Its 10am on the 11th floor, and already a number of groups are gathered around tables in the open plan office, getting down to business from behind their laptops and tablets. The bar in the centre isn’t open yet though, it’s far too early for that, but over at the ECE-campus’ coffee corner, well that’s another story. Entrepreneurs eagerly wait their turn to get their hands on that much needed morning caffeine fix, chatting away to each other before heading off to get on with the day’s tasks. To their left, there’s a case somewhat reminiscent of a high school trophy case. “Seen these?” Hendrik Halbe ECE’s Managing Director asks, picking up some sort of table-tennis cross badminton hybrid set. “Helix was designed and made by Erasmus students, and now the game is sold everywhere!”
A unique, interactive environment
Located opposite Marconiplein in the Rotterdam Science Tower, the ECE Campus has experienced rapid growth since opening in March 2014. Due to the growing demand for workspace from the fifty-plus start-ups in residence, the campus recently opened a new floor. This meant a number of renovations were necessary, and as Halbe explains, the eventuating design has created an ‘interactive floor, where everyone is talking to each other’.
It is this interactivity which provides the key to success of the campus, as it builds the unique environment and atmosphere so often referred to. Sharing knowledge and best practice is valuable, and chance meetings around the newly opened Starbucks coffee corner or Bavaria bar can lead to innovative ideas and solutions — as can sharing a laugh as someone travels between the two floors by slide. Aside from office and flex spaces, the campus, which has a strong academic background due to its affiliation with EUR, offers an informal, interactive environment for start-ups to learn from each other.
From students to entrepreneurial kingpins
From students to entrepreneurial kingpins
Resident start-ups at the ECE Campus have varying degrees of experience: members range from students making their first break through to those regarded as ‘serial entrepreneurs’. Jan Borghuis and Gijs van Lookeren Campagne of the successful car-sharing platform Greenwheels are just two of the campus’ resident serial entrepreneurs. Greenwheels rather than car-rental, offer car-sharing; users can hire cars per quarter hour, pick up vehicles up in convenient locations, and book online 24/7. Volkswagen acquired Greenwheels in early 2015, and since then the two have moved to ECE, where they’re working on a new venture. The differing levels of expertise present coupled with members’ interdisciplinary backgrounds means that the campus offers start-ups an environment fit for learning — with plenty of room for collaborations.
Korstiaan Zandvliet, CEO and co-founder of Symbid, the crowdfunding platform for start-ups, speaks highly of the atmosphere at the campus. Reflecting on his time at RSM, he remembers living in ‘close proximity’ to his co-founders, ‘with a lot of other entrepreneurship students also living on the same street.’ Today many of these alumni work with, or for, Symbid, with others having founded their own business(es) and used the platform to secure funding for their enterprises. Zandvliet explains that in his opinion, the ECE campus has re-created the entrepreneurial community he recalls from his RSM years, by providing a meeting point for like-minded individuals. “Here at the campus, you see a lot of different streams of entrepreneurship coming together. There’s the academic side, practitioners, a lot small student companies and people who’re just interested in entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial activities.”
“Symbid for example, we provide assistance to the smaller start-ups with securing funding.” Since launching their platform, The Funding Network™ in March 2015, Symbid have already helped start-ups to secure over 164 million euro in investments. “The ECE Campus offers a collaborative, structured approach towards entrepreneurial activity, and has grounding in the academic programs of one of the world’s most renowned universities for entrepreneurship,” says Zandvliet of the campus’ success.
Whilst ECE provides the perfect base for a business like Symbid, others have used the campus to get the ball rolling, and later decided to move on to other locations. This was the case for Elqava, a subscription coffee service started by entrepreneurial EUR students, who now rent flex-space opposite Central Station in the Groothandelsgebouw. Elqava Sales Manager and IBCoM student Tom Pieter still remains positive about the ECE atmosphere despite their move. “The ECE is a great educator, the campus offers an excellent atmosphere when you’re starting out. Take for example the crowdfunding platform Symbid: the company itself is helpful if you’re a start-up, but so are the people involved — they’re always willing to offer advice and help you build connections. We benefitted from the experience of companies like this, and also the speakers that visit ECE. Whether for an event, or guest lectures during the minor in entrepreneurship, they’re all very inspirational and provide meaningful insights and advice.”
Explaining their decision to leave ECE, Tom highlights the location as being problematic, adding that it’s simply ‘too far away’ from both the city and the Woudestein campus. Secondly, he believes that Elqava needed to ‘leave the nest’ in order to continue to grow and learn. “We exhausted our resources there. The thing about entrepreneurship is that eventually you need to really get your hands dirty, and for us this meant getting out there and putting what we’ve learnt into practice,” says Tom.
EUR and the ECE Campus
ECE may be on the opposite side of the city to EUR, but as ECE’s Scientific Director and RSM’s Professor of Corporate Entrepreneurship Justin Jansen stresses, the university still works in close co-operation with the campus. “The role of the university is not only to teach or develop certain skills, but also to give our students the opportunities to grow in different ways,” Jansen explains. “We co-develop the start-up and accelerator programs and do a lot of teaching over there, as with the entrepreneurship minor. Courses in the Master’s program are also taught there because of the atmosphere, and because many of the [fifty-plus resident] start-ups teach as guest lecturers in our programs,” he says. “Five to ten years ago every business administration student thought they would end up in a big company. Now we are showing them that there are other options, becoming an entrepreneur is also a viable opportunity.”
For those students serious about entrepreneurship, the EUR’s Student Entrepreneurs Excellence Programme (StEEP) provides support when juggling both academic and business commitments. ECE’s Managing Director Hendrik Halbe explains that “a lot of people see the Zuckerberg’s, without realising that it’s a very hard job being an entrepreneur, a lot of hard work — like a top sport. We created StEEP to help these top entrepreneurs who may sometimes struggle to do business and high level study at the same time. StEEP is to support them with coaching and planning their workloads, on both business and study sides. Providing coaching on both sides means that they will graduate.”
Start-up exchange with Silicon Valley
With the campus rapidly expanding and its international reputation growing, ECE is always on the look-out for new opportunities. In the pipeline is one prospect which looks set to benefit both the campus’ resident start-ups and the EUR’s entrepreneurially minded students alike. “We might work with Silicon Valley and the University of California,” explains Jansen. “The University of California are interested in what’s going on at the ECE campus, which suggests they’re not satisfied with how they’re organised with the neighbourhood of Silicon Valley. They see us as an example of how a space dedicated to young entrepreneurial talent could be run, and how you can have such a centre where different things are happening every day.”
Jansen explains that they’re aiming to establish an exchange program, which would see Rotterdam based start-ups head to Silicon Valley and vice versa. Such an arrangement would benefit EUR students too, particularly those that follow the minor in entrepreneurship, which is predominantly taught at the ECE-campus. Of course, it would also provide substantial opportunity for sharing knowledge and best practice amongst entrepreneurs at a greater international level “Right now we’re looking to work with the University of California, but maybe in future we will do something similar with other hotspots around the world,” says Jansen, indicating Asian destinations as likely future partners.
Campus designed to promote interaction
The campus itself, situated on the 10th and 11th floors of the Rotterdam Science Tower, has been purpose built. Designed to promote communication and interaction amongst entrepreneurs, the interior gives budding entrepreneurs the choice between taking a slide or the stairs to go between levels. “In many buildings the communication between floors is terrible, to improve that you have to do something which gets attention” says Halbe of the new slide. Entrepreneurs can also opt to hold meetings in the ‘campus playground’, where chairs have been replaced by swings and the floor is covered with artificial grass. Such features, according to Halbe, act as icebreakers — essentially, they get people talking. “Entrepreneurship is about doing the impossible or doing things which seem crazy,” he says, likening it to the new slide between floors, “yes the slide took us some time, but in the end we did it.”
So, will we see the next Google born right here in Rotterdam? With a hive of budding entrepreneurial activity and support from one of the leading universities in entrepreneurship, the road ahead for the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship certainly looks promising.