Chapter 6. Strengthening entrepreneurship support in higher education in the Netherlands

This chapter expands on the findings presented in Chapter 2 related to start-up support in higher education institutions (HEIs) in the Netherlands. It shows that there is a very strong entrepreneurship support infrastructure in HEIs in the Netherlands, including various good practice initiatives to support entrepreneurial students and staff, for example through training, access to premises and facilities, provision of mentors, and connections into networks. This chapter discusses how HEIs can scale, develop, refine, continue and build on the existing support infrastructure and networks, including how to ensure that encouraging entrepreneurial behaviour can be consistent with institutional reward structures, rules and regulations. In its final section, the chapter analyses the role of HEIs in developing and leading entrepreneurial ecosystems and identifies areas of improvement.

    

Introduction

Higher education institutions (HEIs) in the Netherlands have managed to establish a very strong entrepreneurship support infrastructure including a range of business start-up training, facilities, mentoring and networking activities. In addition, there is a strong private and public business support infrastructure in the regions in which HEIs are located, that is, start-up networks, mentors, accelerators and incubators, etc. This needs to be recognised and a degree of interaction and co-operation established between the HEI support offer and the external support offer. Establishing a well-functioning interface reaching out to the regional economy requires a strong partnership framework that defines the roles of the different stakeholders and tailors relevant external support services to the particular needs of staff and student entrepreneurs.

The reward structures, rules and regulations of HEIs can also be important in influencing start-up behaviour and the potential institutional obstacles need to be recognised and adjusted or worked around. For example, start-up students may wish to postpone exams or suspend their studies for some time. Staff members starting a business may run the risk of losing their tenure track and of not being able to return to their academic career after their entrepreneurial endeavour. It is therefore important to develop an HEI-wide understanding of what may stand in the way of or facilitate pathways for entrepreneurs.

In the Netherlands, there are more than 2 million entrepreneurs; half of them are self-employed. This number was only approximately 600 000 four years ago (Boom, 2015). A large proportion of the top entrepreneurs in the Netherlands have tertiary education (University of Amsterdam, 2007). HEIs have, through their core functions of education, research, and knowledge exchange, a crucial role in growing vibrant and sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystems. HEIs should work to understand the entrepreneurial ecosystems in which they are embedded. This embeddedness is something that most HEIs find difficult. Yet, to be impactful as innovative and entrepreneurial organisations, HEIs must be co-embedded with students, the business community and civil society, blurring bureaucratic boundaries.

Analysis and findings

The business start-up environment is excellent but complex

The Netherlands offers an excellent business environment for business start-ups in many aspects (OECD, 2014). However, in common with many OECD countries, there are barriers to growth after the start-up phase, mainly as young firms have to overcome the double-constraint of lacking internal resources and having only limited access to external resources.

Lack of funding remains the main bottleneck for growth according to 90% of interviewees in a recent study on barriers to academic start-ups in the Netherlands (Technopolis, 2015). The lending survey of the European Central Bank shows that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Netherlands, anticipating possible rejection, are less likely to apply for credit than firms in comparable countries, and if they do apply, are less likely to get what they want (European Central Bank, 2017). Venture capital investment (including early-stage) as a percentage of gross domestic product, is roughly on par with comparator countries in the European Union but far behind the leading countries. To strengthen equity capital availability to academic entrepreneurs and others, the government has put in place several targeted financing facilities and is planning additional ones, such as an early-stage instrument and the business angels co-investment facility. This might be an area for HEIs, individually or in a partnership, to address, for example, by raising joint investment funds.

There is substantial public funding to stimulate innovation collaboration between HEIs and business. However, the potential to involve entrepreneurial students and start-ups in innovation collaboration programmes appears to be under-exploited. StartupDelta has recently developed a promising initiative to open up public procurement to startups with the help of a coalition of government departments and municipalities collaborating in a testlab and experimenting new models of startup support develivery (Chapter 4).

As of 2015, a new regulation makes it possible for ambitious entrepreneurs from abroad to apply for a temporary residence permit in the country. The so-called residence permit scheme for start-ups gives ambitious entrepreneurs one year to launch an innovative business. A prerequisite is that this start-up must be guided by an experienced mentor (facilitator) who is based in the Netherlands. Under this scheme, new start-ups, with a potentially international orientation, are offered support to develop into mature enterprises. This regulation offers a particular opportunity to HEIs in the Netherlands to support ambitious entrepreneurs among international entrepreneurial staff and students.

A bottom-up initiative to support start-ups in getting globally connected is “Get in the Ring”. It started a few years ago and quickly became part of a global start-up network with regular events all around the world (Box 6.1).

Box 6.1. Get in the Ring – Connecting Startups Globally

Get in the Ring is managed by the Rotterdam Business School at Erasmus University. It started a few years ago and quickly became part of a global startup network with regular events all around the world. Each of the events gathers several hundred startups from a minimum of 100 countries.

One of the recent initiatives to connect startups globally is Global1000. The aim is to organise 1 000 impactful collaborations between startups and large organisations up to 2030 to more quickly test and scale impact innovations across different contexts. Projects that can contribute to achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals are prioritised.

Source: Interviews during the study visit to Erasmus University Rotterdam in June 2016.

In all these different areas there is a strong environment for startups from HEIs. On the other hand, the support system is quite complex for entrepreneurs to navigate due to a high density of actors and support offers.

Students are “game changers”

DesignLabs, Fablabs, StudentIncs, Centres of Entrepreneurship, etc., all play an important role in getting students involved in entrepreneurship. Also, hackathons are an increasingly common practice to raise interest in innovation and entrepreneurship and build interdisciplinary teams. There are good examples of using student union re‐enrolment questionnaires to ask students about their interest in entrepreneurship and connect students with relevant initiatives, as practised at Twente University for example.

Some of the most internationally-recognised entrepreneurial universities, such as Stanford University in California and Aalto University in Helsinki, have entrepreneurship awareness activities that are often driven by students. When the student community is gaining momentum, it often builds on a great variety of entrepreneurial role models to push the “tipping point” and trigger a fundamental change of culture. Beyond this point, the HEI no longer only offers incubation facilities for entrepreneurship, but is genuinely perceived as “one incubator” and a place where people look with admiration at entrepreneurs.

Slush is an example of a student-driven global entrepreneurial success in raising awareness of entrepreneurship and start-ups (Box 6.2), similar to Get in the Ring and other start-up initiatives in the Netherlands.

Box 6.2. Slush

Slush was started in 2008 by a group of students at Aalto University outside Helsinki. The students were part of the emerging student community (Startup Sauna) situated around the Aalto Design Factory. Slush is held during the darkest time of the year in Helsinki and has always been characterised by a unique energy and enthusiasm. Slush has grown from a small assembly to a world-renowned event, now spreading globally. The philosophy behind Slush has remained the same: to help the next generation of great, world-beating companies forward. Slush is still a student-driven, non-profit movement originally founded to change attitudes towards entrepreneurship.

The first event in 2008 gathered around 300 participants; this number has grown exponentially over eight editions to 20 000 participants, (including 2 000 startups, 1 000 investors and more than 600 journalists, together representing 100 countries), gathered in Helsinki in 2016. Stories are told that entire planes were chartered to fly in business angels and investors from Silicon Valley, and how it has become the must-attend event for large groups of startups. Slush has spread globally to Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore.

Source: Slush (2017).

Clearly, a student event such as Slush depends on the students who created the event in the first place, and in this sense it can be difficult to plan and aim for. However, it was not a coincidence that the students at Aalto University got such an aspiration. The initiative resonated well, even in its very early stages, with the university management, who supported their students in organising Slush.

One of the main messages is that HEIs should seek to involve students in their start-up support agenda. In doing so, they should emphasise continuity in their collaboration with students. Often student associations change their leadership quickly and it is important that the new student leaders can access the institutional knowledge and connections accumulated over time.

Supporting start-up students to cross the “drop-out valley” and opening support for alumni

Supporting student start-up requires that study programmes are sufficiently flexible to allow students to pursue business creation by extending the duration of their studies. Students who start a business during their studies risk abandoning their studies. HEIs can help students get through this “drop-out valley” by, for example, allowing them to suspend their studies as they start up their business, and/or by giving them the chance to focus part of (or all of) their entire graduation thesis on a research question that is related to the start up. Several UAS in the Netherlands already offer their students this possibility. These options are less present in research universities.

The decision to start up a business may not occur during studies or directly after graduation. Rather, it often takes place after an initial period of employment during which graduates gain experience in how businesses and markets operate. Two important consequences result from this. Firstly, students may not look for start-up support in the first instance, but for education activities that stimulate their creativity and require the application of knowledge to solving real-world challenges. These activities are often extra-curricular in nature. It is important that students have the opportunity to document the competencies and skills developed in such activities, for example with diploma supplements or other certificates, in particular when they decide to delay their startup and to initially look for a paid job. And, secondly, startup support offered by HEIs should be accessible to alumni.

Currently in the Netherlands, alumni cannot use start-up services offered by their former HEI. Often, new graduates that have a business idea (e.g. conceived from their thesis work) are under high pressure (economically and culturally) to quickly find a job, whereas they would be at a very favourable point in their life to found a start-up because they still have relatively few commitments and economic needs. A first step could be to allow alumni to use the HEI’s entrepreneurial support system after graduation. Further, a national scholarship scheme could be considered for new graduates (e.g. master’s and PhD graduates) to seek funding for continuing setting up their business. An example that offers valuable learning is the EXIST Business Start-up Grant in Germany (Box 6.3).

Box 6.3. EXIST Business Startup Grant, Germany

The EXIST Business Startup Grant supports students, graduates and scientists from universities and research institutes who want to turn their business idea into a business plan. To be eligible, projects should be innovative, technology or knowledge based with unique features and good commercialisation prospects. The fund supports scientists from public and non-profit higher education institutions, alumni and former staff members up to five years after getting a degree, dropping out or changing jobs, and students who have completed at least half of their studies. Teams of up to three people are also funded; in this case one of the team members can have a degree that is more than five years old.

The grant covers, for a maximum of 12 months, monthly personal living expenses in the range of EUR 1 000 (students), EUR 2 500 (completed university degree), and EUR 3 000 (doctorate holders). Child benefits are EUR 150 per month per child. In addition, materials and equipment are financed with up to EUR 10 000 for solo startups and a maximum of EUR 30 000 for team startups. In addition, coaching expenditures are reimbursed up to EUR 5 000.

The HEI affiliated with the team manages the grant. It should to be involved in an “entrepreneurial network” (see EXIST, 2017b for an overview), and offer the startup a mentor, a workplace and free use of infrastructure. The startup is expected to present a first draft of the business plan after five months, submit the business plan after ten months, and make tax and national insurance payments.

The latest available evaluation data for the period 2007-12 shows that 875 grants were awarded, supported by 166 HEIs and with a total funding value of EUR 70.6 million.

EXIST is a support programme of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy which started in 2008. It is co-financed by funds from the European Social Fund (ESF). The programme seeks to improve the entrepreneurial environment within universities and research institutes and to increase the number and success of technology and knowledge-based business startups. Besides the EXIST Business Start-up Grant, the EXIST programme offers:

  • EXIST Culture of Entrepreneurship which currently supports more than 128 HEIs in formulating and implementing a comprehensive and sustained university-wide strategy for increasing entrepreneurial culture and spirit.

  • EXIST Transfer of Research which funds both the resource development necessary to prove the technical feasibility of start-up ideas based on research and the preparation necessary to launch a business.

Source: EXIST (2017a); EXIST (2017b); Kulicke (2013).

Targeted and internationally connected startup support

HEIs in the Netherlands generally offer a range of role models, coaches and mentors to inspire and support potential student entrepreneurs. They come from within the HEI, from the business and student communities and from external partners. They also support access to networks for potential entrepreneurs.

Reaching out to potential would-be entrepreneurs among staff members requires a different approach than working with students. Visibly placing entrepreneurship in general, and startup support in particular, within the HEI’s mission statement and regularly informing staff about the existence of supportive rules and regulations (e.g. owning shares in spinoffs, working part time, sabbaticals, diploma supplements) are very important. For this, central communication mechanisms, which reach internal and external stakeholders, are needed. The knowledge or technology transfer offices (KTOs/TTOs) play an important role in this.

It is important that regulations on how to handle intellectual property rights are clear and simple and that KTOs have the necessary skills and critical mass across all disciplines. An example of how such support can be organised across different higher education institutions is IXA, an expert interface between five Technology Transfer Offices in Amsterdam (Box 6.4).

Box 6.4. IXA – Innovation Exchange Amsterdam

IXA is a partnership involving the University of Amsterdam (UvA), Free University of Amsterdam (VU), and Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS) and their academic medical centres, which acts as the interface between Amsterdam-based academic institutions and parties interested in their research findings and knowledge. IXA deploys its expertise in both directions: assisting researchers in generating social and economic impact from their work and assisting external parties navigating the academic landscape to find a solution or spot an opportunity. Among other services, like IP, spin-off, legal advice etc., support is provided to applicants who wish to apply for grants, although that support is offered only to UvA and AUAS.

Source: Interviews during a joint study visit to the University of Amsterdam, Free University of Amsterdam, and Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences in July 2016.

An international perspective to encouraging entrepreneurship among students and staff is also important. A good number of the Dutch universities have large and increasing numbers of international students and staff, which is an important, but not fully recognised opportunity to enrich entrepreneurship.

Building effective regional entrepreneurial ecosystems

An effective ecosystem appears critical for successful valorisation, and HEIs, research organisations and individual inventors need that ecosystem support to flourish. When communities that form around the HEIs are inclusive, connections are built as well as a physical community of ventures. Effective entrepreneurial ecosystems connect the connectors and reward participants for stewardship not ownership. This remains relatively rare for HEIs globally.

Regional entrepreneurial ecosystems in the Netherlands are already growing in depth and breadth, driven by an above-average level of co-operation across usually rivalrous institutions (Stam, 2014). Engagement in local activities and engaging the community in HEI activities are clear markers of a healthy regional entrepreneurial ecosystem. Rewarding this is imperative for the HEI as well as local, regional and national policy makers.

A key concept for understanding regional entrepreneurial ecosystems is that they are networks. Researchers have begun to use social network analysis to explore ecosystems. If it is a network, then the connectors are more important than the nodes; the more connectors (and the more connections they have) the more information and resources flow through the network. A key question is whether the connectors control access to resources (gatekeeper) or connect people to resources and each other (hub). A healthy regional entrepreneurial ecosystem will find many ways to create and nurture connectors and especially “super-connectors” who proactively connect the connectors. There are many super-connectors acting in support of regional entrepreneurial ecosystems in HEIs in the Netherlands. Consider Stanford where, in the 1960s, Engineering Dean Fred Terman set out to connect with everyone in the area to help find jobs for his students. In time, he became the super-connector for Silicon Valley and set Stanford on its trajectory to being a key source of regional connectors and convenors. Stanford is now also a leader in connecting other universities. In the Netherlands, the emergence of centres that channel resources into knowledge exchange can be at the start of such a movement.

Feld (2012) described four elements that sustain entrepreneurial ecosystems: i) they grow bottom-up, that is, they are led by entrepreneurs and not by institutions; ii) they are inclusive of the entire entrepreneurial stack, that is, different types of businesses and support entities; iii) there are one or more rallying points for the community to focus their identity; and iv) they must be allowed to develop their sustainability for the long-term.

In many ways, the Netherlands has begun to fit the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem model and even show leadership with initiatives such as StartupDelta, which brings together all ecosystems in the Netherlands into one single hub helping all sorts of startups to grow (Box 6.5). Each partner contributes with its own speciality or local stronghold; this maintains the exchange of knowledge and best practices in policies regarding start-up ecosystems. A key strength of StartupDelta is its ability to minimise the “turf” battles that plague many countries. Too many ecosystems are held back by powerful institutions that seek (and feel entitled) to “own” the ecosystem. And far too often the HEIs are the leading culprits. A lot can be learned from how StartupDelta has defused such conflicts so far, by modelling the ecosystem as a network of networks. Critical is that the success derives largely from the formal and informal incentives to minimise both territorial and free-rider tendencies.

Box 6.5. StartupDelta

StartupDelta is an independent public-private partnership, which brings together all ecosystems in the Netherlands into one single hub helping all sorts of startups grow, and is supported by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Ministry of Education Culture and Science. The aim is to break down barriers and improve access to talent, capital, networks, knowledge and markets.

Key activities of StartupDelta focus on opening up public procurement to startups by establishing a coalition of government departments and municipalities collaborating in a testlab and experimenting with new models. StartupDelta also attracts and supports foreign startups to the Netherlands through efforts to introduce the Orange Carpet programme, with seven simple steps for foreign startups for a smooth start in the Netherlands and a single point of entry and support portal for all foreign startup questions.

Reguarly, StartupDelta missions are organised to global hubs and network events, such as WebSummit, Slush, SouthbySouthWest, Hannover Messe, and globally known ecosystems, such as Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv, Berlin, London, and promising destinations for Dutch startups in China and South Korea. Efforts are underway to create a community of proactive “startup diplomats” at embassies and consulates in priority countries to raise the profile of StartupDelta in the global embassy network of the Netherlands.

Source: OECD interviews with national stakeholders; StartupDelta (2017).

Many excellent entrepreneurial learning systems in the world (Y-Combinator, TechStars, Startup Weekend) operate as open source. If little is owned then there is less incentive to seek ownership. StartupDelta is predicated on an implicit gentlemen’s agreement among the different areas in the Netherlands that is reflected in an explicit specialisation in distinctive innovative research and development areas across the country. For example, while the area around Rotterdam focuses on logistics research, development innovation and startup activity, the regional economy around Twente university emphasises its world-renowned nanotechnology institute and attracts associated firms and start-up activity.

HEIs in the Netherlands should work to understand the entrepreneurial ecosystems in which they are embedded. This embeddedness is something that most HEIs find difficult. As Feld (2012) observed, HEIs want to be the experts and the critical source of knowledge, so they neglect the powerful roles they can play in growing a healthy, resilient community. Yet to be impactful as innovative and entrepreneurial organisations, HEIs must be co-embedded with students, the business community and others, blurring bureaucratic boundaries. They need to reward and incentivise their staff to engage in this way. Furthermore, the Netherlands has a lot of grassroots dynamic in its regional entrepreneurial ecosystems, but the HEIs can do more to be the “hubs” and not just the “gatekeepers”. One potent role that any HEI can play is to foster a reputation as “convenor” or “broker” in providing a safe harbour for strategic collaboration.

One of the barriers is lack of a deep, accurate understanding of the current state of regional entrepreneurial ecosystems and in particular their specific players, including the individual entrepreneurs, their motivations, opportunities and problems. The Netherlands is no exception in this, but the existing “networked infrastructure”, for example StartupDelta and the Dutch Centres of Entrepreneurship, are a good starting point to rigorously map the existing ecosystems. Important are “listening sessions” with Dutch entrepreneurs across the country and across industries; this has already started (e.g. City of Amsterdam) and should be encouraged, further developed and rewarded. An interesting learning model is KCSourceLink in Kansas, USA, which connects 245 business support organisations. Its research unit develops action plans, monitors and reports on the progress of the overall ecosystem (Box 6.6).

Box 6.6. SourceLink, Kansas City, US

KCSourceLink connects 245 business support organisations across the Kansas area in the US with 18 counties and a population of approximately 2.4 million people. The organisation is a spinoff of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Through KCSourceLink, thousands of businesses are able to gain access to the right resources at the right time to start, grow and accelerate. KCSourceLink has also been leading the effort to make Kansas City America’s most entrepreneurial city and co-ordinate large scale events for entrepreneurs, like Global Entrepreneurship Week and Battle of the Brands.

KCSourceLink maintains an up-to-date online directory of business support organisations, connecting them together and fostering collaborations to encourage efficiency. It analyses and fills gaps in the Kansas City entrepreneurial ecosystem and maintains Kansas City’s most comprehensive business calendar. Its research unit develops action plans, monitors and reports on the progress of the overall ecosystem.

KCSourceLink has a clever way to visualise an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Five different types of businesses are distinguished and shown as differently coloured rail tracks: i) innovation line for tech or high-growth companies, ii) main street line for brick-and-mortar businesses, iii) microenterprise line for very small and/or online businesses, iv) second stage line for established businesses poised for exponential growth, and v) the money line for businesses looking for capital to grow. The resource rail tracks (though not all of them) run through four stages: inception/idea, proof of concept/prototype/market intro, rollout, and growth expansion. All support organisations are listed on the map using the same colour code as for the rail tracks and five different types of businesses. For example, the Mid-America Angels, a network of accredited investors in promising early stage companies in the Kansas-Missouri region, shows up as a relevant support organisation for the innovation line and the money line.

Source: KCSourceLink (2017).

Conclusions

HEI engagement in regional entrepreneurial ecosystems is a key potential vector for HEI knowledge exchange and value creation. It is therefore important to reward this type of engagement, including for people and departments playing connector and gatekeeper and hub roles in the flow of knowledge in regional entrepreneurial ecosystems. A general awareness among HEI leaders and staff of the importance of open innovation is a key marker of having the right incentives at the HEI level.

The Netherlands offers an excellent environment for business startups by students and staff in HEIs. To bring this to the next level, four areas of improvement can be proposed.

  1. There is an opportunity to strengthen interministerial collaboration on value creation and entrepreneurship, and the example of the Danish Foundation for Entrepreneurship provides relevant lessons. A key issue, which is best approached at national level rather than by each HEI trying to develop its own approach, is quality improvement and quality assurance of entrepreneurship support.

  2. Students are game changers and some HEIs are already building on this potential. More should be done to share experiences across the higher education system on involving students in promoting entrepreneurship. Students need acknowledgements for the skills acquired in entrepreneurship courses which they can present to future employers, and they need support to avoid having to choose between studies or startup. Alumni (graduates and dropouts) should not be excluded from startup support.

  3. Most HEIs in the Netherlands have growing numbers of students and staff from abroad. This provides excellent opportunities to enrich the academic entrepreneurship scene. There is scope for the sharing of good practice experiences involving international students and staff in entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship support across Dutch HEIs.

  4. Many HEIs in the Netherlands have been successful in supporting their staff and students to consider starting up a business. This has led to many new firms. The next step would be to help these firms to grow. The good reputations and networks that most HEIs in the Netherlands have developed in their regions through active linkages with businesses and external partners can be exploited. To fully act upon this potential, greater collaboration across the higher education system and strong partnerships with local and regional governments are needed. StartupDelta is a very promising start.

References

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