The Hague’s entrepreneurs prove the business case for civic and humanitarian innovation

Leading up to ImpactFest, Europe’s largest impact meetup on November 5th, we will look in to the impact ecosystem in ImpactCity – The Hague as well as current impact developments, trends and innovations. ImpactCity facilitates entrepreneurs, from startups to established companies, NGO’s and impact investors who combine doing good with doing business, with a dedicated infrastructure. Through housing, connections to financing and an incredible support partner network, innovations for a better world get the best breeding ground possible to take off and pros pure.

At first glance, startups may appear to be on the complete opposite end of the innovation spectrum from governments and NGOs. Startups take an idea and run with it. They build scrappy teams. They run on lean resources. They’re nimble and pivot as business circumstances demand.

Public sector organizations, meanwhile, have the reputation of having few, if any, of those characteristics.

“Governments and NGOs are, by nature, more skeptical and slower in adopting new innovations and technologies,” says Bobby Bahov. “But, I’ve been positively surprised. Some take a very proactive approach.”

Bahov is the founder AI Lab One, a network of artificial intelligence experts and enthusiasts, and part of a growing civic and humanitarian tech scene in The Hague. In a city that serves as the Netherlands’ seat of government and the international center for peace and justice, tech innovators like Bahov are finding a willing and enthusiastic base of customers in the public sector.
AI Lab, for example, is consulting on several government-led initiatives exploring ways to build and integrate high tech solutions in support of the clean energy transition, sustainable waste management, and natural biodiversity. “Many people in the government are curious to explore the possibilities and are even organizing events to get people to pitch and share ideas,” Bahov says.

And innovators are responding. Across The Hague, a raft of events, hackathons, startup hubs and pitch competitions are elevating innovation and entrepreneurship in fields like humanitarian aid and social services, long seen as the domain of governments and NGOs.

A small circle

Being a startup founder is a tough job in the best of circumstances. But being a civic or humanitarian tech entrepreneur comes with a special set of challenges, which could explain why there are relatively few startups in these sectors.

“I can understand why people shy away. It’s seen as riskier and more difficult, because you’re solving a tech problem and a business problem with this extra dimension of solving a social problem,” says Jimmy Snoek, co-founder of Tykn, a blockchain startup supporting humanitarian aid organizations.
Tykn, for instance, was launched as a birth registration platform to address a major global identity problem: that an estimated 25 percent of children worldwide have unregistered births. Not having a birth certificate cripples individuals’ opportunities throughout their lives—as it did for years for Tykn’s founder, Tey Al-Rjula. But in Tykn’s early years, it became clear to the founders that it would be difficult to build a viable business case around digital birth certificates, largely because of the policy environment.

“It was clear from a business perspective that it wasn’t going to happen at the time,” says Snoek. “So we pivoted on the technology a couple of times.” (Snoek says the policy environment has since improved.) Now the company works with aid organizations and government agencies to manage and log the flow of data and funding to various humanitarian initiatives. For example, since 2018, Tykn has been supporting The Netherlands Red Cross as a tech partner in its disaster response and relief for hurricane victims in St. Maarten. It is also working with aid organization Dorcas on its cash-based aid programs in Malawi. “Long-term, we have a strong proposition,” Snoek notes, “but we’ve grappled with the business model.”

Leaning into change

Business pivots are commonplace in the startup world, and civic and humanitarian tech companies must be no less nimble and adaptable than peers in other sectors. But making corrections can be difficult to navigate where natural market forces are obscured.

Christina Moreno started She Matters to help refugee women in the Netherlands secure job training and employment opportunities. Currently, only 11% of the Netherlands 51,000 female asylum seekers are employed. That’s not for lack of skills, says Moreno. “Women who come to us, they’re engineers looking for jobs driving taxis and cleaning kitchens because they don’t want to be on social benefits. In the Netherlands, there’s a shortage of engineers—engineers are needed,” she explains.

She Matters was established as a hybrid non-profit/for-profit social enterprise model, providing skills training and workforce integration services and taking a fee from recruiters as the women it supports accept job offers. But the organization has perpetually struggled against social stigmas and stereotypes, which prevent the refugee population from securing employment opportunities and ultimately rebuilding their lives. In response, She Matters is shifting gears by leaning into new technology that will help it drive the recruiter services side of its model. “We’re leveraging software that can analyze a job candidate’s capabilities and offer employers a data-based skills assessment,” Moreno explains.

Making the case

In spite of the challenges, starting up in a city like The Hague has benefited companies like Tykn and She Matters because of the proximity to public agencies and organizations working on the frontlines of social and humanitarian issues. These startup founders are also increasingly supported by an expanding ecosystem of networks, investors and services, driven from the top down, like the government of The Hague’s ImpactCity; from the bottom up, like AI Lab; and from the general momentum of tech for good.

“In the last 10 years or so, I would definitely say there’s been a shift,” observes Tim van Deursen of The Hague-based software agency Q42. “We have all of these global challenges. People are starting to feel they’re getting serious and are coming in for action. And tech is something that naturally resonates as a way to do that because people use it everyday.”

Continuing to pull in creative minds and problem solvers will be critical to the success of humanitarian and civic-minded startups, as most enterprise models are still young and unproven. Van Deursen, who launched the purpose-driven initiative at Q42, cites his own challenges in making a business case for the projects Q42 takes on, like building surveillance drones for Greenpeace.

“When we started, there was no question about whether we should do this or not, it was just about how, [financially],” he explains. “It’s difficult. It’s something we’re still figuring out.”

“Conversations are where it has to start,” says Snoek, speaking from his experience building Tykn. “Everyone has to understand what the needs are, and once that happens, it becomes a lot easier to do this work. And those conversations are happening.”

Do you want to know more about the ImpactCity ecosystem, its facilities and connect with other impact entrepreneurs? Join us at ImpactFest on November 5th in the Fokker Terminal, The Hague!