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How ICAI lets ideas fly in the Dutch AI startup ecosystem

Whether it’s fashion or fintech and healthcare or HR, artificial intelligence plays an increasingly important role. But getting AI solutions from the lab to the market proves to be tricky. So the Amsterdam-based Innovation Center of Artificial Intelligence (ICAI) connects the Dutch ecosystem to show researchers how high their ideas can fly.

From the lab to the market

Whether it’s your car, your medical care or your microwave, it is likely driven by AI. One would think there’s ample opportunity for innovators to bring innovations to the market. However, Esther Smit says it is not as easy as it seems. Smit is Business Director at the Amsterdam-based National Innovation Center for Artificial Intelligence. “AI-solutions generally need time before they are developed and ready as a product. But startups often feel pressure to bring something to the market as quickly as possible pushed by investors.”

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Smit sees many companies involved in AI focussing on support or consulting. Ones with an actual product are more scarce, she says. “They need a lot more time to develop something scalable. We have a network of AI companies that came from knowledge institutions, and we see that finding a product-market fit is complicated for them. Let alone find a team to make it into a success.”

AI labs all over the country

That is why ICAI aims to bring the ecosystem together. It was started four years ago, initiated by Amsterdam’s two Universities. While AI innovation is the common ground, its scope and activities are broad. Besides running a venture building programme together with AI venture builder TTT-AI, they also run dozens of different labs, each focussing on a different domain, working with a different corporation. 

To get everyone from the ecosystem together, they also organise events like ICAI Day. During this bi-annual event, ICAI connects innovators with the ecosystem, with their last event focussing on sharing lessons learned on gettingan AI innovation to the market. An excellent opportunity for young AI researchers to expand their network. They had the chance to speak with experts from the field, like the founder of AI-startup Zeta-Alpha, a Radboud AI for Health Lab professor and serial entrepreneur, and a senior scientist from research institute TNO.


The hybrid event also included presentations by experts on the AI startup ecosystem, featuring TTT.AI, Peak Capital and The goal is to give aspiring founders an idea of how to make sure their AI solution succeeds as a product outside the lab and show them what the ecosystem looks like and what it takes to bring a product to the market. 

Because when it comes to AI startups, The Netherlands is full of potential, sees Smit. “The country has a robust infrastructure for knowledge and a long history of AI research and education. AI has been part of the curriculum since the ’80s. It was taught at the Universities of Nijmegen, Utrecht and Amsterdam. These are the broad knowledge institutes that laid the foundation.”

However, Smit emphasises that AI development is still too tethered to specific regions despite the country’s small size. She points to the city of Delft, known for its achievements in robotics.Wageningen is strong in agri and food. Eindhoven excels in manufacturing , while the service industry is huge in Amsterdam. 

Those regions are also largely visible in ICAI’s labs, which stimulate existing corporations to collaborate with AI researchers. Over 30 labs – with the plans to create 17 more – working on subjects ranging for example from cancer research to police work and retail innovation are spread over nine cities in The Netherlands. 

‘Let ideas flourish in a startup’

The regional approach helps ICAI tap into local talent, but its aim is to create one countrywide ecosystem. “We have a pool of talent from all over the country. So if an AI startup is looking for certain talent, we can help find that no matter where they are. The labs are local, but the lessons we draw from them are generic and can encourage the ecosystem all over the country.”

Smit hopes that ICAI can inspire more researchers to bring their ideas beyond the lab in the future. “They don’t even need to start a company themselves”, she says. “But I want them to know what the possibilities are. So many researchers want to stay in research, where they are the generators of new ideas. But they can still take up a role as Chief Science Officer or advisor in a young company. You don’t have to exit the research world to let your ideas flourish in a startup.”

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