Council has doubts about VentureLab to be headed up by Aard Groen

The UG board of directors wants dean of entrepreneurship Aard Groen to become director of new foundation VentureLab North. However, the investigation into his intimidating behaviour at work hasn’t finished yet.

The university council also isn’t entirely in favour of the plan. Many factions have doubts about the financial risks involved in the foundation.

Last month, the council held a meeting about how to reposition the University of Groningen Centre of Entrepreneurship (UCGE), which is spearheaded by Groen. The UCGE studies entrepreneurship and organises training for students and start-ups.

The centre has been losing money for years. On top of that, Groen was discredited when former employees told UKrant about how he had been intimidating employees for years with his aggressive attitude. The university then started an investigation into the social safety at the centre.

Disrespectful

‘After all we’ve been through, I think it’s horrible and disrespectful’, says one former employee who earlier talked to UKrant about Groen’s behaviour as director of the UGCE. ‘I’m worried that the UG is trying to sweep things under the rug because VentureLab is subsidised by the Nationaal Programma Groningen. They’ll appoint him professor of economics and business economics, give his wife a job close by, and that’s that.’

The results of the investigation into Groen’s behaviour aren’t in yet. ‘I’m expecting them soon’, says UG spokesperson Gernant Deekens.

Research and education

However, the plans for repositioning the UGCE are finished. They state that the centre’s research and education activities will fall under the Faculty of Economics and Business (FEB) from now on.

Groen will become professor entrepreneurship and will be responsible for supervising seven PhD candidates, four of whom are external. The VentureLab training activities will fall under a separate foundation, of which Groen will become the scientific director. 

However, it’s said that some people at FEB have objections to Groen coming to the faculty. ‘FEB wants nothing to do with all the issues that come with him and wants to make sure there are clear agreements about this’, one staff member says. But reaching these agreements is supposedly a difficulty.

Dean Peter Verhoeff says that FEB thinks there is ‘space’ to incorporate entrepreneurial education and research. ‘We’re still talking to the board about Aard Groen’s position’, he says. ‘Because we’re talking about real people here, I neither can nor want to say anything else on the matter.’ 

Financial risks

The university council, in turn, has doubts about the financial risks involved in the new foundation, which the UG will contribute 200,000 euros a year to. The next three years won’t be a problem, since the Nationaal Programma Groningen (NPG) has promised a 1.4-million-euro subsidy.

The council is mainly worried about what would happen once the foundation becomes dependent on corporate contributions. ‘VentureLab has room for seventy-five participants’, said Kristina Linke with the science faction during the university council committee meeting last week. ‘A third of those lack financing. Considering the scientific director has a marketing background and is very enthusiastic, I think it’s a risk.’

She also wanted to know who’s responsible for hiring staff and who will select the UG candidates allowed to join VentureLab, which will cost approximately 4,500 euros per student. ‘Who will select the candidates for this special support?’ And: ‘If the foundation goes bankrupt, will the UG be paying its debts?’

Not employed

VentureLab will be a separate legal entity, Hans Biemans with the board of directors said. ‘These people will not be employed at the UG.’ A position will be created to take care of financial matters, someone to ‘help and monitor’ things, he said. 

Biemans also said he had faith in the plans, even after the NPG subsidy runs out. However, the earlier approach, which involved the foundation being self-sufficient, appears to have been abandoned.

It’s also interesting that the Northern Netherlands Alliance (Samenwerkingsverband Noord-Nederland, SNN) rejected a million-euro subsidy in June of last year on the basis of the same things the council is currently questioning. The SNN wasn’t ‘sufficiently confident’ that the VentureLab was a feasible undertaking.

Dependent

There are reports of ‘increasing dependence on subsidies’ without ‘a convincing and elaborate revenue model’. The SNN said that investors and the corporate world didn’t seem particularly willing to make substantial contributions to the foundation.

The SNN also had doubts about the selection process of start-ups for VentureLab. They said there wasn’t a proper pre-selection procedure. ‘That means they invest a lot of money in start-ups that don’t have a lot of growth potential.’

SNN also accused VentureLab of not having learned anything from the past. VentureLab was founded in 2008 at the University of Twente, financed by substantial European subsidies, but failed to develop into a valid business model. Aard Groen later relaunched the programme in Groningen. 

The university council will decide on the plan on Thursday.

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