Innovation hub: the new engine for East Groningen
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Innovation Hub: the new engine for East Groningen

Four scientists plus an entrepreneur as booster. Pizza boxes on the table and a Coke or a beer to go with it. And then brainstorm about how you can give something back to your native region. And so the idea for the East Groningen Innovation Hub took shape.

Five Pekelders, well ended all of them. In science, as professors, teachers or as successful entrepreneurs. They were childhood friends, or at least they knew each other from school or a sports club. Nieuwe Pekela is the village and they traveled across the country and the world.

As they swung out across the country, they saw the village and its surroundings come to a standstill. It was the Pekelder entrepreneur Jakob Zwinderman who managed to get the five together and warm to his plan to rediscover the strength of the region.

Because there is, says Zwinderman, who is also president of the Foundation for Business Pekela. There is no denying that East Groningen is struggling with a worrisome and persistently high number of job-seekers, that its population is somewhat less healthy, and that the region is struggling with the out-migration of young and better-educated people.

But what good does it do if you continue to think in terms of problems, Zwinderman believes, who has long been working to improve the position of the region. Zwinderman latched onto the plan of former Pekingelder Willem Jonker, professor of data and security at the University of Twente.

Jonker suggested in late 2017 in the Dagblad van het Noorden newspaper that Groningen's raw materials potatoes, magnesium salt and hemp are bursting with economic potential. Especially when new business is developed around a combination of those products.

That could give East Groningen a new manufacturing industry with thirty new companies and a thousand jobs, Jonker calculated. This would also give young people and the better-educated prospects and thus counteract the brain drain.

With their stocktaking of the possibilities for an interplay between Heeres a swing at the plan. Erik Heeres is a professor of chemical engineering at the RUG and his brother André is a lecturer in biobased chemistry at the Hanzehogeschool.

They identified a number of sectors with growth opportunities: biochemistry, pharma and food at the forefront. Hemp processor Hempflax in Oude Pekela, Nedmag, which processes magnesium salt in Veendam, and Avebe, producer of potato starch products, saw potential. Meanwhile, a number of leading regional companies also expressed interest.

"Work, work, work is the mantra," Zwinderman says. More economic activity, he argues, is the way forward for the area. 'More jobs will only come when you start with something new, innovative. In doing so, we must rely on the brainpower of the entrepreneurs here, on their knowledge and networks. When you connect that together, opportunities arise. The grayness has to come off.'

"We invited the top people at Nedmag, Avebe and HempFlax to a series of sessions and mapped out what they are working on now, what developments they see and above all: what ideas are still on the shelf. Zwinderman: "We stirred something up at the companies, I felt the momentum.

'We have a series of patents in the closet,' says Nedmag director Bert Jan Bruning. 'Sometimes you do research or develop a product. Then its production turns out not to be financially viable at the time. Or you stop working on it because your focus is elsewhere. As a precaution you then apply for a patent anyway.

The fresh perspective of fellow companies and scientists uncovers new possibilities, Bruning said. "Then it turns out that the technology can be used for development of other products as well.

For example, Hanzehogeschool student Hassan Al-Mala was the first to start working with a combination of products and plans from the idea kitchen of HempFlax, Avebe and Nedmag. He is now working in the Innovation Hub space at Nedmag on insulation panels made from hemp fibers, glued with Avebe's biodegradable glue and made fire-resistant with a product made from magnesium salt.

Bruning: 'It is effective to build on knowledge and activity from an existing company like ours through startups. New companies also attract suppliers, maintenance companies and service providers. It often works better than bringing new companies here from far away.'

By creating a more solid base of activity, the Innovation Hub also makes existing companies more robust. 'We are doing this from a long-term vision,' says the Nedmag director. 'We need good people to innovate. The InnovationHub can ensure that the area offers new jobs and becomes more attractive to students, for example, who offer innovativeness.'

'Working in a city like Groningen is fine,' says Jakob Zwinderman, 'but we want to offer something in return in the region where young talented students and employees can go so that innovation can also take place here.'

Here is also a role for Aard Groen, professor of entrepreneurship and valorization at Groningen University. He has access to a student population that is skilled in entrepreneurship and can set up real new business.

Quartermaster Zwinderman is confident. The companies participating are united, he says. They see the possibilities as well as the need and have deposited start-up capital. A trendy office has been set up for the students. And all that without a dime of government subsidy, Zwinderman emphasizes. 'Pay attention,' he says. 'We are going to make East Groningen attractive again.'

Students are treading water

"I was sold right away. Hassan Al-Mala, a biology and medical lab research student at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences in Groningen, came into contact with the InnovationHub Oost-Groningen at a meet-and-greet at the Energy Barn at Zernike Park and fell for the proposition that was put to him: explore the possibility of making fire-resistant, biodegradable insulation panels from fiber hemp.

'An entrepreneur recognizes an entrepreneur,' says the fourth-year student. 'I knew it was something for me. I saw that I could collaborate with multiple companies and do something for the region at the same time. Hassan is now working on his graduation project in the space in the Nedmag building that was specially designed for the Innovation Hub. He is counting on being able to turn the project into a business after his studies, whether or not under the wings of Nedmag, Avebe or HempFlax.

East Groningen Innovation Hub: Thirty companies, a thousand jobs

Innovation Hub, innovation cluster, innovation workshop. New buzzwords popping up in places where entrepreneurship and innovation clump together. As technological
development is accelerating and becoming more complex, companies like to choose collaboration and open innovation. High Tech Campus in Eindhoven, Innovation Cluster Drachten and Food Valley in Wageningen are successful examples, according to Bureau Berenschot.

The InnovationHub Oost-Groningen is based on the Groningen raw materials potatoes, hemp and magnesium salt. Around the hub, pacesetter Jakob Zwinderman signals a growing enthusiasm among other companies. 'What we are concentrating on right now is the choice of projects. We have to be careful not to make too much of a big deal in our drive. Nevertheless, Zwinderman calls on companies that want to get involved to submit proposals.

Within the Innovation Hub East Groningen, five projects have now started or are in preparation, most around the themes of biobased (chemistry), food and pharma. Among them:

  • Market opportunities of improved hemp fiber
  • Research on the synthesis of magnesium stearate for use in medicine, food and cosmetics
  • Explore opportunities and commercial applications of combinations of hemp protein and potato protein.

The boys from Brine

Who are the pacesetters behind the East Groningen Innovation Hub?

  • Willem Jonker, professor of data and security at the University of Twente, CEO EIT Digital and spiritual father of the hub
  • Aard Groen, professor of entrepreneurship and valorization at the RUG. Man behind the VentureLab entrepreneurship incubators in Groningen and Twente
  • Erik Heeres, professor of chemical engineering at the RUG
  • André Heeres, lecturer in biobased chemistry at the Hanzehogeschool and working at Syncom
  • Jakob Zwinderman, entrepreneur in Pekela, consultant with Sherpas Proyects and chairman of the Pekela Business Foundation.