‘Start-up nation’ comes to the Netherlands

The Dutch move to show world their innovation, greentech.

Organic plastic Olla bedpans 370 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Organic plastic Olla bedpans 370
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
It’s mid-morning in a historic Dutch hospital in the small town of Delft, and seven Israeli journalists are watching a presentation about bedpans.
Not just any bedpans, organic plastic Olla bedpans.
They will be used once and sent to a washing machine-sized shredder (“Tonto”) where they will be pulverized and sent along with the rest of the hospital’s medical waste and waste water to a purification system and converted into biogas.
Confused? That’s understandable, but the presentation of the Pharmafilter hospital waste system was in keeping with the theme of a four-day press trip to the Netherlands late last month. The Dutch government took a group of Israeli journalists on a battery of visits to Dutch innovators, scientists, architecture students, microalgae cultivators, port workers and gas industry executives, ahead of a threeday Dutch gas industry mission to Israel this week.
The theme of the tour appeared to be that the Netherlands is a small, densely packed country, with an outsized impact on the world and an eye toward innovation and technology.
Sound familiar? The Dutch government press representative on the trip (“your unquotable source of information,” as he called himself) said that in recent months he had hosted press trips from countries as far and wide as Vietnam and Argentina. In terminology that would be familiar to that of the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, it seems the Netherlands is trying to “re-brand” itself as a country of hi-tech innovation and renewable energy, and not just tulips and windmills (or fogged-out coffeehouses and half-naked women in Amsterdam canal windows, as it were).
The tour had many of the hallmarks of the organized Israeli press trip to Europe: a visit to a local Jewish historical site (in this case Amsterdam’s quite impressive 17th-century Portuguese Synagogue) and back-to-back meetings with government officials and other “machers who should be met,” most of whom without fail will say, “Looks like you brought the weather with you from Israel” if it happens to be sunny outside.
Along the way, the members of the press delegation will comment nonstop about how almost every aspect of the host country is superior to Israel, in terms of urban planning, traffic etiquette, look and dress of the locals and, of course, the prices in supermarkets and bars. By the time they leave, each visiting journalist will risk exceeding his or her baggage limit due to the critical mass of press pamphlets and informational booklets to be discarded upon arrival in Israel.
The Dutch hosts were very professional, well-organized and seemed genuinely proud of the steps that the government and local companies are taking to develop renewable energy and more advanced methods of agriculture.
In contrast to Israelis, the Dutch presenters did not appear to be too big on improvisation or to possess much Israeli chutzpah, and one could be forgiven for thinking that an unofficial motto of the Netherlands is “please wait until I finish my presentation and I will answer your questions.”
Bert van der Heide and Soelimen Lafkiri represent Kurtz Marketing & Management, a business development company organizing the Dutch gas trade delegation to Israel this week.
When asked what advice the Netherlands can offer Israel in regard to how to handle its recent offshore gas discoveries, van der Heide said that the country could use its five decades of experience with natural gas exploration, drilling and export as a way to advise Israel.
“One of the things that we are trying to achieve with the gas mission is to help Israel build its capacity with handling these discoveries. It’s a new field in Israel and there’s a lot of aspects in health, safety and environmental that come to mind.”
Lafkiri added: “The fact is that the Netherlands has gone through developments that Israel still has to go through.”
Van der Heide said Israel will have to balance the interests of private industry, which will seek to maximize profits, with the interests of the state and the public, which can reap great rewards from the gas finds, but also face potential risks.
Lafkiri suggested that Israel could avoid the perils of the “Dutch disease” by investing gas revenue in paying off state debts and investing in long-term infrastructures.
As for what the Netherlands can learn from Israel, it was clear in speaking to van der Heide and Lafkiri that like many others, the Dutch have been struck by Israel’s image as the “start-up nation.”
“I think that the entrepreneurial spirit which exists in Israel is something that we could definitely learn or should try to learn. When you talk to an Israeli on the streets, there’s a good chance he would say he has a great idea and that he wants to start developing this hi-tech idea and selling it around the world, I think there is this positive attitude and mentality of risk taking and bringing your ideas to market.
There is a certain risk aversion not only in the Netherlands but generally in Europe, where people look to work for a corporate entity instead of taking risks and having your own company,” van der Heide said.
He added that “in the Netherlands there is a lot of emphasis in politics and within the public debate on strengthening innovation and stimulating entrepreneurship, and this is something where we could use a little bit of the Israeli spirit and its success as a start-up nation.”
Lafkiri drew a comparison between the history of the Netherlands and that of Israel, saying “we always tend to say here, we have struggled against the environment, against the rising water, out of which the Netherlands has developed a very strong infrastructure and maritime sector – sometimes people say it’s comparable to how a small country like Israel has, by dealing with the challenges it faces, developed a successful technology based economy.”
In a small bar in downtown Rotterdam, Karin Weustink – deputy director of the economy department of the Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation Ministry – spoke about Dutch efforts to create a “Bio-based economy” in a world where fossil fuels are finite. Weustink said the Netherlands is investing 200 million euros in developing the field of biofuels, with the public, NGOs and private industry contributing to the efforts as well.
When asked if the government can be the vanguard of such a push for alternative fuels, Weustink said that while it can invest money and give a spark to such efforts, “the revolution has to come from the people.”
Cindy Heijdra, the communications director for the ministry, said Israel can learn from the Dutch agro-sector’s productive use of available land and water in a small, densely populated Northern European country and that the Netherlands “can definitely learn from Israel, for example in biotechnology, and in water and energy efficiency.”
Heijdra spoke about the prominence of green parties and green politics in the Netherlands, something that does not typify the Israeli political scene.
Nonetheless, she added that the government has taken steps to try to keep the Dutch public from taking the role of the agro-sector (10 percent of the national economy) for granted, and to stress to the public the importance of increasing the level of innovation and competition in the Netherlands.
The next day included a visit to the Rotterdam Port (the largest in Europe and 10th-largest on Earth), a 40-km.
expanse of ports, factories, refineries and power plants, providing employment for 90,000 people. The port presents an example of the old Dutch shipping heritage and the country’s modern-day nod toward innovation.
Later that day the press trip made its way to the small college town of Wageningen, home to some 40,000 residents and Wageningen University and Research Center, which focuses on life sciences. A charming small town of endless greenery and Dutch farm houses, it also boasts a completely unpronounceable name, at least for the members of the Israeli press delegation who came up with nearly a dozen different ways to garble the name of the village.
Outside Wageningen lies a microalgae cultivation center, devoted to collecting micro-algae for the production of bulk commodities and biofuel.
During a presentation titled “Micro-algae: The Green Gold of the Future?” scientists spoke about how micro-algae can play an important role in developing a more sustainable society and help utilize land where algae grows, land that is typically not suitable for agriculture.
Hours later, the delegation was flying over Northern Europe toward Israel. Both Israel and the Netherlands have had great success forcing the will of man upon nature, the Dutch with their timeless struggle against the sea, and Israelis in turning a poor patch of the eastern Mediterranean into a net food exporter, while making portions of the desert bloom.
Both, it turns out, are also eager for the world to hear what they have to offer, presumably to make the world a better place.
"The reporter visited the Netherlands as a guest of the Dutch government"