Why Groningen is the coolest tech city you’ve never heard of

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It’s no secret that the Netherlands is a European leader when it comes to the tech and startup sectors. The country attracted €1.8bn in investment in 2021 alone, more than double the €790m raised in 2020.

While many people think of Amsterdam as the country’s startup capital and a global tech powerhouse — and with success stories like Adyen, MessageBird and Mollie, they’re not wrong — the Netherlands’ lesser-known cities are becoming favorites amongst expats who want to be part of the country’s dynamic tech scene, without the hustle of big city life.

Take Groningen. Known as the country’s “capital of the north,” Groningen is a thousand-year-old city with a thriving student population thanks to its universities. This plethora of young, international talent, ground breaking research, and the presence of corporate powerhouses like IBM and Google, make Groningen’s tech scene one to watch.

For international talent looking to launch their tech career abroad, Groningen may be the answer.

Small in size but big in opportunities

Groningen may not be big, but it’s quickly becoming recognized for its startup scene.

The province of Groningen has just had its second consecutive year as the fastest-growing region in the Netherlands in terms of job growth, with around 1.2k local jobs being created by local startups.

Margarita Bernal-Cabas, Operations Resource Manager at EV Biotech, a company that develops microbial cell factories for industrial production, tells TNW that Groningen is an exciting place to be for its emerging biotech sector, which is churning out innovative companies thanks to its proximity to universities and wealth of local professors, research, and sector meetups.

Margarita Bernal-Cabas, Operations Resource Manager at EV Biotech
Margarita Bernal-Cabas, Operations Resource Manager at EV Biotech

“There’s been a load of new startup companies… there’s a vibrant and growing biotech community with an exciting future and limitless possibilities,” she says.

And while it may seem like a drawback, one benefit that sets a startup ecosystem like Groningen apart from larger cities like Amsterdam is its small size.

Stella Tsoutsouri, a mobile developer at telecommunications startup Voys, says because the city’s ecosystem is small, it allows easier access for people to network and make meaningful professional connections: “There are plenty of meetups, conferences (one of the biggest Python conferences is in Groningen), there is a new library/cultural center that holds tech talks, the University has plenty of initiatives like venture lectures and conferences, so there’s a lot of great things happening.”

Tsoutsouri says that Groningen’s size makes it easier for new startups, initiatives, and groups to take off. For example, when she moved to Groningen from Greece, Tsoutsouri was surprised to find that the gender gap in IT students was worse in the Netherlands than in her home country. She went on to found the Women Devs group, a community dedicated to women developers working or studying in tech.

“Here, the people who are active in the tech scene are so visible, that makes it very easy to create a company or an initiative with those people because they’re very accessible… For example, last year my group Women Devs connected with another group in the city, Lean In Groningen, and together we organized a web conference on International Women’s Day to share more knowledge with the women of Groningen about tech and other topics.”

Arne Bos, Managing Director at Parkos, a booking platform for airport parking, added that many of his friends who have moved to Amsterdam and the Randstad area face the challenge of finding affordable housing. But, for the same price as a tiny apartment in the outskirts of Amsterdam, you could easily find a nice accommodation in the heart of Groningen.

Arne Bos, Managing Director at Parkos
Arne Bos, Managing Director at Parkos

“There are a lot of new young ambitious companies, which makes it a great place to find a job. Combine this with affordable housing and life in a relaxed, calm but vibrant city.”

Top universities fuel innovation and student life

Groningen is home to top universities such as the University of Groningen, which is ranked in the top 100 universities in the world and has several Nobel Prize winners amongst its alumnae.

This means several things for the city’s tech ecosystem: a wealth of young international talent, spin-off funding opportunities, easy access to research institutions and professors leading in their field, and opportunities to network with a tight-knit community.

Groningen is home to two leading universities, the University of Groningen and the Hanze [University of Applied Sciences], bringing with it a great academic energy and student life.

“There’s quite a lot of study programs… we have a really big microbiology department and molecular genetics,” says Bernal-Cabas. “So there’s a really long history of the University. Very skilled professors, masters and PhD students. That creates a lot of opportunities and a lot of ideas.”

Proximity to universities means fresh opportunities for university spinoffs. The University of Groningen has seen several success stories including BioBTX, The Ocean Grazer Project, and the Sustainable Buildings initiative, which helps make buildings more energy efficient. There have also been a number of healthtech spinoffs from the University’s medical center including Ancora Health and VRelax.

For Tsoutsouri, this proximity made it possible to achieve a long-term goal:

“There is something that Groningen gave me that I wasn’t sure would be possible in any other city in the Netherlands: combining work with studies so I could support myself financially. I am working four days and doing a Masters in Artificial Intelligence at the same time. The way Groningen is structured gives you the opportunity to leave the office, go to class, and even go back if needed so it kept me present and energized both in the classroom and at the office. I think in a city like Amsterdam it would be impossible because of the distances. I’m very happy I could accomplish my dream: to get a great education, while still working in the industry.”

As she explained, for young and less experienced talent this can also make it easier to break into the professional world:

“Local companies want to absorb students as much as possible to keep that knowledge in the city. Companies do a lot of projects with the University and take on interns. They’re also more open to taking on junior professionals.”

A bite-sized cosmopolitan culture

“For me, the choice to move to Groningen was very easy,” says Victor Flick, Customer Success Manager at Klippa, a scaleup providing smart document processing powered by machine learning tech.

Victor Flick, Customer Success Manager at Klippa
Victor Flick, Customer Success Manager at Klippa

“I visited the city once before and had a great feeling about it: not too big, not too small, clean, nice architecture, lots of young people and it felt dynamic! Plus, the Netherlands is a really good country to live in, so I didn’t think too long about taking the opportunity.”

“I think we’re close to over 200,000 inhabitants, so it’s like 1/5 of Amsterdam,” says Bos. “But having a really young population means there’s also a really vibrant nightlife. I think Groningen is the only city in the Netherlands where bars don’t have a closing time. But also culture-wise, there are a lot of cool things going on with Eurosonic, which is a really nice music festival. It has all the facilities you need from the city such as cinemas, shops, etc. It combines the coziness of a smaller city with the facilities of a bigger city.”

This coziness, as Bos points out, makes Groningen highly accessible — everything from nature to museums and nightclubs is all within reach.

“On a bike, you can go within 10 minutes from one side of the city to the other which people really appreciate,” says Bos. “Also access to nature. I heard a colleague say he can just cycle in a few minutes to a lot of different parks, which is really nice.”

But a small population doesn’t mean a small-town mindset. Groningen is also praised for its international appeal, thanks to its universities and emerging tech sectors. “You hear a lot of English and German on the streets and occasionally also other languages, like Spanish, French, Chinese…” says Flick. “It gives expats a sense of belonging, and a sense that there are other people in this city living a similar life to mine: being in another country, and building a life here.”

So for international people looking to relocate and make Groningen their home, what should they keep in mind?

“Moving here, I would say the most important things to consider are the ‘legal’ things: registering in the city, getting health insurance, registering at a dentist/doctor. Also getting a bike, and lights for the bike,” says Flick. “On the other hand, as a non-Dutch person, you need to be aware of the straightforwardness of Dutch people… As a foreigner, it can sometimes be uncomfortable at first. So that’s a process you need to go through once you arrive here. Adapt to that directness and blend in. I would also say that Dutch people will really respect you if you are actually down-to-earth and direct like them, they see you more as one of their own.

But once you adjust, says Flick, “it’s such a great city to live in. You’re never bored.”

If you’re thinking of making a move to Groningen, here are some great resources to check out: