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Brightlands Innovation Factory

10 questions for Léon Klinkers

Brightlands Innovation Factory was created to meet the need to offer an attractive environment in Limburg for start-ups from all over the world. The main activity is helping start-ups to become successful businesses. Brightlands Innovation Factory recently announced two new initiatives: a partnership with IncubAlliance from Paris-Saclay, and one with the Sport Innovation Centre Limburg. Time for some Q&A with CEO Léon Klinkers.

Who is Léon Klinkers?
I am a serial entrepreneur, start-up coach and investor. In 1990, I co-founded Scala Computer Television. Today, Scala is the world's leading digital signage software company. After setting up the European Sales and Marketing organization for Scala, I went to the USA where I led the Corporate Development activities for Scala.

In 1999, I founded DeMinds, a pan-European strategic advisory firm, which is specialised in fundraising, international market development and strategic innovation advice for start-ups and corporations. To date, DeMinds has worked with dozens of innovative start-ups and corporations. Since 2004, I am a partner of CBD Group, a Beijing-based strategic design company and have worked together with Chinese corporations in establishing their brand in Europe.

I enjoy working with innovative start-ups from around the world and helping them turn their bold ideas into great companies. Through Brightlands Innovation Factory I am dedicated to help create a world-class start-up ecosystem at Brightlands.

What is the main objective of Brightlands Innovation Factory?
At Brightlands Innovation Factory we are creating a start-up environment in Limburg which attracts and supports innovative start-ups from around the globe to our region. We focus on the knowledge areas of the Brightlands campuses and their cross-overs. We do this by coupling world-class industry knowledge and expertise with expert-supported programs, value-added services, facilities and access to talent and funding.

A start-up is a temporary organisation in search of a repeatable and globally scalable business model. Once the start-up has found this repeatable and scalable model it is no longer a start-up but it enters the ranks of mature healthy independent company.

Brightlands Innovation Factory start-up life cycle program is unique. Can you tell us a bit more about this?Depending on the industry in which the start-up is active this process can take two-three years or even up to ten years. ICT start-ups typically develop much faster than life sciences or materials start-ups. We need to be able to support a start-up throughout this entire period of their start-up lifecycle. To do this effectively at Brightlands Innovation Factory we divide the lifecycle of a start-up in four different stages: Incubate, Accelerate, Validate and Scale-Up. In all four stages we provide a tailor-made mix of programs, services, facilities, expertise and access to funding.

This start-up life cycle approach is unique and a true signature activity for Brightlands. There are thousands of start-up support programs around the world, but the vast majority of them are 2 – 3 months programs, after which the start-up is left to its own devices again. For me that feels like sending your kids into the big wide world on their own after primary school.

There is a lot of talk about start-ups, SMBs, and scaling-up. What is your vision on these?
In our point of view, a start-up is not just the stereotype garage style start-up, fresh from university or Polytechnic college: but also the brilliant scientist who wants to turn a discovery into a company and create a better world. Or the large corporation that wants to spin-off an activity which doesn’t fit with its core interest and establish a new entity. And also the classical SMB/SME profile entrepreneur who has successfully built a flourishing local business and now has an idea for a new activity. All of these examples are start-ups.

And in our view they remain a start-up until they have discovered a repeatable and scalable business model. Therefore we don’t think the debate start-up vs. SMB vs. scale-up is relevant. They are all start-ups but in a different stage of development.

Which (strategic) parties are behind Brightlands Innovation Factory and what role do they play?
We are thankful at Brightlands Innovation Factory that we have broad support from a diverse group of strategic partners. These partners reflect the true Triple Helix nature of Brightlands, meaning government, education and industry joining forces together.

First of all Brightlands Innovation Factory is active across the different Brightlands campuses. Members of each Brightlands campus have an active role in the management and organisation of Brightlands Innovation Factory.

The governmental support of the Brightlands Innovation Factory is provided by the Province of Limburg, LED but also directly by the cities of Heerlen, Sittard-Geleen and Maastricht. Educationally we are supported by the Maastricht University. And finally our strategic industrial partners are DSM, Sabic, Medtronic, InScite and Ernst & Young. Each of these partners contributes not only financially but also provides active support to the start-ups and our team.

You help entrepreneurs, pioneers in their field, to develop their ideas and make them a reality in the areas that are the focus at the Brightlands campuses. Can you tell us a bit more about the DNA of start-ups?
We have a very diverse dynamic, international group of start-ups with an even more diverse range of ideas. We’ve seen innovations from 3-d printed organs for transplant and cancer treatment optimisation to specialized coatings for wind turbines or sustainable packaging. Our start-ups are self-starters. Although we provide the expertise, facilities and network, it’s up to them to grow and really push themselves to the next level.

What kind of growth does the Brightlands Innovation Factory aspire to achieve?
From the start of Brightlands Innovation Factory we envisioned an environment aimed at creating a flourishing community of entrepreneurs, academics, coaches, partners, and visionaries coming together in Limburg, at Brightlands. Our role is to give start-ups in the early-stages of their existence their best chances at striving and excelling in the global business world. By combining all our resources in one internationally-oriented organization we can achieve much more than each of us could possibly individually.

From its second year, Brightlands Innovation Factory expects to be able to attract thirty to forty new start-ups per year across the Brightlands focus areas to our Incubation and Acceleration stage programs across the campuses, while supporting later stage start-ups in Validation and Scale-Up with custom-made support.

Within five years it is my personal ambition that a start-up anywhere in the world with the goal to start or boost its business in one of the focus areas of Brightlands, Limburg, Brightlands and the Innovation Factory should be one his top three candidates to relocate to.

You have gained experience with the Incubator and Accelerator programs. What is your impression of the innovative strength of SMBs in Limburg? And how can Brightlands Innovation Factory contribute to this?
Since we started a little over a year ago, we have executed two Incubation and two Acceleration programs (including the Smart Materials Bootcamp in 2015). In total we have had over thirty very innovative entrepreneurs and teams join us.

Out of these 30+ entrepreneurs 17 were Dutch start-ups and 7 from Limburg. But the most important fact is that the vast majority of them have stayed here and are building their company in the Brightlands region.

I would love the percentage of Limburg companies to grow, but we have to be realistic in our expectations. We search for entrepreneurs and start-ups that can and want to compete on a global level. Only few have the required capabilities or the ambition for that.

At Brightlands Innovation Factory we cooperate with and support the various great educational institutes within our region. I am convinced by encouraging/facilitating students at a very young age to be entrepreneurial and embrace entrepreneurship the innovation level of the locally educated or originated start-ups will continue to grow. At the same time we also actively look at ways to support the local SMB in addressing innovation and scalability of their business.

Brightlands Innovation Factory is part of StartupDelta, a national platform whose objective is to connect the various start-up ecosystems in the Netherlands and to create added value (access to capital, networks, markets, talent & skills, and to knowledge and technology). How is Limburg doing, compared with the rest of the country, when it comes to start-up development?
Start-up Delta is a great initiative, led by HRH Constantijn van Oranje. Brightlands is one of the founding fathers of Start-up Delta to which we actively contribute. Its ambition is to make the BV Nederlands the most attractive start-up destination in Europe.

When comparing Limburg to the rest of the Netherlands from a start-up perspective, I believe we are doing quite well. The Brightlands approach of bundling forces around major innovative focus areas allows for a strong concentrated effort, which at the end of the day will be more successful than the often individually strong, but collectively fragmented efforts on a national level. Additionally, in a progressively global marketplace, Limburg’s unique geographical position is also beneficial to start-ups.

Last week, you announced the partnership with IncubAlliance in Paris-Saclay. Why are you going to work together? How can you reinforce one another and what are the results you hope to achieve?
Paris-Saclay is one of the top 10 R&D clusters in the world and the largest in France. It’s start-up Incubator IncubAlliance is the oldest in France and has helped launch many companies since 2005 and created FTE’s. The basic principles, approach and focus areas of the incubators of Brightlands and Paris-Saclay complement one another perfectly. By allowing French and Dutch start-ups to actively participate in one another’s incubation and acceleration programmes, they will gain access to more expertise and they will be able to build up an international network more quickly. What’s more, their access to the French and Dutch markets is facilitated. This will enable us to drive innovation faster and more effectively, and that in turn will make us more attractive to new start-ups.

It is our intention to establish similar bridges with a handful of leading innovation clusters around the world.