The Netherlands is proud of its powers of innovation, and the new government understandably hopes to make a contribution in this regard. But what choices are being made? Patent attorney Marco Molling has been examining the new coalition agreement and shares his view on the new ambitions and plans.
‘The Netherlands wants to reinvent itself in all kinds of ways,’ explains Marco Molling. ‘To innovate when it comes to the legal system and healthcare. For us, it is first and foremost about technological innovation. I have paid attention to that, in particular.’ Molling began his career at a small company specialising in laboratory equipment, in which he was involved in product development among other aspects. This is where his fondness for small innovative businesses developed. ‘It is pleasing to read in the agreement that attention will be devoted to SMEs, start-ups and creative independents where innovation is concerned, and that the government will play a more active role in supporting them (see overview for details of various plans and measures, ed.). In my personal experience as a patent attorney, I also really believe this is the sector in which many important innovations are developed, including the associated patents. Small businesses and independents genuinely pour all of their knowledge and skills into an innovation, often with very few resources, so efficiency is a must in those cases. A granted patent is a significant and crucial step for them, and one which determines that future success.’
The government as a customer
‘The government wants to play the role of a pioneer when it comes to innovation. That is what they did and are doing by commissioning contracts themselves, sometimes as a launching customer. This includes subject areas for which there is an important societal interest in their development, among others. That, by itself, is not a bad idea at all. These might include the development of low-noise, durable asphalt, for example. If the government encourages this by means of an innovation scheme, this will boost our powers of innovation, while at the same time we are working on a more sustainable society, in this case.’ Molling has noticed that the climate for innovation and entrepreneurship has improved over the last few years, ‘but I do not believe that means the Dutch can just sit back and do nothing. If we do that, we will certainly be overtaken. Fortunately, the coalition agreement provides a firm foothold in that regard.’ The EPO granted 2,784 patents to Dutch companies last year (+39.8% compared with 2015), which is the strongest growth for 10 years. What is more, the Netherlands has filed the second largest number of European patent applications relative to its population (405 patent applications per million citizens).
There also appear to be opportunities for technological research institutions, claims Molling. ‘The government recognises that technological sciences and research groups face high training costs and that we need high-calibre specialists. Some 120,000 vacancies will need to be filled over the next twelve years. In that case, it is important that we offer sufficient teaching and practical space to enable all students to actually study their field, to name just one simple example. I also notice that more funding is becoming available for both applied and fundamental research. The former is obviously in keeping with a trend in which research serves the market or a social need. An increasing number of universities are organising their research in this way. A remarkable paradox is that KU Leuven in fact earns money from its patents and then uses that money to fund fundamental research. Personally, I am convinced that free research time results in some surprising discoveries, and so you need to keep that free time available.’
Molling applauds many measures, but he is also vigilant against excessively high expectations. ‘It will have an effect, but a grant of 100 million euros won’t be enough to develop a brand new drug.’ Any other criticisms? He mentions the well-known and successful Innovatiebox scheme, an instrument that is used to reduce corporation tax for innovative businesses, resulting in an effective rate of 5%. This is to rise to 7%. ‘This means there will be less relief per balance for innovative businesses that make use of the box scheme,’ explains Molling. He also claims that IP policy is not mentioned as such in the agreement. One possible explanation is that the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy is currently involved in evaluating IP policy. As part of this, all stakeholders are being surveyed by an external research agency. The 2017 report is expected to form the basis of adjustments to the IP policy.
Innovation in the coalition agreement
Here is just one example of the innovation-orientated measures in the coalition agreement:
The government is investing 200 million euros per year in fundamental research. A further 200 million euros will become available for applied research.
The top-sector policy, which is geared towards collaboration between the business community, knowledge institutions and the government, will focus more on economic opportunities offered by the social themes of energy transition/sustainability, agriculture/water/food and quantum physics/high-tech/nanotech/photonics.
The status of the Eindhoven region as a ‘main port’ is being developed in collaboration with the region.
As a launching customer, the government will be pursuing innovation by increasing use of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) scheme.
The SME investment scheme Regio en Topsectoren (MIT) and the government innovation loans for SMEs are also being expanded.
In professional education, specialists, technology and skilled trade are being given priority and a new stimulus. The Techniekpact scheme to promote employment in technologies and the Platform Bètatechniek to promote the sciences are also continuing.