Interview with Robbert Zoon, Founder of Dutch Innovators

March 7, eco-consultant Robbert Zoon launched a new online platform that presents a unique selection of the most notable innovators from the Netherlands. The Dutch Innovators project shows sustainable and social solutions that contribute to a better world, offering products and services with a positive, worldwide impact. We sat down with Robbert to discuss his new platform, while also taking the time to reflect on the broader success of Dutch innovations in the United States.   

 “I travel a lot for work,” Robbert starts. “My time abroad made me realize that the products, developments and services that are considered mainstream in the Netherlands are often internationally received with great enthusiasm, and regarded as very innovative and progressive.” These experiences became his premier motive to collect the best Dutch innovations on one digital platform. “I had a gut feeling that it was the right time to get these kinds of innovations out there. Primarily, Dutch Innovators should be a digital space to share knowledge, inspire entrepreneurs from other countries, and create opportunities to join forces.”

To get an idea: Dutch Innovators includes Fairphone, the world’s first ethical smartphone, and a 2016 finalist of the South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Innovation Awards. This year, Austin was flooded with remarkable Dutch startups that are trying to add something new to our global economy and lifestyle. Though small and sometimes considered insignificant, the Netherlands has proved itself to be a great place for startups. But why?

“I think the Dutch are positive, but also critical by nature. When you live on such a small spot on the map, you need to be inventive to be even noticed at all. Our history shows we have always been focused on moving beyond our borders, sailing off into unknown seas… I guess we were never afraid of a little adventure.”

When it comes to an increase in sustainable and socially responsible initiatives, Robbert points to our specific circumstances. “It might be a case of necessity, especially when you look at our water situation, and the challenges of our multicultural society. However, to be fair, it is also a global trend.”

When Robbert first started out in New York, he was surprised by what he found. “While I initially expected it to be the other way around, the Netherlands turned out to be two or three years ahead in sustainability. Of course, New York is really progressive on other levels, and it is just my experience. However, I believe the emphasis on sustainability is the kind of development that will – and should – only grow stronger. It might be a unique opportunity in the US for the Dutch to really stand out.”

Returning to Dutch Innovators, Robbert also highlights communication as one of our most important assets. “The Netherlands knows how to present itself, and build a professional network abroad. However, there is still a lot of work to be done, and that is where I believe Dutch Innovators could play an important part – by visually framing what we, as a country, have to offer on this level.”

One of the innovations, Repair Café, was already featured in the New York Times in 2012.  Repair Cafés are free meeting places that are all about repairing things together, with over twenty locations in the US alone. Most of all, it shows that Dutch Innovators is about more than profitable entrepreneurship alone. “I like there to be a balance between commercial products and non-profit services, and Repair Café is an inventive example of that vision. It includes the sustainable aspect of repairing stuff you would otherwise throw away, but also fulfills an important social factor by strengthening the neighborhood community.”

A similar approach applies to Peerby – also featured in the New York Times in 2015 – an app that allows you to borrow the things you need from a neighbor, instead of buying it. “Personally, I had a lot of fun using Peerby. In the cities of today, it is less common to know your neighbors, and this app creates the opportunity to get in contact with the people around you. However, with the try-out of another project Share Your Meal  (A website where people can offer their home-cooked meals for take-out, red.) in Brooklyn, we noticed there are many cultural differences between the US and the Netherlands. Where the Dutch are more willing to knock next door and grab a plate, Americans are more concerned with food safety, and safety overall. They would ask: ‘Who is this guy? Is it safe to open the door?’ In some situations, the Dutch approach needed to grow on them. ”

Overall, Robbert prefers to work with small and independent innovations, which are focused on sustainability and social responsibility. G-Star Raw is the odd one out, a huge corporation that has enjoyed worldwide success for years. Currently, they are cooperating with Pharrell Williams on a denim line from recycled ocean plastic. “Their ‘Raw for the Oceans’ project is so innovative and important, that I wanted to include them anyway. It is all about creating awareness, which they are really in the position to do.” 

Probably, Robbert could talk for hours about all the meaningful projects he promotes. He takes a moment to highlight Tony Chocolonely, which just started to sell their “slave-free” chocolate bars in Portland, OR (“Their way of framing their project is remarkable – by their slogan alone, they offer a new perspective”) Bough Bikes (“I was riding mine, and people were making pictures, and waved at me like I was a celebrity. ‘Look, a wooden bike!’”) and many more.

“In the end, it is all about inspiring people with these Dutch innovations; that could be about cooperation, but also about others starting up like-minded initiatives of their own. I will just let it grow organically, and see what happens!”

About Robbert Zoon

For ten years Robbert Zoon has been working in the Dutch fashion and retail industry as a manager sales support. In 1999 he made a life changing decision. He left his corporate job and stepped out of the daily rat race to realign with the need of doing more meaningful work. From 2005 till 2010 Robbert has been publishing sustainable and meaningful news online. For three consecutive years he organized the National Good News Day, an event in which more than 20 Dutch media participated each year. In 2012 Robbert started to share his knowlegde as an eco-consultant, and in March 2016 he launched the digital platform Dutch Innovators.