Focus and partnerships: the keys to the Limburg region's innovative power

Jan Cobbenhagen (Maastricht Health Campus) and Tys van Elk (LIOF) explain how collaborating and making the right choices in terms of knowledge, skills, and infrastructure are the keys to the region's success.

Limburg has a large number of start-ups compared with other regions, especially in health. What's the reason for this?

‘That's what has come out of recently published research by StartupDelta. They said 36 health start-ups, but the actual number is much higher in Limburg. On this campus alone we have more than 60 start-ups in health. The article implies that the collaboration between the Province of Limburg and Maastricht University at Brightlands was a major driver of this development. And I have to say, it is. The four Brightlands campuses are the instruments that will help Limburg become a leading knowledge region, converting this knowledge into new business activity. We have several focal points, health being one of them. In 2014, the Province of Limburg and Maastricht University decided to invest in advanced technologies such as regenerative medicine, precision medicine, and innovative diagnostics. Subsequently building ecosystems around the link between these technology platforms, which unite scientific research and centres of expertise in therapeutic fields, is a way to attract companies from off-campus. Together, we’re building comprehensive innovation chains here,’ says Jan Cobbenhagen.

‘It's no longer just by chance that people start working together – we've set it up that way,’ adds Tys van Elk. We offer an attractive, comprehensive financing arrangement and support system. Limburg has one of the best-equipped early-stage financing systems in the Netherlands, thanks to the Province of Limburg. We now have a good financing system, so it's up to LIOF's Limburg Business Development Fund to connect with parties such as Brightlands Venture Partners until private equity or venture capitalists take over the reins.’

What are the pitfalls for start-ups?

Tys van Elk is clear: ‘Start-ups still struggle to be noticed by venture capitalists from outside Limburg. We must be much more active if we're going to get on their radar. For instance, we could take our campuses and knowledge institutes like InSciTe on a roadshow to show off our success stories. Another thing that makes life difficult for medical start-ups is that investors sometimes shy away from the start-ups’ inherent complexity and long development times.’

‘Our ecosystem is starting to function properly, but we're not spreading the word enough – we’re being too modest. This campus is surpassing all the objectives we set for it in terms of activity and employment. The major challenge we face in our role in commercializing inventions from Maastricht University and Maastricht UMC+ is to attract good entrepreneurs. We need entrepreneurs with experience and expertise in the Health and Life Sciences who can make our spin-offs a success, who can translate the inventions into products and then market them successfully,’ adds Jan Cobbenhagen.

How do you see InSciTe contributing towards economic development in the Limburg region?

Tys van Elk starts off. ‘I think InSciTe is a great combination of knowledge, networking, and activity. It's an incubator. InSciTe focuses on the areas in which we want to excel as a region, making it the perfect fit for our ecosystem. LIOF has a number of InSciTe research projects, both biomedical and biobased, on its radar. For example, we're already participating in the start-up Vertoro, one of InSciTe's biobased spin-offs, via the Limburg Business Development Fund. What makes Vertoro so attractive? Vertoro is the result of a well-crafted InSciTe project with a marketable result. It has a passionate entrepreneur who’s also a researcher and knows how to get the most out of the opportunities offered by the campuses and LIOF. But Vertoro is not the only success story linked to InSciTe: there are also companies like TripleMed and Vacis, of course.’

How does InSciTe help connect the campuses?

This connection is also created by the companies involved at InSciTe. For example, the PoSTuRe project is working on a treatment for scoliosis. The concept for the treatment originates from Maastricht UMC+, DSM Biomedical and Xilloc Medical (Chemelot Campus) technology contributes to the solution for the curvature of the spine, while Medtronic (Maastricht Health Campus) was contacted to help finalize the project.

These are two large companies on the campuses, and InSciTe is connecting them. There are also crossover campus connections thanks to companies that use the facilities of InSciTe, such as Neuroplast, CiMaas, and TripleMed. Medace, an initiative by InSciTe, will soon join the ranks. Medace is a crossover campus company between Maastricht and Geleen, where companies and concepts are prepared for patient and market through a learning and working trajectory.’

How could the ecosystem be changed to further improve the position of the South Netherlands region?

Jan Cobbenhagen responds immediately: ‘More focus on technology platforms. That's where the crossovers and the huge benefit of the Brightlands campuses come in: which other Life Sciences campus in the Netherlands or abroad has three others to work with? We must capitalize on this uniqueness. By daring to make choices, you can make sure you stand out in the long term in terms of knowledge, skills, and infrastructure. And this applies to the entire innovation chain, from patent to patient.’

Jan Cobbenhagen

Prof. Jan Cobbenhagen has extensive experience at the cutting edge of science and entrepreneurship. Since 2015, he has been a Professor of Knowledge Transfer and University Venturing, having been a Professor of Entrepreneurship for eight years previous. He served for 12.5 years as the director of Maastricht University Holding BV (strategic shareholdings) and of UniVenture, Maastricht University's corporate venture company that finances spin-offs through equity investments. Jan Cobbenhagen is also the director of the Knowledge Transfer Office at Maastricht University/MUMC+. As of 2016, he has also been active as the CEO of the Brightlands Maastricht Health Campus.

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Tys van Elk

Tys van Elk graduated in Mechanical Engineering from TU Delft and has years of experience in high-tech and management positions in international environments. He focused mainly on strategic transformations, business improvement, new business development, and mergers and acquisitions.

Tys has held various positions at Océ Technologies in Venlo since 2007 and was active there as a Vice President of Strategy, Projects, and Communications from 2014. In this role, he led the development and execution of the global corporate strategy and was responsible for global internal and external communications. In March 2016, Tys started as the managing director at the Industriebank LIOF, which unites three major investment funds: the LIOF Participatiefonds (Participation Fund), the SME Leningfonds (Loan Fund), and the Limburg Business Development Fund.

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