We talked to Robert Meijer of ACE Incubator about the university incubator in Amsterdam, and he had the following to say:-
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Robert Meijer: Fortunately, we are all fine. Naturally, it’s a challenge for everyone to cope with these challenging times. I mainly work from home, where I have my own office. Almost all of my meetings are online, which works surprisingly well and efficiently.
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined ACE Incubator.
Robert Meijer: Although I’ve been involved with ACE from the start, I was not one of the founders of ACE. ACE originated from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and was founded by Erik Boer and Mirjam van Praag. Fortis, the company where I used to work back then, decided to sponsor ACE in 2007. In that period, I started to coach startup teams from ACE, and I discovered a hidden talent: I decided to combine my coaching skills with my financial, banking, legal, and tax knowledge. This led me to start my own business, where I advise entrepreneurs with their challenges – especially companies who are in trouble. I’ve always been interested in the education, development, and growth of people and companies: the reason why Erik Boer asked me to join ACE to coach the startups with their strategic and financial issues in 2013. Since then, I have coached more than 200 startups, and I still enjoy doing so. In my current role as Director ad interim, I’m temporarily replacing Darya Krasilnikov together with Bas Rogaar.
How does ACE Incubator innovate?
Robert Meijer: Every organization or company needs to be aware of the environment in which it operates. That is why we are constantly looking for new opportunities. Our main focus is on the development of companies that have their origin in the academic area. But we also look for innovative projects to manage as long as it fits into our mission statement. One of those projects is our AI Startup Lab, which is of great value within ACE. This lab brings academic knowledge in the AI domain together with corporates outside of the Academic Area. Lots of corporates have AI-related challenges which are solved by a team of extremely enthusiastic and skilled AI master students. At the end of a challenge, the students start their own AI company. A good example is Intrical AI. It is a different and effective way of sourcing AI-related startups.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Robert Meijer: The pandemic has affected our business in many ways. The main thing is, of course, that we had to pivot our offline services like explore programs and incubation programs to the online space. The team was able to manage this transition very smoothly; the online sessions proved to be very engaging and worked efficiently. From a financial point of view, we depend on the performance of our startups. If they perform well, we will see that in our revenues as we work with a revenue-sharing model. What we saw in 2020 is that investors were holding back, so that may have affected the development of startups. In the long run, this may also impact our finances. Nevertheless, ACE started 2020 on a positive note with the renewal of our partnership with Rabobank Amsterdam. The Dutch bank will not only continue to support ACE financially, but bank employees also act as coaches for starting entrepreneurs in the ACE programs. 2020 also ended on a positive note with a total of 27 successful start-ups that successfully completed our bi-annual incubation program: a new record for ACE.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Robert Meijer: We have a very dedicated team and have to operate lean and mean. We do not have the capacity to hire a lot of staff. This makes us flexible. This is also the reason why we did not have to make difficult choices in our human resources.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Robert Meijer: The first question we should answer here is: who are our customers? In fact, we have different types of customers. We see our shareholders (University of Amsterdam, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and Amsterdam UMC) as our customers because we help with their knowledge valorization. On the other hand, the startups we serve can be seen as our customers, as our financial performance depends on theirs. In fact, we also see the whole academic economic ecosystem, including the municipality of Amsterdam as our customer, as one of our goals is to contribute to the development of the Amsterdam Academic Economic Area. Additionally, we have a large and very high-quality mentor pool, which we cherish. In order to manage the community of both our mentors and startups, we’re using MentorJam as a tool which enables us to manage our mentors and startups all in one platform.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Robert Meijer: We did not apply for any corona related subsidies or grants.
Your final thoughts?
Robert Meijer: These are challenging times, without a doubt. The way I look at it, times like these offer us an opportunity to innovate and reinvent ourselves and our companies. Try to look for opportunities instead of threads.