Guest blog by Ruud de Jonge

This week sees The Next Web conference taking place in Amsterdam, so it is good timing for our local BizSpark champ, Mark Voermans, to give us an insight into start-ups and entrepreneurship in the country. But first, a bit about Mark.

Mark is currently Emerging Business Manager for Microsoft in the country and he describes his mission is to help startups become ‘the next big thing’. He says, “I’m a lucky man, because I’ve been able to turn my passion for technology and business into my job.” After a varied early career in engineering and technology, he joined Microsoft as a Product Support Engineer and became part of Developer Evangelist team in 2006. Mark is a regular mentor at start-up events across the region. Over to Mark.

“On the face of it, The Netherlands is a great example of a thriving start-up community. We have a strong start-up scene and there is a very high awareness of cloud technology. Every start-up I meet is either adopting it or is at least aware of the benefits of cloud. Dutch people are not afraid to try new technologies and explore business ideas; compared to the size of the country, we have one of the highest penetrations of start-ups in Europe. And they are supported by a very strong network of mentors, from all kinds of organisations and backgrounds, who volunteer their time to help the next generation of companies.

But we have our challenges. The majority of tech start-ups are focused between Amsterdam and Rotterdam and around Eindhoven. While that’s good news for these parts of the country, it would be good to see more innovative entrepreneurship in other parts of the country. We also suffer some of the same cultural issues as other Europeans: there is a fear of failure here, as opposed to the US where you are applauded for trying something new, rather than just staying in the same old job. Another factor is that red-tape makes it hard for companies from outside The Netherlands to set up in business here and while our government does a lot for start-ups, I believe that they could be doing even more.

But, despite these issues, we have a lot of great stuff to talk about. I’ve noticed some real niche markets, for instance healthcare technology. One of my favourite start-ups is Autitouch, which with its intuitive software, is helping to diagnose and support learning in autistic children and young adults. Using Microsoft Surface touch technology, it overcomes the limitations of conventional mouse/keyboard/screen-based computers.

Another, very cool new company is Doctor Kinetic, which focuses on making physiotherapy more fun for people with back problems. Based on the Kinect platform, this solution uses video games to help patients heal or prevent problems, complete with automated diagnosis.

I’m also seeing a lot of companies launching solutions on the cloud that are less about apps and more about platforms. For instance, RobinHQ.com – which is one of the companies presenting at the NextwebEurope event – is a tool that enables brands to manage and monitor customer service through the Web and social media. Another is Atomblock, with its online video distribution platform. Atomblock has been hugely successful in its first couple of years and I’m delighted to say that it has qualified for BizSpark Plus, meaning that we are able to provide the company with a substantial amount of free time on Azure, our own cloud platform. Atomblock is a good example of the kind of company we’ve worked closely with from their very early days to helping them ‘go global’.

But BizSpark is not just about Microsoft giving startups free technology, support and visibility: our BizSpark Network Partners are an integral and very important part of the BizSpark program, who help startups in those challenging early stages of a company’s evolution. Two examples I’d like to call out are Rockstart and Startupbootcamp. Based in Amsterdam, Rockstart Accelerator is a new program that helps the most promising teams from around the world to launch their startups and break through on a global scale. Startupbootcamp – which launched its latest project in Amsterdam earlier this month - is a three month business startup acceleration program that focuses on getting businesses ready for funding, launching and scaling to European and global markets.

But the spotlight needs to be on the entrepreneurs: their drive, their business acumen, their innovative ideas. And that brings me neatly back to The Next Web event, which we’ve partnered with to select and coach 19 startups that get to launch their companies (at no cost to them) in from to the audience. Being privy to the shortlist, I know that we are dealing with a very calibre of entrepreneur at this event, something that as both a Dutchman and a Microsoft BizSpark champ, I’m very proud to be associated with.