There are a whole lot of students going about with great new ideas for products or services, especially at a business-oriented university like Erasmus University Rotterdam. And just like for Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) or Larry Page (Google), this obviously starts in a garage or up in an attic. Messing about, doing a bit of building, making prototypes, having a glass of beer and daydreaming. Nothing wrong with that.

But what if your idea turns out to be really good? Where can you go in Rotterdam to cultivate and develop your brand-new company? To find out, we spoke with all kinds of key people in the wonderful world of meet-ups, bootstrapping, co-working spaces, incubators and angel investors.

Summary of start-up hubs in Rotterdam. Are any of them missing?

Good. Phase 0 is now behind you and you have an idea you want to work on. Apparently, your idea is good enough to put into practice. You have decided to take the plunge and find out if you really can make a success of it. Super exciting, of course, but also super difficult. Where to begin? How do you find capital? Who’s your competition? And how do you transform your ideas on paper into reality?

Ongoing supervision

Good news: With the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship (ECE for insiders), Rotterdam has something unique. Located in one of the Marconi Towers, near the Marconiplein metro station, this centre offers four floors of activities for starters, including coaching, events, training programmes and networking events. It is an environment in which start-ups can work on their ideas in a controlled manner and under ongoing supervision.

Examples of programmes available to start-ups at the ECE are the Get Started Programme (‘an intense, continuous programme of ten weeks that supports ambitious new start-ups’) and Essentials of Entrepreneurship (‘a one-day practical masterclass on entrepreneurship for a broad group of employees’).

Unique in Europe

Though every collective of freelancers, start-ups and other companies housed in a single building claims to be unique, campus manager Gianluca Bellan says that the ECE really is different. In fact, Bellan claims that the advent of the ECE has transformed the landscape for start-ups. “We are unique in Europe. Yes, you have Rocket Internet in Berlin, but that’s a venture generator. They create companies based on existing business models from the US. Whereas we teach people how to really do business on the basis of their own ideas.”

Furthermore, the ECE is not an incubator, i.e. an environment where existing companies help start-ups to grow through money and services in exchange for shares and decision-making powers. “That’s not us. Companies here can simply do business with each other.”

startup fase 1
Image credit: Bas van der Schot

The next big thing

The ECE does not focus on any specific market. “Though Rotterdam certainly has a reputation as being a true business centre, we have all kinds of entrepreneurs here at ECE, ranging from health and economics to food and internet.” Bellan confirms that this is possible because all companies are still young and do not yet require large machines or specific environments. “It’s only later on that companies move to other locations that better suit that particular phase and their corporate characters.”

ECE does select who can join, however. “If you don’t believe that your idea is destined to be the new Facebook, it’s going to be tricky. While we don’t expect start-up to know exactly how everything will work in advance, we want them to be clear about their idea. We don’t want people coming here to hang out because they have some time on their hands. No, your idea needs to be the next big thing. In any event, your concept must be new and scalable.”

Major hits

The ECE has earned the right to be picky; after all, it has been responsible for several major hits. Take Nestpick, for example, which is a kind of AirBnB for renting out homes. “It started here in 2014 with one guy from Erasmus. It has since grown into a business of 70 employees and has been acquired by Rocket Internet. Last year, the company was valued at 6 million euros.”

There’s also Synbid, which started three years ago as a crowdfunding platform for start-ups and now has upwards of 30 employees and branches throughout Europe. And then there’s Housing Anywhere, the platform where international students can exchange rooms. “That service is now available in 18 countries, is run by a team of 27 people and has just had a million-euro capital injection from investors. They all started here.”

→ expertise: none; all ideas are welcome

→ services: coaching (including from Unilever and Procter & Gamble), events, programmes, network and work space

→ admission requirements: everyone with ambition and a seriously good idea is welcome, so also people with senior secondary or higher professional education or people who aren’t students at all, just as long as they are on the path from ‘good idea’ to ‘first turnover’

→ venue: Rotterdam Science Tower, Marconistraat 16

→ website:

Other hotspots

Obviously, the ECE is not the sole hotspot in Rotterdam for starters. In fact, the number of hotspots for starters is becoming innumerable. One popular spot is the Startup Foundation, which recently moved to the Bierstraat (near the Wijnhaven). There’s no formal supervision offered here, but an extensive and diverse network of new and experienced entrepreneurs who have their offices here. There are also meet-ups and other activities for scoring business cards and discussing problems.

Located in the Groothandelsgebouw is Kleinhandel, a work place with around 20 starters of all sorts banging away on their MacBooks. This is ideal for bootstrapping, i.e. moving your business forward those first steps under your own steam, in anticipation of the day when income and growth become a reality.

Starters can also opt for Het Industriegebouw, a historical building on Goudsesingel with a staggering 20,000 square metres of floor space. As everyone is welcome to rent office space there, you will also find quite a number of start-ups. There are also possibilities in Zuid, such as the Creative Factory in the Maassilo, which especially houses start-ups engaged in creative sectors, such as architecture, audio and video, communications and on-line services. Also in Zuid: Tribes, a chain of lettable office space for entrepreneurs that is located in the Wilhelmina Tower.

With an edge

Any more? Well, one more then, but one with an edge. In Middellandstraat in West there’s a one-hundred-year-old textile factory which is home to Impact Hub, an idealistically organised network of self-employed professionals and fledgling entrepreneurs. Impact Hub Rotterdam is part of a worldwide network of 82 hubs which describes itself as a ‘movement for sustainable and social innovation’. “We are creating a world that works for everyone. Together we form an eco-system”, according to Amelie Veenstra, director of the Rotterdam franchise. “Starters can test their prototypes here in the community, for example. This is a place where you can ask for the opinion of fellow businesspeople as well as that of launching customers.” While she thoroughly enjoys running the Impact Hub, Veenstra does wonder aloud why the municipality of Rotterdam only subsidises the Cambridge Innovation Center. “2.7 million euros is a lot of money to build an eco-system for entrepreneurs. My advice to the city is to look around at what already exists.”

Declaree @ ECE

Bas Janssen

“I founded Declaree together with two partners. Declaree is an online solution for keeping track of expenses”, says Bas Janssen, a former IT & Economics student of Erasmus University Rotterdam. “Declaree offers a smartphone app that users can use to digitise receipts and save transport costs, for example, replacing the monthly expense claim forms in Excel or on paper.” Another useful functionality of Declaree is the ability of managers to approve (or reject) all expenses immediately and to link directly to the financial administration.

Janssen is chief commercial officer of Declaree – which was proclaimed by the Chamber of Commerce as one of the hundred most-innovative companies of 2015. “This means I am responsible for generating new business, managing sales and finding partners. Our customer base includes companies with five employees, but we mostly serve large businesses. The greater your number of employees, the greater the saving in time and efficiency our solution offers.”

Declaree is based in the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship in the Marconi Tower. “When we first started here, we registered for the Get Started programme, which helped us to fine-tune our business model. This meant we could set up Declaree in a way that enabled growth from the outset.”

Janssen experiences the ECE as a ‘lively community’ which links people in the business world to the academic circuit. “This network includes many investors, entrepreneurs and business coaches. By sparring with them, we were able to achieve rapid growth as well as professionalise our operations and processes. And because large companies come to the ECE to be part of the academic innovation programme, we were presented with an opportunity to meet our first major customers.”

Next week you will read the third part in this series, about where you can go to develop in a specialised way.