‘Less talk, more action’: A founder’s guide to Rotterdam
From founder-led communities, incubators and coworking spaces, this is what startups can expect from the Dutch city.
Rotterdam is Europe’s best-connected large city and, as the second largest Metropole Region in The Netherlands, it’s also home to more than 1,400 startups — including Mendix, I3D.net, Nearfield Instruments and Sana Commerce.
The Dutch city has invested in founder-led communities, incubators and coworking spaces, drawing in scaleups such as UK-based insurtech Superscript, which moved its European headquarters to Rotterdam in June 2022.
But how does Rotterdam perform in comparison with other Dutch cities and other top European tech hubs, such as Berlin and London?
Rotterdam in data
With over 25 unicorns and ranking within the top 20 countries in the world for VC investment, The Netherlands has emerged as a big player in Europe’s startup ecosystem over the last few decades.
While Amsterdam attracts the largest amount of early-stage VC investment ($259m in 2023), Rotterdam is experiencing rapid relative growth in early-stage VC investment ($132m in 2023), outperforming other Dutch hubs such as Eindhoven and Utrecht, which have raised $83m and $36m in 2023 respectively.
According to Dealroom data, the top three industries in The Netherlands for VC investment in 2022 were energy, fintech and health — which is also true of Rotterdam. The city is striving to be Europe’s largest green hydrogen hub.
Tim Houter is cofounder of Hardt Hyperloop, a startup that has built Europe’s first hyperloop test facility in Rotterdam. The hyperloop is a high-speed train that runs within a vacuum in a tube.
“Rotterdam has an active startup ecosystem with universities, investors and large companies being present. Especially in the energy transition landscape and hardware,” he says.
However, Houter points to a challenge faced by The Netherlands and the EU at large, which is “the lack of significant scaleup capital”. Hamed Sadeghian, CEO of Nearfield Instruments, a scaleup that produces metrology solutions for semiconductors, agrees.
“When it comes to a scaleup, even though there is still the enthusiasm and the support, the financial support is less,” he says. “Especially when it comes to deeptech, you don’t see many of the investors who are being supportive to the extent that they can because it’s not just about the number of investors but also about the size.”
Founders supporting founders
To bridge this investment gap, Rotterdam has been building support initiatives such as an investor introductions programme that helps connect founders who need funding to international VCs, as well as to incubators and accelerators.
What is important is to put the startups and scale-ups at these events in the spotlight rather than the officials.
“Notable incubators like YES!Delft — particularly for deeptech — and accelerators like PortXL, the global maritime accelerator, have been around for many years,” says Lars Crama, private lead at Up!Rotterdam, an organisation that supports the growth of Rotterdam’s startup ecosystem.
“I’m really happy to see recent initiatives like Circular Factory, an accelerator for circular companies, and the Erasmus University Challenge which allows students to test their ideas, validate a prototype and then turn it into a startup.”
For Sadeghian, however, it’s Rotterdam’s startup events that make the city a unique place to scale: “From networking and building connections to building the ecosystem, it definitely helps. What is important is to put the startups and scaleups at these events in the spotlight rather than the officials.”
Hans Scheffer, founder of HelloPrint, a marketplace for customised prints, found the cofounders of one of his new ventures at Upstream Festival, an annual grassroots startup festival that hosts between 2,000 and 3,000 attendees every year.
“Having an annual event like Upstream is essential for a city like Rotterdam and its impact is heavily underestimated,” he says. “It gives people a reason to come together, to share, to organise and to inspire.”
For Houter, the geography of the greater Rotterdam region helps build connections with other founders, investors and customers in the country.
If we want to grow, we need to grow the talent pool, be welcoming to foreign talent or talent from other regions.
“Within no time you are in Amsterdam for other potential clients, at Schiphol for international travel, at Den Haag for political topics, or in Delft for the University of Technology,” he says.
But Scheffer adds location is a pro and a con, as there are still areas around the city that are not well connected.
“In Rotterdam, everything is ‘close by’, which makes collaboration much more effective and intuitive,” he says. “It’s essential for the success of our startups that we can maximise the talent pool and therefore, we need to be as connected as possible.”
Sadeghian adds that even though the bulk of the Dutch semiconductor industry is in Eindhoven, most of the talent prefers to stay in Rotterdam instead: “Rotterdam offers this possibility that they can still work in the semiconductor industry without having to spend too much time commuting to other cities.”
World-class education and research institutions, including Erasmus University Rotterdam — which ranks in the top 3% of the best universities in the world — and nearby Delft University of Technology, attract international talent to the city. But while there is a startup visa programme that helps international founders to come to The Netherlands, more could be done to attract skilled talent and increase diversity.
“We need to be very mindful about that: if we want to grow, we need to grow the talent pool, be welcoming to foreign talent or talent from other regions and create an attractive value proposition for those talented people,” says Scheffer.
Alumni giving back
While there’s still room for improvement, Crama says one strength of Rotterdam comes from the fact that it has had to (and is still having to) “constantly reinvent itself”.
“It’s a significant port city that’s presently in the process of rapidly evolving into a carbon-neutral economy. Furthermore, it’s a city that had to undergo rapid reconstruction after the second world war,” he says. “The urge to move forward, innovate and to come up with creative solutions is ingrained in the DNA of this city and its inhabitants.”
One example is alumni giving back — the largest seed fund of The Netherlands, Graduate Entrepreneur, is backed by Rotterdam Alumni.
For Houter, what drew his startup to Rotterdam was the mentality of “Niet lullen maar poetsen” (less talk, more action).
“This was one of our main reasons to go to Rotterdam,” he says. “It fits very well with our mantra ‘getting things done’.”