RoboValley in the Netherlands isn’t just a knockoff of Silicon Valley in the U.S.; it’s a role model of how a regional technology hub (in this case international robotics) can take advantage of local competencies.
For decades, from New Zealand to Norway and China to Chile, people from all over the world have been visiting the corridor between San Francisco and San Jose. They all wanted the same thing: the formula that makes Silicon Valley successful.
Countries have spent billions of dollars. Countless politicians of all tribes have visited California with numerous delegations. A steady stream of press releases has announced international robotics partnerships.
Yet, despite having the vision, money, and infrastructure, nobody has been able to recreate Silicon Valley’s magic on its home soil. The world still continues to come there for high-tech innovations, investments, and publicity.
Why are other regions unable to create a Silicon Valley of their own? Each nation has been trying to copy the American model instead of building on its own unique strengths.
How do you create a cabal around an idea? How do you think big? How do you develop courage to challenge the status quo?
You cannot copy these traits. You either have them, or you have to build them, which could take generations.
Robotics and AI change the game
Boston is rapidly becoming the global hub of hardware and commercial robots. The competition is intense between Detroit and Pittsburgh (not to mention Tokyo and Munich) around self-driving cars.
Still, Silicon Valley is widely considered the global capital of software development and hence artificial intelligence. If you add academic labs to the mix, it seems that the future of automation development also belongs to the U.S.
However, U.S. leadership isn’t a foregone conclusion. New centers of excellence are growing fast around the world. Unlike the “copy and paste” strategies that countries unsuccessfully tried in the past, they are now building robotics nodes from the ground up.
These new international robotics clusters are backed by futuristic thinking, a sense of urgency, and private and public funding.
The clusters in Odense, Denmark, and Munich, Germany, are quickly advancing, thanks to interest in collaborative robots and industrial automation. Tsukuba in Japan plans to become the first “robot city” in the world.
Anybody working in the robotics industry knows that Shenzhen, China, is ready to compete head-on with Boston. Seoul has its sights set on AI — especially after a South Korean national lost to Google DeepMind in the board game Go last year).
Paris, Tel Aviv, and Singapore also have big ambitions, as do Bristol in the U.K., Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and Bengaluru in India.
Each of these very different regions is conducting exciting research and development around robotics, AI, self-driving cars, and related technologies. When you dig deeper and start comparing and contrasting them, however, a common thread emerges.
Every cluster is focused on its own country and economy. Is there no single international robotics headquarters like Silicon Valley is for the IT world?
In the small city of Delft in the Netherlands, a team is working hard to build the next Silicon Valley of international robotics and unmanned aerial vehicles. Sure, it is inspired by the U.S., but its vision is different.
Last month, RoboValley hosted International Robotics Week in the Hague in partnership with RoboBusiness Europe and TUS Expo. During the closing ceremony, Arthur de Crook, managing director of RoboValley, shared his thoughts about what the week meant to him.
“Over the past few years, we have built a global platform for organizations, researchers, and governments involved in robotics,” he said. “But we also really wanted to create a moment to show this platform to the world. This moment was the International Robotics Week.”
De Crook explained RoboValley’s vision for a future in which robotics will help in solve grand societal challenges. It’s important for the Netherlands and indeed the entire world to come together to create the next generation of robotics and roboticists “so we can embrace the future for the good,” he said.
While International Robotics Week has put Holland on the world’s map, isn’t every would-be robotics capital hosting an event? RoboValley is special because it mixes local expertise with a cosmopolitan outlook.
Connecting with international robotics
RoboValley is Dutch in design but global in action. Its mission is to “connect people and robots worldwide.” RoboValley wants to become a platform for the whole world.
Unlike other regional organizations that primarily exist for entrepreneurs, RoboValley wants to be the “connective tissue” that brings together researchers, policy makers, innovators, and entrepreneurs from around the world. Its goal is to help someone from Singapore connect with a partner from Scandinavia, the Netherlands, or even someone in Dalian, China.
RoboValley has ideas of its own. For example, it is joined at the hip with the robotics institute at TU Delft, a local university. But the Dutch are also seeking diversity — of ideas, talent, and businesses. They have invited the whole world to partner with RoboValley.
Being attractive to the world
Geopolitically, economically and socially, the Netherlands remains a relatively stable nation. That provides RoboValley a very strong foundation for attracting investments and partnerships.
Global consultancy Accenture, Dutch bank Rabobank, and Canadian firm Chrysalix Venture Capital have already invested in RoboValley. Israel’s robotics industry has signed a long-term partnership agreement with RoboValley.
At the opening of International Robotics Week, Prince Constantijn of the Netherlands had a similar message. When asked how the Netherlands can help startups, he replied, “It is not about AgTech or other areas of technology. It’s about the environment we create for entrepreneurs.”
“How do we get more entrepreneurs coming out of university? How do we deal with regulations hindering entrepreneurship?” he asked. “What kind of shareholding or funding is necessary to make entrepreneurship happen in Netherlands? That is what we really care about.”
This kind of vision makes the Netherlands a strong contender to be the next Silicon Valley of international robotics.
Playing catch up
However, complementing or competing with California won’t be an easy ride.
The ability to create critical mass around an idea remains a challenge. The availability of venture funding is growing, but not at a speed that all eyes automatically turn to RoboValley.
Also, with a population of about 17 million, the Netherlands can’t compete with China as a robotics market of scale. So how the nation positions itself as the “gateway of Europe” will be pivotal to attracting robotic entrepreneurs from around the world.
Irrespective, the Dutch roll — turbulence — is entering the world of robotics. Wherever you are and whatever area of robotics you are working on, pay attention to RoboValley.