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Northern Dutch innovation often comes from unexpected sources

29 June 2016
Dries Faems

As well as the usual suspects – large technology firms and small high-tech start-ups – the northern Netherlands also boasts other businesses which excel in innovation. This is the conclusion of research conducted by the University of Groningen in collaboration with the Northern Netherlands Provinces Alliance (SNN).

It is often assumed that innovations usually come from large technology firms and start-ups. However, it turns out that, in the northern Netherlands, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) which have existed for more than 10 years and have fewer than 10 employees, also produce many innovations. Of 105 such companies, 23 (22%) were front-runners in terms of innovation.

‘Thrifty super-innovators’

The more a business invests in innovation, the greater the rewards; business which invest money in research and development generate more turnover form new products and services. And yet there is also a group of businesses which manage to achieve great results in the field of innovation, despite relatively little financial investment in research and development. What’s more, these ‘thrifty super-innovators’ work in unexpected sectors, such as ship-building and recreation.

The SMEs involved in the research were still rather unfamiliar with new grant opportunities allowing extra investment in innovation. Even where business were aware of these opportunities, they turned out to rarely submit applications.

Living labs

Collaboration between businesses, the authorities and citizens in what are known as ‘living labs’, in which new products and services are developed, is a good approach in terms of enhancing SMEs’ ability to innovate. However, this is not so much the case for collaboration between the authorities and businesses in multidisciplinary innovation networks. One possible explanation is that the added value of this kind of collaboration only becomes apparent over the longer term, while the costs mainly show up in the short term.

Organizing work within or between businesses differently is also an important stimulus for innovation within these businesses, and this is an area offering northern Dutch SMEs space for development, alongside the technical aspects of innovation.

Northern Netherlands Innovation Monitor

During the Week van de Ondernemer (Week of the Entrepreneur), a four-year collaboration agreement for the Northern Netherlands Innovation Monitor will be signed by Henk Brink on behalf of SNN, and Sibrand Poppema, President of the Board of the University of Groningen. The goal of the Monitor is to record and analyse the innovation activities, investments and achievements of SMEs in the northern Netherlands, and other parties will also be able to join the Monitor. The intention is for a PhD student to write their thesis based on this research.

Three thousand northern SMEs were approached for the research in 2016, and of these 432 gave substantial responses to the survey. ‘This sample offers us the opportunity to gain greater understanding of the innovative power of northern Dutch SMEs’, says Professor Dries Faems.

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Last modified:13 March 2020 02.09 a.m.
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