Alex Berhitu 'Building ecosystems : long breath, difficult start but ultimately much satisfaction'
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Alex Berhitu 'Building ecosystems : long breath, difficult start but ultimately much satisfaction'

Alex Berhitu 2021 01 Alex Berhitu

Well, who doesn't get asked at a family party what kind of work they are currently doing. Outright telling about the activities I do for work (having a cup of coffee with lots of people, company visits, business trips, business lunch, business dinner, meetings, lectures, conferences, training and coaching, connecting people, etc.) I can manage. But I found that I had quite a bit of trouble explaining well why I do it and what it should accomplish. Especially to the logical follow-up question "and is it succeeding a bit".....


Because building new ecosystems in which entrepreneurs together with knowledge institutions, governments, consultants, other entrepreneurs and supported by all kinds of facilities (including for research, scale-up and demonstration, housing, funding and subsidies) continue to develop themselves and thereby help us all in accelerating transitions to a more sustainable, smarter and healthier Northern Netherlands, requires a lot of patience. I notice in writing down the foregoing sentence that I have probably already tired at least half of the readers. But wait until I tell you what it takes....

Added value

Over 12 years ago, I started at NOM. And like my other colleagues, I began my work from drinking cups of coffee to connecting people (see above). First with a handful of entrepreneurs, scientists and officials in the North. Later expanding more and more to the rest of the Netherlands, Europe and the world. Those first conversations were not always the most pleasant. Most did not immediately see the added value. Some even initially saw it quite differently and wished us good "luck" with our ideas. Until, after many cups of coffee, concrete connections were made. During this difficult period I already understood that sometimes it helped if I brought my ideas from a network organization (the Water Alliance). And so it happened that I (NOMmer) presented myself as Business Developer of the Water Alliance (especially on the international playing field).


Gradually, more and more connections emerged. Resulting in new collaborations in short-term practical research to larger innovation programs (such as SAWA, sensors in water); from a direct connection between problem owner and technology suppliers (the water squares) to the development of consortia with a total solution for complex problems (as with the Smartbase of defense). But also working together as a water cluster (the handful of companies grew to over 200 companies that connected) and collaborating with other water clusters both within Europe and far beyond (from an outlier within the Netherlands to now solid connections with over 25 water clusters spread across the globe).

Over the years, (support) facilities were developed and added. Physical facilities such as "business incubators" for small startups, "demo sites" for large-scale practical research, and a "water application center" for lab-scale experiments. You literally saw the water cluster germinate and become more visible. Leeuwarden's nameplates were adorned with Capital of Water Technology and iconic new buildings were erected to facilitate the growth of the Wetsus Institute. Growth that also translated to established companies such as Berghof Membrane Technology, Hydraloop and Wafilin. The whole was given an independent name: Water Campus Leeuwarden.

And more

But less visible facilities were also worked on. Education developed a complete water technology curriculum. There were training courses to further train entrepreneurs in the various aspects of business. There was also a real marketplace (waterjobs) to connect employers and professionals. And the various investment funds (Doefonds, Bison, FOM, NEW and of course our own NOM) provided sufficient funds to facilitate entrepreneurs financially in their growth ambitions.

In short, entrepreneurs developed and innovations in the field of sustainable water technology followed in rapid succession. Innovations that we put in the international spotlight. There were the illustrious WIS Award winners such as BlueLegMonitoring (measuring water quality without having to take a physical sample); Hydrowasher (washing hands with billions of drops of hot water and still using only 10ml of water); Hydraloop (reuse of household water) and the just-elected 2022 winner Ferrtech (most powerful yet most sustainable oxidizer). All toppers that show once again that the Netherlands is a leader in innovative water technology. The fact that I was the creator of this competition together with Juliette Douglas and that we didn't get our hands on it right at the start is actually irrelevant. What matters is that each winner got the international attention they deserved and thereby helped us solve global water issues. Meanwhile, the seedling planted long ago in Leeuwarden has grown into a functioning ecosystem for innovative water technology of international stature.


For the past year, I have been focusing on another transition. The transition to a sustainable, circular economy. Again, I am having a cup of coffee with people who are new to me and trying to make connections. We have now started the Noord Nederland Verdient Circulair project with a number of partners to jointly build that ecosystem for a circular economy. Whether it will take another 10 years before I can look back again with satisfaction and start driving another transition...... I don't know. What I do know is that, once again, it will be a difficult start; not everyone is immediately receptive to my ideas. If it's about my pursuit of circular production in the shortest possible chains instead of long chains or if it's about how circular/sustainable is the technology we use to keep raw materials in the circular chain; not everyone is immediately convinced or positive after the first cup of coffee. But with the lessons of the past, I now know that the smaller successes will add up to something beautiful and the successes will follow each other faster and faster. A matter of long breath, a lot of patience and maybe a pinch of luck. But ultimately a lot of satisfaction.