WaterCampus Leeuwarden is a dynamic open innovation ecosystem in the field of water technology, based in Friesland, Northern Netherlands. It has a track record stretching back over 17 years, of bringing SMEs, knowledge institutes and end users together to generate successful, collaborative and sometimes world-leading solutions to European and global water-related challenges. The WaterCampus makes a substantial contribution to the green transition through the scale of its operation, its international reach and numerous links with education.
The establishment of WaterCampus Leeuwarden predates the first Smart Specialisation Strategy (S3) in Northern Netherlands by over a decade. The WaterCampus had a strong influence on the development of the S3 approach in the region and has been actively involved in the region’s S3 partnership since the outset. The acclaimed Entrepreneurial Discovery Process (EDP) in the Northern Netherlands owes much to the WaterCampus open innovation ecosystem. Involvement in S3 processes has also helped in strengthening the position of the WaterCampus and water technology, increasing the visibility and in attracting global talent. The WaterCampus is fully involved in stakeholder discussions on the draft S3 and Northern-Netherlands ESIF Operational Programme (OP) for the 2021-2027 period.
Water technology has wide application right across the priority areas of the new European Green Deal – particularly in relation to climate action, clean energy for all, resource efficient industry for a circular economy, zero pollution, preserving and restoring ecosystems and biodiversity and developing a fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly food system. The WaterCampus facilitates business investment for innovative solutions in precisely these green policy priority areas, which can collectively contribute to the paradigm shift needed for a green and resilient economy.
1. Territorial context and challenge faced
The Netherlands is the most densely populated country in Europe. The country and is home to many chemical companies. Its situation in the delta of the river Rhine - catchment area of a substantial part of European population and industry - means that high levels of accumulated pollution end up on the Dutch doorstep. The purification of water prior to usage, as well as the treatment of urban and industrial wastewater, have long been of utmost importance for the Dutch. Already known for its proud tradition in building dykes and water defences, the Netherlands has therefore also had to develop particular expertise in water technology. In this context, Friesland in the Northern Netherlands, has emerged as a world-renowned centre for water technology, with many of leading SMEs in the sector located there. In 2019, the turnover of companies in the Friesland water technology sector was €480-510m, with 90% of companies expecting revenue growth in the next five years.
In the broader perspective of climate change, many parts of Europe and the wider world are confronted by challenges of either flooding or water shortage, which the Northern Netherlands, through its history and ingenuity, is already well-equipped to help them address. The recent COVID-19 crisis has provided an important reminder of how essential clean and reliable water supplies and wastewater treatment are for resilience and continuity in modern day global society. Beyond the availability of clean fresh water, water technology has growing application in other crucial ‘green’ challenge areas facing the world today.
2. Aims and ambition of the initiative
WaterCampus Leeuwarden is a major innovation and business development hub, which has been in operation since 2003, bringing together education, research, business and public authority actors in water technology. Following a Smart Specialisation approach, the Watercampus seeks to exploit the considerable potential of the sector to further strengthen the competitive advantage of the Friesland area. By fostering top-level business innovation in this field, the WaterCampus aims not only to support local growth, but also to address a broad panoply of water-related challenges at European as well as global levels - including harvesting clean water from various sources, enhanced natural water production, renewable energy generation and storage, pollution reduction, sustainable water use in industry and for a circular economy.
3. Content and implementation of the initiative
The physical WaterCampus was developed with support from the City of Leeuwarden and mainstream ERDF from successive Northern Netherlands Operational Programmes (OPs), including for a major expansion in 2015. Today, it comprises research infrastructure with specialist chemical, microbiological and molecular laboratories, an incubator for water technology companies with conference facilities. There are some 200 persons employed on site. For larger scale testing, the WaterCampus offers access to 5 demo-sites, within a 50km radius of Leeuwarden allowing live demonstration in municipal and hospital wastewater technologies, desalination and sensor applications.
Strong linkage with Smart Specialisation processes in the Northern Netherlands and beyond
Clean, safe water is one of the four main priorities of the Northern Netherlands Smart Specialisation Strategy (S3) for 2014-2020. The WaterCampus has been involved in the Northern Netherlands S3 partnership since its outset. This has been greatly appreciated by the S3 coordinating body, Northern Netherlands Alliance, for the innovation knowhow the WaterCampus has brought to the table through its place-based ecosystem approach. Being an active player in the Northern Netherlands S3 processes has, in turn, served to strengthen the position of the WaterCampus and the role of water technology in the region’s innovation-led drive for economic development.
Today, the WaterCampus remains a key participant in S3 stakeholder discussions in the region, particularly in the context of the recently created Northern Innovation Partnership. In this role, the WaterCampus has suggested input for the draft S3 and Northern-Netherlands OP for the 2021-2027 period, in the context of Friesland’s anticipated reclassification as a ‘transition’ region.
The WaterCampus also participates in the interregional S3 Thematic Platform ‘Water Smart Territories’, established in 2019 and co-led by Aragon, Centre-Val de Loire and the Province of Friesland, with a total of 20 European member regions. Through this platform, companies from the WaterCampus ecosystem can engage with problem owners in other EU regions and build a foundation for future investments using different vehicles, potentially including the new EU Interregional Innovation Investment instrument (I3). This wider EU-level S3-related networking has helped the WaterCampus increase its visibility and attract more diverse European and even global talent into its activities.
Partnership governance structure
The governance of the WaterCampus is founded on partnership, which has grown organically since 2003. Its principal managing partners, forming the Governing Board, are:
Wetsus - European Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Water Technology;
Water Alliance – the Netherlands national cluster organisation for innovative water technology SMEs;
Centre for Excellence Water Technology (CEW) - linked to universities of applied sciences and supporting demonstration and upscaling.
Other main partners are:
City of Leeuwarden and Province of Friesland;
CIV-Water (Centre for Innovative Craftsmanship - Water) – liaison organisation for water technology in Vocational Education and Training (VET) Schools;
BioBizz hub - centre for scale-ups/ small business to test and validate their innovations, in order to bring new technology to the market;
Water Application Center (WAC) – a research centre providing state-of-the art facilities for experimentation in the field of water technology.
The WaterCampus has a strong involvement in education, from primary and secondary levels, to university BSc, MSc up to PhD and MBA, as well as professional vocational training and adult learning. Its relationships with schools, VET-institutions and universities of applied sciences on, or within the vicinity of the Campus are well established. In addition, over 220 company members and 25 research centres have an ongoing commitment. The total annual budget of the WaterCampus in 2019 was €20.3m (of which €16m public – Regional, National and Research Institutes – including €2.2m EU grants, plus €4.3m from private sources).
Open innovation based on an enhanced and continuous Entrepreneurial Discovery Process
In terms of S3, the modus operandi of WaterCampus Leeuwarden is a continuous Entrepreneurial Discovery Process (EDP) in itself. The WaterCampus embodies an open innovation ecosystem built through a chain of links – both on the campus and beyond it - between education, research, test programmes, specialist laboratories and demo sites. This also involves cooperation with key EU cross-border partnerships, such as the European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT) RawMaterials Innovation Community and through the Interreg Europe project iWATERMAP. The EDP is further enhanced to international level through the WaterCampus’ established global network, in addition to the EU level ‘Water Smart Territories’ S3 Thematic Platform.
Managing partner Wetsus organises a demand-driven research agenda, in which 50 professors from 20 universities, from 9 EU countries, collaborate with 106 companies to develop water technology solutions. This collaboration follows a deliberately inter-disciplinary approach, with regular meetings between the professors, company members and PhD students, to maximise cross-fertilisation of ideas in relation to specific challenges, while ensuring commercial relevance.
Examples of WaterCampus projects
The WaterCampus has been instrumental in a wide range of water technology projects since its inception, including development of innovative solutions for drinking water, wastewater, process water, agriculture, water reuse, circular economy (recovery of minerals, metals, nutrients, cellulose); production of biodegradable bio-plastics from waste water sludge, direct air capture of CO2, tackling of multi-resistant bacteria from pharmaceuticals, renewable energy (salinity gradient energy) and sustainable stationary energy storage. WaterCampus is world leading in a number of these innovative technologies.
WaterCampus partners are active in many EU programmes, including Interreg A, B and C, LIFE, COSME, Horizon 2020 and ERASMUS, as well as various national and regional programmes, local programmes and support schemes. A few recent examples of projects supported are presented below.
BAoBaB: Blue Acid/Base Battery
BAoBaB is a €4m Horizon 2020 project, which ran from 2017 to 2019, with 6 European partners from 3 different countries, featuring strong involvement from Wetsus at the WaterCampus and Dutch start-up AquaBattery. The project explored new solutions for energy storage through a combination of Electrodialysis (ED) and Reverse ElectroDialisys (RED). The aim was to develop this next generation technology from TRL3 to TRL5, as a reliable and environmentally-friendly way of storing renewable electricity at KWh-MWh scale for application at user premises or at substation level. The start-up AquaBattery has since gone on to develop an innovative award-winning product, which stores electricity solely using water and table salt and is now bringing this to market.
Upscaling of bioplastic production from sewage sludge and organic waste
In September 2020 the largest factory producing PHBV bioplastic from sewage sludge and household waste was established by the Water Authority Brabantse Delta, using a technology developed at the WaterCampus. The upscaling is based on a cooperation agreement between five Dutch water authorities, Friesland company Paques, waste handling company HVC and the Foundation for Applied Water Research STOWA. The new facility is capable of producing larger batches of PHBV material, crucial for development of bioplastic products and for further commercialisation of this technology in Europe.
European Platform for Vocational Excellence (PoVE)
WaterCampus management partner CIV-Water received an EU grant of €1m in 2019 from the ERASMUS programme to set up a European Platform for Vocational Excellence (PoVE) for the
water sector in Europe. The project unites VET institutions in the water sector (research centres, colleges and state/semi-state bodies) from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Latvia, Malta and the Czech Republic, which have a common interest in developing the full potential of VET in sustainable growth and innovation in the European water sector. All the actors located at the WaterCampus provide active contributions to the implementation of the PoVE project, enabling VET students to work, together with students from universities of applied sciences, in SMEs during testing phases.
In 2018, start-up company Hydraloop Systems BV, moved into the WaterCampus Business Centre, to enable further development of their innovative product – a complete household water recycling system. Later that year, the product won the Water Alliance ‘Innovation Stimulation Award’ for its ability to recycle some 85% of water used in the home. Through the WaterCampus international network, Hydraloop was subsequently put in contact with the Water Council in Milwaukee USA. The product went on to achieve a major success in early 2020 by winning the 'best of the best' award at the major U.S. consumer electronics trade show CES in Las Vegas – according to the judges, ‘in view of its potential to reduce domestic water consumption significantly and negate one of the inevitable effects of climate change: water shortages’. Hydraloop’s order book is now more than full and it is expected to grow into a company of 20 employees in the near future in Leeuwarden, plus 6 in the US.
WaterCampus generally aims to support complementary projects covering the whole TRL chain in a given water technology, from research to market.
An overall monitoring picture of WaterCampus activity is published in the WaterCampus Monitor. The Monitor presents financial performance data, as well as quantified progress against a wide range of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Some examples of these KPIs are set out below.
Examples of Key Performance Indicators
Number of participating companies
Percentage of SMEs / Percentage of foreign companies
Number of public research institutes /participating research chairs
Education and scientific:
Number of PhD-students and postdocs / MsC thesis students
Number of scientific papers in international journals
Number of spin-off companies
Number of patents (submitted, filed and granted) / patents transferred
New technologies developed / existing technologies optimised
Number of international partners / international financial contributions
Number of international researchers
Number of international exchanges realised
Source: WaterCampus Monitor 2019 / Wetsus 2020
The WaterCampus Monitor is published on an annual basis.
Based on cumulative information contained in the 2019 Monitor, the WaterCampus - since it was established - has been instrumental in:
the generation of over 50 water technology start-ups;
the development of over 80 high-value water technology patents.
Several of the companies supported by the WaterCampus have won national and international awards, including the AquaBattery and Hydraloop examples referred to above.
As regards academic achievements, the WaterCampus has seen:
over 100 PhD graduations;
publication of over 700 highly cited scientific articles.
In 2019 alone, there were 139 MSc thesis students in Wetsus and WaterCampus partners were involved in 138 international cooperation projects.
The key success factor for the WaterCampus is its integrated and open innovation model. The WaterCampus is able to bring together a critical mass of research and innovation actors -entrepreneurs, researchers, business developers and policy makers - on a continuous basis. This creates important synergies in the innovation process, crowding in finance for higher risk research and innovation and reducing time to market for novel technologies and solutions.
Internationalisation is an existential feature of the WaterCampus’ approach. Bringing Dutch expertise in water technology to the wider world is its raison d’être. Managing Partner, Water Alliance, has developed a global network to cooperate with water technology hubs in the USA, South-Korea, Singapore, Israel and China through the Global Water Tech Hub Alliance (GWTHA). The GWTHA network connects supply with demand for water technology innovation on global level, brokering between problem owners and innovative SMEs, wherever they happen to be located.
The WaterCampus sees further potential to support replicability and upscaling through the S3 Thematic Platform ‘Water Smart Territories’ and the new Horizon Europe WATER4ALL partnership.
"Water is often taken for granted and overlooked by policy makers, yet water availability will become a more and more pressing issue, especially in the context of climate change adaptation. Water and water technology can bring effective solutions to many green transition challenges."
Pieter de Jong – EU Representative Wetsus & Watercampus Leeuwarden