What does it mean to make it in the north? This is part of a series of portraits of local people, organisations, and companies working to further internationalise Groningen, Friesland, and Drenthe. This time we spoke to Johannes Boonstra, Executive Board member at Wetsus, an institute that aims to combine scientific excellence with commercial relevance in water technology and is based in Leeuwarden, Friesland.
By Thomas Ansell
If you have ever entered Leeuwarden by road or by rail, you are likely to have seen the incredible Wetsus building slide past the window. The swooping, wood-shrouded building sits within its own mini-wetlands, and looks as though a particularly eco-cogniscent alien mothership has settled into the Frisian capital city.
Beneath the architectural intrigue, Wetsus is a unique centre for water technology in Europe. It’s so successful that the city of Leeuwarden is now known as a ‘capital of Water Technology’, and Wetsus has been a big driver in terms of attracting International talent and companies to the North. It has a budget of around 15 Million Euros per year, and about 125 different companies and institutions participate, from the huge starch producer Avebe, to start-ups, and international companies like Scottish Water and the Spanish brewers Estrella Levante.
Wetsus, Boonstra explains, is more than just a research institute for innovation-minded companies: “we are at the intersection of being a research institute, an innovation facilitator, and a not-for-profit business. When we started, we wanted to be world-class in the field of water technology, and our evaluations combined with the number of people and companies that contribute to our work are a testament to that.”
“We bring together all relevant water technology research chairs in Europe”, says Boonstra. This takes the form of around 65 PhD candidates, who are seconded to Wetsus from all over the world. They work under the supervision of around 50 different professors in the space-age labs that sit within the building. As Boonstra says: “there is nothing comparable in the world.”
What has helped bring about Wetsus’ success, holds Boonstra, is the extent to which it is ingrained within society and its capacity to create utility from research. “We, for instance, work with universities including the University of Groningen, University of Twente and Wageningen University on our Research Master programme. Aside from this, we also work with Van Hall Larenstein, NHL Stenden, and the Hanzehogeschool. In terms of this feeding into practical projects, we are driving work in gaining energy from water, sensor technology, farming technology; and gaining more from waste water to help circularity. We do not have all the know-how ourselves, but we can connect the know-how.”
But Wetsus is not just focussed on the science and technology aspect of water-tech: they help bring it to market, too. Wetsus is one of the major drivers within the WaterCampus, which has its own business acceleration program. As a result, over 65 different companies have started their businesses since 2003.
Positions in Wetsus itself are somewhat competitive. “About 2% of applications for PhD positions are successful”, says Boonstra, “it’s a small talent pool because of how specific our work is, which has meant we have turned to International talent.” Now, around 75% of the science staff at Wetsus are non-Dutch.
Wetsus, as an international institute for scientific Water Technology research, is crucial in bringing more Internationals to Leeuwarden. So, I asked Johannes, what could the North do better to be more international?
“There are a couple of things that Leeuwarden lacks, which could be easily fixed. For example, lots of our people with older children miss an International school, and we would like to see more information in English. Not just practical stuff, but things that can help our staff discover our lovely city. We have begun Dutch language courses to help with integration, but Leeuwarden is a city where a lot happens, and we want all new people to be well-informed about how good it is to live here.”
Indeed, aside from the exceptional research put out by Wetsus, it is very much an anchor for those who make the move to help with its work. “A significant part of our people stay in the city, once they have completed their research”, says Boonstra. “One issue that is becoming increasingly common is a need for more jobs for spouses- they might be incredibly talented in their own right, but in a different field, and they need to be supported too.”