Imagine you had a billion to invest

23 February 2018

How would you invest a billion pounds to make a place prosper? This is not a rhetorical thought experiment, this was the choice facing the Dutch Province of Limburg when they sold off the state owned power generation company some 10 years ago. I recently returned from 3 days visiting the investments they have made. Although they only started investing 5 years ago the results are already evident, with impressive employment and student growth, cash being returned to the bank and cranes busily expanding the first wave of the Brightlands Innovation Campuses.

These are what I had come to see, along with a cohort of colleagues from York University, for the regional Government chose to invest in creating a world class knowledge economy, by establishing four Brightlands campuses. Our hosts for the visit were the Executive Team of Maastricht University, the people at the heart of a powerful triple helix partnership between government, academia and industry ratcheting up the growth of a burgeoning innovation economy.

I must confess I set out with a healthy dose of scepticism, but returned a devout convert to their approach, as well as to the local ‘health food’ the Vlaai Pie.

Maastricht is much like York: an ancient walled city, home of a couple of hundred thousand residents, fringed by bustling towns and a productive agricultural hinterland. In Maastrict and the surrounding towns four ‘Brightlands’ Campuses have been established, to blend industry, education and innovation in equal, and effective measure.

Each campus has it’s own theme: chemicals, health, digital smart services and agri-food technology. Physically, each one was distinct, from the belching stream vents and spotlessly clean labs of the Maastricht’s Chemelot Campus, to the achingly hip workspace of the Digital Smart Services campus. This distinction extended beyond the architecture to encompass methodological approaches. On the Chemelot campus, the entrepreneurial start point is opportunities in the market to create new and more sustainable products from novel chemistry, such as the new softer Apple iPhone cables. Whilst the Health Campus was driven by the inventive talents of an army of researchers beavering away on new health solutions, each confident in a healthy market, providing the clinical trials and finances stacked up.

Whilst unfortunately the UK state has long since sold off the family silver, meaning the chances of a billion pound windfall are minimal, there was still much we could learn from this approach. Many of our visits for example prompted the reflection “We do that” or “We have one of those”. However, what we don’t have is a unifying brand to unite the disparate elements as they do in ‘Brightlands’. We also lack a robust and joined up methodology for supporting the growth of our most innovation intensive businesses, whether startups, spin outs or corporates. Ours is a fragmented landscape of support and assistance, despite the best endeavours of the individual support programmes, and the efforts of How’s Business and neighbouring Growth Hubs. The gaps between our initiatives exert a gravitational pull, which the Dutch approach effortlessly float across thanks to thoughtful design.


Interestingly, particularly so being in Maastricht, there was a notable absence of the European Union logos you would find pockmarking the paperwork and offices of most UK business support initiatives. Here the intensive incubation programmes are funded by convertible loans to the fledgling business to cover the costs of hothousing them, recouped at the point they secure their first significant investment. Think Student Loan for entrepreneur school. This novel approach ensures that programmes are designed to meet the needs of the beneficiary, not the bureaucracy, and costs to the public purse are minimised.

The coordinated and collaborative approach was further evident in the fundamental belief in cross disciplinary working as a driver of innovation. We repeatedly heard of both buildings and programmes being designed to bring together people from different disciplines, sectors and sizes of business. They achieve this thanks to a focus on recruiting and developing ‘T’ shaped people, folk with deep expertise in one specific topic, matched with sufficiently broad knowledge to enable shared understanding.

Attracting and developing talent was clearly at the heart of everything, unsurprisingly given this is a knowledge economy they are establishing. It was impressive to hear from the 20 year old blockchain entrepreneur, with credible plans to change the world, how she lived in Amsterdam but commuted into Limburg two days a week specifically to be part of the working environment. That is like someone living in London commuting up to York. Imagine that.

It was evident that the University are focussed on attracting and burnishing the best talent in the world, confident that good people make good things happen. Their sustainable Chemistry startup programme has applications from around the world. Which is not surprising when the campus leaders were each so passionate about helping their people thrive. They really follow through on the belief that people are at the heart of everything. Clearly the University was benefitting, leapfrogging to the top of the rank for student employability, thanks to excellent opportunities for real world exposure to industry.

But the University’s role extended way beyond providing research opportunities for academics or skills and employability benefits for students. They have reimagined their role at the heart of the community, acting as a dynamic agent of growth at the centre of the new knowledge economy. It was clearly working for them, now perched proudly atop the rankings for student satisfaction.

As strategic approaches go, it takes some beating. “Focus on the focus” was the mantra of Maastricht University Principal, an approach clearly made easier by the deep pockets and 10 year contracts provided the regional Government. From the outset, each campus and the work done there has been carefully though through, including an intensive 24 hour lock-in of business, academic and government leaders, to agree the top three priorities where supply of knowledge matches commercial demand and will yield the greatest benefit. In each instance they were responding to the most strategic of drivers: global societal challenges. They were projecting themselves firmly into the future, whether digital disruption, nutritional and functional food or sustainable and circular systems.

Above all, what was entirely apparent to our party, and doubtless the good burghers of Limburg, was the shared vision of a better future. The Brightlands campuses act as a highly visible beacons of this ambition. We could learn something from that.

Did you find this think piece interesting? We’d love to hear your thoughts to help shape our Local Industrial Strategy.

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