Artist’s impression of Kennispark Twente: https://maps.utwente.nl/?ol=6.854637714035757&nb=52.238760984069174&zm=3&rot=0#map
The origins of the Kennispark development lie in attempts by regional industrialists in the Eastern Netherlands to reinvigorate themselves in the post-war reconstruction period. Campaigning for and eventually winning the third Dutch technical university, the textiles industry hoped that the new higher education institution would reverse their steadily declining competitiveness. When the textiles industry eventually failed to adapt in the 1970s and slowly withered away, the new university was forced to cast around for a novel raison d’etre, over time embracing technology transfer and industry engagement.
With Dutch Disease compelling the national government to take hard decisions around public funding, the University of Twente was an early adopter of a technology transfer mission to create new regional high-growth sectors. Although many professors had been appointed with industrial backgrounds, the spirit of 1970s higher education was of an extreme antipathy for industrial engagement. This new technology transfer mission therefore required championing at the university board. A range of experimental new structures were created (a Liaison Office, a Business Incubator and a spin-off creation programme) that would later become recognised as the key ingredients of dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystems.
Kennispark’s development as a physical knowledge location for entrepreneurial knowledge activities can be broken down into three main phases:
- Within university campus (1961-1982): in universities’ first two decades, entrepreneurial activity was confined to the campus alongside a few entrepreneurial students and graduates setting up new (primarily consultancy) businesses.
- Campus & science park (1982-2001): the city and regional development agency created a Business Technology Centre in 1982 immediately south of the university campus, later extended into a Business and Science Park (created 1987) hosting many high-technology companies.
- Unified knowledge Park (2001-date): after a campus fire necessitated the redevelopment of the university estate, the BSP and Campus were master-planned to create a single integrated knowledge space, called Kennispark (‘ Knowledge Park’), as a strategic knowledge-based economic development location for the wider Twente region.
The entrepreneurial ecosystem around Kennispark preceded its necessarily innovative nature, which emerged following changes in the university organisation in the 1990s (viz. increasing research intensity and bachelor-masters). The university chairman commissioned a small study of student and graduate businesses in 1981, following a piece about a graduate entrepreneur in the local newspaper the Tubantia. Following this study, the university decided to create a formal support programme (the ‘TOP’ programme), consisting of four elements (1) a 1-year loan, (2) space within a university research group, (3) business advice and (4) contact with researchers. The TOP programme focused on helping near-to-market firms move into a trading position. Notably the majority of companies formed through the TOP programme’s early years were service businesses selling principal advice, lacking scalability and often with relatively incremental growth potential.
From the early 1990s, the university began to increase its overall research intensity, and to concentrate its research away from departments and faculties into more specialised, profiled research groups. At the same time, the university also adopted a new educational structure, creating a distinction between bachelor and masters degrees, each culminating in a discrete research project. With increasing external project financing, research groups undertook team-based projects, led by academic staff, but increasingly employing Ph.D. students and post-doctoral researchers, and involving (the newly-introduced) masters and bachelors’ students meeting their graduation projects requirements. These projects, particularly in the fields of materials science and nanotech, had increasingly complicated infrastructural requirements, encouraging the university to seek external cost-sharing partners for these substantial research investments.
The university created the MESA+ laboratory as a space where materials science researchers, students and firms could work together on a range of activities and interactions built up between the research teams (post-docs, post-graduates, students) and the firms who located laboratory activities in the site. These hybrid teams became the basis of a new kind of entrepreneur, high-technology researchers with new product ideas, who needed support both to prove their products as well as to bring them to market. In the 1990s therefore both student and particularly graduate entrepreneurship evolved around the University of Twente, with increasing numbers of high-technology product companies based on fundamental university research with highly specific applications, yet sufficiently near to market.
These companies maintained their own links with the university, and the university in turn worked to develop new financing and support instruments to support these new companies. UT, together with other regional partners (the city, region, province), was successful in winning a range of subsidies to provide their high-technology entrepreneurs with the necessary grants, loans and equity to bring their products to market and active trading. In 2013, a Silicon Valley-based venture finance company Cottonwood Investments opened their European Office in Kennispark, demonstrating the value that external investors saw in the high-technology business propositions emerging within this increasingly innovative entrepreneurial ecosystem.
The logic behind Kennispark as a physical place is therefore to accelerate the various connections that have generated this high-technology entrepreneurial ecosystem. By planning the Science Park and University as a single space, with new business locations centrally located around the University Square (the O&O Plein), Kennispark seeks to create proximity and constructive connections between a range of different actors and activities.
- A key set of linkages encouraged are between the university and businesses, but also between businesses for the purposes of collaboration, peer mentoring, business advice and knowledge sharing.
- Kennispark also seeks to ensure that the interests and needs of high-technology businesses are well-understood by local/Provincial politicians, and nationally recognised in terms of Kennispark’s undoubted contribution to the Dutch knowledge economy.
- Kennispark is located at UT and involves the local University of Applied Sciences (Saxion) in a number of projects/activities: Kennispark is intended to provide appropriate support and locations for Saxion entrepreneurs and connections between these two key knowledge actors.
- A final element is between students and business, and in particular to expose the large numbers of international students studying at the University of Twente (and also Saxion) to employment opportunities in the region and ensure address the longstanding regional brain-drain problem.