products. That’s not the most self-evident thing to do for a university like the UU. We’re not a technological university that invents things, or makes them. We mostly have the life sciences that can do that. They, for instance, can create and sell new medications.”

The apps developed by many of the starting entrepreneurs of UtrechtInc don’t belong to that category of unique products, Van Rijnsoever says. “That, too, is transforming knowledge into product, of course, but we’re talking about software here, not hardware. Scientifically speaking, software isn’t exactly top-notch.”

Van Rijnsoever emphasises that he’s not attacking UtrechtInc. “They’re performing very well internationally, are high up in rankings of university incubators. And for people who want to become entrepreneurs, UtrechtInc can be a great stepping stone. It has a great network, and it helps with the financing. That means this incubator definitely has value, because you’re helping students and recent graduates become entrepreneurs, but it’s an expensive form of education for Utrecht University.”

If the UU wishes to do science-based endeavors and thus market top-notch knowledge, it could start offering technological study programmes. “It’s not a strange thought to let the UU expand its education with technological sciences. Especially given current times, in which more of the nation’s funds flow to technological programmes, society is begging for more technologists, and the Technological Universities have to turn students away. Looking at the geographical locations of the Dutch TUs, you can instantly see that having one in the centre of the country would be a great addition, not just from the viewpoint of valorisation, but mostly from a strategic point of view.”



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