What does it mean to make it in the north? This is part of a series of portraits of local people, organizations, and companies working to further internationalize Groningen, Friesland, and Drenthe. This time we spoke to Arno Zijlstra and Bernard Maarsingh, Cofounders of Jamzone, an ‘innovation lab’ that combines psychology and technology to help people and companies.
By Thomas Ansell
When you’re asked to strap on a heart monitor before trying out a product, you know it’s going to be good. So I find myself wired up in an elegant Leeuwarder building, wearing VR goggles and climbing up a fiendishly puzzling tower.
Whilst it might look like a simple puzzle game, it’s significantly cleverer than that. This is ‘Stressjam‘, a VR programme developed by Jamzone to help people understand their own bodies’ reactions to stress, in concert with a trained expert. It’s underpinned by a belief that stress (in the biological sense) isn’t bad unless it is mis-managed. “Stress is something useful”, declares Bernard Maarsingh, one of the co-founders of Jamzone. “This also has a clinical function, in it helps people deal with stress caused by, for example, burnout”, Maarsingh continues.
Indeed, Stressjam was used at the finals of the ‘Dutch stress Championship’, where people demonstrate their mental fortitude and ability to control their ‘stress symptoms’. “Actually”, says Zijlstra (another co-founder), “it’s the rhythms of stress that are important”, what he means is that stress is a constant in life; the important part is how people orient their stress, and work with their own body to know what the causes of the stress are.
“VR is not quite yet trusted as a tool, there’s a sort of uncanny valley with it”, says Maarsingh. All of my doubts about the effectiveness of VR are done away with when I try ‘Darejam’, where you’re put into a virtual elevator, taken to the top of a virtual tower, and then told to (not quite virtually) walk to the end of a gangplank and hop off. If my brain isn’t fooled, my heart most certainly is. I bunny-hop off the plank, half grimacing, and watch my character flop to the canyon floor. “You controlled your mental stress quite well”, says Maarsingh, “but your bodily stress markers were high”.
So, why is this most advanced of places- half lab, half development centre- based in Leeuwarden? It was a conscious choice, says Zijlstra. “There is a good supply of knowledge and students, there are several game labs in Leeuwarden, and a mental health institute. So really, we have everything we need here.”
But what about the team behind these developments? Maarsingh and Zijlstra met at a networking event: Maarsingh is a “brainy psychologist” and head of postmaster management education at the University of Groningen/ PPO whilst Zijlstra is a “techy creative” Innovation Architect. Their offices in Leeuwarden are filled with smiling young recruits, buried in code, or user experience updates. “People come to us, just at the right moment”, grins Zijlstra, when I ask about how their recruitment process usually goes.
Maarsingh notes that when Jamzone does advertise, jobs receive interest from around the world: “people are so highly motivated that they want to work through the night, but that’s not really in-keeping with our philosophy!”, he laughs. The culture of Jamzone is relaxed, creative, and safe in the knowledge of its employees: “we try to create a feeling of being meaningful”, says Zijlstra.
It’s certainly an inspiring environment to be in, all high ceilings, tapping keyboards, and creative interior architecture. And, if anyone at Jamzone wants to know what their stress markers are doing, well, the heart monitor is just down the hall.
Jamzone is just one of a large number of innovative Life Science and Technology companies in the Northern Netherlands. For more information about the North’s strongest industries, or to find jobs at companies like Jamzone, head to www.makeitinthenorth.nl