Building a healthy ecosystem for AI startup s & scale-ups together

Published on: 20 May 2021

An interview with Anita Lieverdink of the Startups and Scale-ups working group

How did you come across the NL AIC and what is your background?

“My work at TNO consists of encouraging, setting up and managing innovation and/or transition programmes that have a social and economic impact. It’s what we call ‘orchestrating innovation’. Disruptive technology like artificial intelligence – AI – needs that kind of orchestration, both on the national and regional scales and within the various application areas. Given that TNO is one of the co-founders of the Netherlands AI Coalition (NL AIC), it’s something I’m very enthusiastic about.

What do you want to achieve through this working group?

“We’re building a healthy ecosystem for AI startups & scale-ups and, to that end, we want to encourage entrepreneurship and create more AI startups. But it’s equally important to remove the barriers to scaling up so that more startups can grow into scale-ups. I mean, the right preconditions are present in a healthy ecosystem and they are in equilibrium – aspects like access to knowledge, data, facilities, partners, capital, talent and support programmes.”

A challenging goal

“We’ve set the bar high, but at the same time it’s a huge opportunity! Take an AI-driven startup in the medical sector as an example. They need access to usable medical datasets to develop their solutions with. This is a complex, uncertain and lengthy process that they have to go through again with each and every healthcare provider. And that’s without the challenges to implementing their application that they face in legislation and regulations, care protocols and the existing funding structures. A young tech company needs not only stamina but also cooperation throughout the chain. From the NL AIC we want to help parties like these to break through these barriers structurally, barriers that are sometimes generic and sometimes domain-related.”

“The example shows that access to data is a crucial hurdle for AI startups. On top of that, they face the same challenges as many other deep tech companies in the Netherlands. They are looking for investment, talented people and market access, but they’re not very diverse and too slow to internationalize.”

“At the same time, there are lots of opportunities. Especially when it comes to data: The Netherlands is good at organising responsible ways of sharing data. Privacy-enhancing techniques – PETs – for example let the NL AIC simplify data sharing. And, fortunately, recruiting talented people is not just a matter of money. What AI specialists want most are an inspiring learning environment and problems that are interesting to get your teeth into. The Netherlands has an incredibly strong knowledge base that is attractive to talented individuals. Within the NL AIC, we also see lots of opportunities in targeted matchmaking for long-term partnerships with startups. For a startup, this often means not only an immediate cash flow but also credibility, a network, visibility and expertise that are valuable for long-term development and potential investors.”

How do you achieve access to data, ecosystems and capital in practice?

  • “As regards the data, we’re currently working on setting up a data desk for AI startups and scale-ups to improve the availability and quality of government-related data. Plus a pilot on the med-tech issues I mentioned above.
  • We are doing a lot to create a stronger ecosystem. A few examples are actively taking part in international trade missions, organizing substantive webinars (from ‘How to protect my IP’ to ‘Smart ways of learning from poorly labelled datasets’) and developing a matchmaking platform . The network of AI-hubs will definitely also help create a more powerful ecosystem. The hubs will soon be our partners in rolling out proven solutions nationwide for AI startups and scale-ups.
  • To improve the access to capital, we’re exploring how to fit in with national and international grants on the one hand, and how to establish large funds, specifically aimed at long-term investments in deep tech and AI on the other.”

Anita Lieverdink

“I’ve worked with tech startups and scale-ups a lot in recent years. That’s why I got actively involved in the coalition as the leader of the Startups & Scale-ups building block. Everything that I find beautiful and important comes to life in these young tech companies: innovation, entrepreneurship, ambition, creativity, opportunity, guts and perseverance, often combined with a healthy dose of social relevance. The innovative power and speed of these young tech companies make a surprisingly powerful blend when combined with the scale and domain expertise of large organisations.”

Is there a lot of cooperation with other organizations or working groups?

“Cooperation is essential! You can find startups in every application area. And they have challenges in all the building blocks covered by the NL AIC, and internationally. So there’s a lot of cooperation between the building blocks, the application areas, both nationally and internationally. There’s cooperation with the AI-hubs and active efforts to collaborate between the participants. We’ve started a ‘Breaking Barriers’ pilot programme, for example. The starting point for each pilot is a few startups or scale-ups that are facing the same obstacle to growth. We search together in small pilot teams for ways of breaking down those barriers. We are currently developing a pilot to encourage cooperation between corporates players and startups, for example, as well as one to explore the use of synthetic data. This lets us not only provide concrete help for the startups in the pilot group but also learn together along the way what works and what doesn’t, and we can scale up identified, proven solutions to solve various structural issues.”

Where do you want to be in two years’ time with the working group?

“Right now, the working group has a lot of active participants. We organize regular meetings to learn from each other and explore opportunities together. Various platforms are needed to facilitate our participants more intelligently in their search for the right partners, knowledge and data, etc. We’re now setting that in motion – think of matchmaking, a nationwide AI network, a knowledge platform for legal and ethical expertise, a data desk for AI startups and scale-ups, and so forth. Offering our participants tools like these can get mutual cooperation off to a better start and will let us achieve results more quickly and more intelligently.”

What is in it for the Netherlands?

“Startups and scale-ups are precisely the ventures that have the distinctive power to apply AI at a rapid pace. They provide services and products that are innovative and sometimes disruptive too. This offers economic and social gains for the Netherlands. For example, startups were once again the number one value driver in the Netherlands in 2020. The country desperately needs this kind of entrepreneurship, guts and innovative strength!”

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