Driving development and innovation in northern business: how does that actually work in NOM's practice? Supplementing the annual figures, manager Sander Oosterhof talks about the context in which the Business Development (BD) team works and how they make choices. After all, which developments deserve to be taken to the next level?
Making choices. This is something every entrepreneur recognizes. After all, choosing a direction is essential, especially when innovating products, services or markets. 'For us as NOM, the question "what are you aiming for?" is by no means easy to answer,' says Sander. 'It is mainly a question we ask over and over again. As the BD team, we are primarily there to drive business development across the full breadth of the northern economy. Because we simply cannot focus on everything at once, there are constantly trade-offs to be made. We do this by asking ourselves and our stakeholders critical questions, just as we question entrepreneurs about their direction.
Where entrepreneurs focus on a healthy business, NOM focuses on a healthy economy. Sander prefers not to use words like "cross-pollination" or "cross-sectoral," but he does emphasize the importance of NOM looking broadly and making connections. 'Based on the challenges that play out throughout the Northern Netherlands, we delve into the question of what and who we need to move forward. The approach is to form entrepreneurial ecosystems around certain tasks in our region, in line with what the Ministry of Economic Affairs calls "mission-driven innovation policy. Because we do not focus on improving one process, product or service, but on a chain of innovation that benefits the entire region.'
According to Sander, such a chain of innovation only arises when you rise above existing columns. 'In our projects, we increasingly cluster a great diversity of companies and knowledge institutions. Take Region of Smart Factories, Food2020 and Chemport Europe: all with a recognizable common thread, while companies from completely different sectors and perspectives are joining in. That is the great strength of these ecosystems. Of course it's great if a single company starts producing smarter, lowering costs or innovating, but it's even better if a whole chain of companies improves processes and we thus contribute together to higher goals such as a circular economy.'
'NOM's role and position enables our team to be a booster in those processes, but also to be critical in doing so,' Sander continues. 'Innovation and business development is about developments that are quite unpredictable and outside the norms. That requires room for entrepreneurship on the one hand and vision and focus on challenges that are specifically important for the Northern Netherlands on the other. We want to drive innovative business from potential growth power for the region. But with innovation in particular it is difficult - especially in the early stages - to make tangible what certain projects will yield.
Uncertainty about the outcomes of business development does sometimes lead to dilemmas. 'It happens that we have to deal with heavily subsidized parties who - on reflection - are mainly driven to sustain themselves, without a focus on actual growth, innovation and development. Sometimes there is no other way at first, for example with innovative start-ups that can only take certain steps with subsidies. In this type of dilemma, it is up to us to ascertain the drive and to estimate the extent to which this party can be of significance for the region's economic growth strength in the long term.'
You never have guarantees in entrepreneurship and that also applies to business development processes in which NOM is involved. 'Although we naturally deploy all available knowledge, experience, networks and opportunities to successfully set up and drive promising projects. We always have our ears and eyes open, bringing together parties who can make a difference in current issues. Our position enables us to clearly identify the missions and challenges within the region, in order to connect parties and motivate them to develop solutions together. So that the companies involved benefit, but also the region.
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