Netherlands grows AI ambitions

Famed for its bulbs and windmills, Europe’s gateway nation aims to be the port for AI expansion.


The Netherlands is pitching itself as the intelligent choice for business technology leaders looking to develop artificial intelligence (AI) business applications. “AI can help with the big challenges of our time in health, resources and education,” says Maarten De Rijk, Professor of AI at the University of Amsterdam.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being positioned as the commercial opportunity that will see the Netherlands remain a physically small nation that is a big player in business. This is, after all, a country that pioneered globalisation with the Dutch East India Company, which was to be copied by empire-building European rivals and today is home to global giants such as oil firm Shell and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) maker Unilever. With a rich culture, the Netherlands has also given the world the artists Rembrandt and Van Gogh, as well as a rainbow of colour every spring with its Tulips and bulbs.

The Netherlands is already in a strong position as a major innovation hub for AI. German industrial conglomerate Bosch, the health arm of compatriots Siemens and IBM, have all invested in Dutch AI research divisions. With the Netherlands government investing in AI, major firms are attracted by the healthy economy, easy access to the European Union, the fact that the Netherlands is ranked as the world’s number one connected country and has a wealth of skilled talent and academic research. “Germany and the Netherlands share the vision that AI is a shared interest,” says Marloes Pomp of the European AI Forum of the collaboration between the two nations.

“We call the Netherlands the gateway to Europe and we pride ourselves on our international business climate, and we have a high quality of life, a low tax rate and a 30% tax allowance for employees,” says Lowri Van Der Linden of the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency of why organisations are flocking to the nation famed for its windmills and mega ports. She adds that the Netherlands is ranked the number two global business destination, ahead of the USA, Singapore, Germany and the UK.

To attract AI focused organisations to the Netherlands, the investment agency is offering incentives connected to technology and sustainability and advice on forming public-private partnerships.

“Collaboration between academia, government and industry is a golden triangle with knowledge transfer between all three,” Pomp says of the role of the Netherlands AI Coalition (NL AIC). “The coalition was formed to create partnerships and already has 450 partners and is open to businesses outside of the Netherlands.”  An example of the coalition at work is Max Welling, a professor at the University of Amsterdam who has a joint role with the university and global telecommunications firm Qualcomm; he describes the partnership as part of an ecosystem, the University of Amsterdam and industry have created with labs shared by academia and industry; adding that as well as working with giants like Qualcomm, the university is creating an environment that is attractive to technology startups.

“Investment is more of a challenge in Europe than over in the USA and universities are not very good at commercialising their intellectual property (IP), so we are making a trade where firms invest in the research labs and then there is an opportunity to buy the IP at a specified price,” Welling says of providing AI startups with access to the deep research his institution offers. There are five laboratories available, all of which are connected to The European Laboratory for Learning and Intelligent Systems (ELLIS), a pan-European non-profit organisation for the promotion of AI. ELLIS aims to establish top AI research institutes across Europe. “The researchers spend half of their time in the lab and half of their time in our business, and there are units that can be sponsored,” Welling says.

“We needed an ecosystem where firms find it attractive to move their business to our ecosystem and integrate university research into their business. This accelerates the research, and the business connection improves the quality of the research,” he says of the approach.

“There are great clusters of innovation in Eindhoven, Leiden, Utrecht, Delft and Amsterdam, each of which has a speciality such as life sciences, food, agriculture, built environment, defence, education, energy, financial services, health, ports, technology and mobility.

“It is at the cross-overs that the exciting things happen,” Van Der Linden of the Investment Agency says. “AI requires a joint approach, there is a need to differentiate, but there are lots of commonalities that you must not waste energy on,” adds Kees Van Der Klauw of the NL AIC on the centres of excellence. “By working together, we can get a quick solution, and you will find partners and avoid duplication,” he says.

Dutch benefits

“The Netherlands is an ideal test market for AI applications,” Pomp says of the nation. Welling at the University of Amsterdam adds that the Netherlands is ideally placed to grow its own talent and attract expertise. “In order to acquire and retain talent, you have to create opportunity, and to do that, you have to have firms create offices in your ecosystem. We have a fantastic pipeline for talent with an AI Masters that is growing very fast.” Maarten De Rijk, also of the University of Amsterdam, adds: “We put talent at the core of innovation, and that will catalyse public and private knowledge sharing as organisations learn by doing.”

“More than 60% of investment into the Netherlands comes from the European Union,” adds Van Der Linden of the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency and in early 2021, Germany and the Netherlands signed a technology development pact. She adds that 20% of new roles in the Netherlands are in technology, and there is a high demand across the world from businesses to use the fact-finding tours to research locating parts of their business and its AI opportunities in the Netherlands. Van Der Klauw of the NL AIC says the collaboration with Germany, Belgium and France is very strong.

Van Der Klauw believes the Netherlands is right to focus on AI not only for the technological and economic benefits of being at the forefront of AI but also to ensure AI is shaped for wider benefit. As a key nation in the European Union, the world’s largest trading block, the Netherlands can therefore shape policy on AI, which the EU is both backing and concerned about. If the Netherlands has identified the right opportunities, AI is likely to be as successful and colourful as the bulb fields the nation is world-famous for.