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Prof. Erik Frijlink: ‘We’re well on our way to becoming Western Europe’s poorhouse’

18 May 2011

Dutch companies are running way behind where innovation is concerned. This is a dangerous development, according to Erik Frijlink, Professor of Pharmaceutical Technology and Biopharmacy at the University of Groningen. ‘If we continue down this road, a knowledge economy will be impossible. Actually, we’re well on our way to becoming Western Europe’s poorhouse.’

Erik Frijlink
Erik Frijlink

Frijlink: ‘Companies in the Netherlands consider it important to operate risk-free. People are never rewarded for taking risks, but taken to task for it.’ The European innovation monitor states as much: the Netherlands follows the trends and is no innovator. ‘We’re falling way behind countries such as Sweden, Finland and Germany.’ The Netherlands will ultimately pay the price for its conservative stance, Frijlink feels. ‘Without innovation, there’s no way ahead. At some point the natural gas will run out, the funds will dry up and unemployment will explode. We’ll spiral down to the very bottom and end up as the dunces of Western Europe.’

Cutting grants

‘Dutch businesses always take the safe route’, Frijlink says. ‘The European innovation monitor has us mid-field, but this is only due to the fact that the government has been promoting innovation up until now.’ Yet this has also come to an end with the current Dutch cabinet. ‘Politicians love to jaw about knowledge and innovation, but they don’t really consider it important – just like Dutch companies don’t.’

The value to society of knowledge and innovation in the long term is currently underrated, Frijlink thinks. Up until a few years ago, the Dutch government was prepared to invest in innovation, for instance through funding innovation grants. ‘They’ve now cut all innovation programmes financed with FES funds. The only thing remaining is a tax benefit for businesses that do innovate. But for that you need companies that dare to innovate and desire to do so. This is hardly ever the case with major businesses, and while the smaller ones do dare to and would like to, they lack capital.’

Too little trust

‘In the business world, innovation takes second seat’, Frijlink expounds. ‘There isn’t a country in Europe where managers have less trust in their Research & Development departments as here.’ Why is this the case? ‘Dutch managers are short-sighted and have too little knowledge, experience and understanding of science and technology’, according to Frijlink. ‘They’re lawyers and MBA graduates. People who consider knowledge and technology to be very dirty words. And these are the people making decisions about innovation.’

Nowadays, managers only think along two-year timelines, Frijlink says. ‘But real innovation calls for a long-term perspective. Consider, for example, the development of a tablet that releases a drug in the inner reaches of the intestine. Its development can take months, but could also take three years. And even then, there is a real chance that things won’t work out. In the current managerial mindset in the business world this is not an option. And so nothing is done. This, however, means we’ll never make any progress.’

Daring to fail

‘To innovate, you have to dare to fail’, Frijlink says. Seventy to ninety percent of what you attempt will fail. That’s innovation. It’s about doing things that everyone thinks is impossible. However, managers don’t dare to take such risks.’ According to Frijlink, managers hardly even know anymore what innovation is. ‘We’ve completely lost sight of its true meaning. A trip to the R&D department by management is even called innovation these days.’

The future lies with small companies

True innovation comes from small businesses. Frijlink feels that this is where the future lies. ‘But then they do need to be supported by government.’ One of the risks is that the businesses will end up as ‘grant suckers’, according to Frijlink ‘Those are the companies that focus on pulling in funding instead of on really innovating.’

This is where a major challenge lies. ‘We need to see to it that small businesses get the opportunity to develop, but are forced to truly innovate while doing so.’ Whatever anyone comes up with, many of these companies will in any case go bankrupt, Frijlink expects. ‘But the flip side is that there will be a number of amazing innovations.’

Curriculum Vitae

Prof. Erik Frijlink (1960, Meppel) has been professor of Pharmaceutical Technology and Biopharmacy at the University of Groningen since 1998. Prior to this, he was head of the Pharmaceutical Development department at Solvay Pharmaceuticals. In his research, Frijlink focuses on new systems for pulmonary administration of drugs (inhalation), oral medication that targets its active agent in the intestines, the production of drug nano-crystals and the stabilization of biopharmaceuticals such as therapeutic proteins and vaccines. Frijlink is winner of the Astellas Basic Science Award 2008-2009 and the Wubbo Ockels Prize 2010.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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