We invited Bart Candaele to join the Startup Nations policy network as he is recognized across Belgium and Europe as one the main actors strengthening the entrepreneurial economy in his region. He is the Head of the Entrepreneurship Department at Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship, a government agency for entrepreneurs in the Flemish Region of Belgium, one of the three regions in the country.
In this policy dialogue, we ask how the agency's one-stop-shop approach has worked to support a favorable climate for entrepreneurs.
Q: What are the advantages of the Flanders region for startups and early-stage investors, and what role has the public sector had in this entrepreneurship ecosystem?
Flanders has a very strong innovation and valorization scene. The cities of Ghent, Antwerp, Leuven and Brussels are hotspots for startups in IT, biotech, and more. An important factor contributing to this success are our research centres (imec, Flemish Institute for Biotechnology, etc.), and the high quality of our universities and cluster organisations.
The start-up scene in Flanders has even more to offer. Even though VentureBeat suggests that universities are losing relevance to the creation of innovative technological businesses, the website makes an exception for imec (Flanders’ premier research center for micro- and nanotechnology, which is connected to Leuven University). Imec was ranked third on the list of Europe’s most influential university research centers.
Flanders has a well-organized and well-connected ecosystem. The imec.istart accelerator program is recognized to be one of the best in the world by UBI Global. The same goes for startup and scale-up support given by the strategic research centre for biotechnology and for the tech transfer offices of the universities. The university of Leuven was ranked most innovative university in Europe four times in a row the last four years by Reuters. The reason for this is simply the number of ‘inventions’ emerging from the university and its very high performance in creating economic activity from this inventions. In 2018, the university of Leuven was 7th on the list of Thomson Reuters ranking the most innovative universities worldwide, which was the best ranking none US-university.
Flanders has high quality coaching and advice services for startups and scale-ups, high quality universities and research centres, easy access to bank finance, public guarantee schemes, loan schemes and risk capital and a relatively good access to VC-money.
The Flemish government is contributing to this by organizing support for the entire ecosystem and innovation support for the individual companies.
Q: Many governments struggle to balance the tasks of designing policies and programs for new businesses vs. attending to the needs of existing businesses. How does Flanders confront this common challenge?
Flanders focuses on both. The innovation policy pursued by the Flemish government focuses on stimulating innovation and transformation of existing businesses, as well as creation of new businesses by students, citizens and as a result of scientific research at universities and research centres. 20% of Flemish startups are spin-offs which is a high percentage.
More than 50% of the aid given to companies for innovation goes to SME’s in Flanders, which means a lot of businesses are innovating. We try to focus our aid on innovation, whether for existing business or for news businesses.
Existing and new businesses find what they need through spearhead clusters, clusters focusing on emerging value chains and a range of incubator and acceleration programs. So, it is fair to say that Flanders focuses on both segments.
Q: Can you please provide an overview of the most recent policy change (or program) your team is pursuing in order to unleash more startup entrepreneurs?
First of all, Flanders still has a big challenge when it comes down to entrepreneurial culture and entrepreneurial skills. People in Belgium are a little bit shy to take risks, so they will not start a business easily. In recent years this aspect of Flemish culture is improving, but slowly. In close cooperation with the ministry for education we are working on programs on entrepreneurship education for secondary school, at all university classes and for doctoral and postdoctoral students. We are creating ecosystems focusing on the most important university cities to target and assist students with entrepreneurial ambitions and to facilitate student entrepreneurs. To help student entrepreneurs we have created a specific social and fiscal status.
We are combining this with renewed attention for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in order to create more STEM-entrepreneurs and thus STEM-start-ups.
Aside from entrepreneurial skills an important aspect in Flemish policy is to create a better access for Flemish startups and scale-ups to VC-money. Belgium has one of the easiest access to bank financing (loans, etc.). Flemish companies historically are reluctant to search for VC-money. One policy ambition is to create a better connection with the European and worldwide VC’s, so that they target Flemish startups more frequently.
Q: How does the region currently take the pulse of its entrepreneurial economy? What are key indicators you are seeking to track?
One difficulty for Flanders is that a lot of statistical material is created on a national level. It is difficult for Flanders to compare itself to other European countries. Flanders is tracking the entrepreneurial culture among the population, the number of companies that get started in Flanders every year and specifically for startups and scale-ups the number of high growth companies with specific attention for technologically innovative startups. Flanders wants to perform significantly better in the area of innovative startups and fast growing companies in the next five years.
An other indicator we are trying to track is the amount of Flemish companies that are seeking to innovate or are adopting new technologies in their strategy and daily operations.
Q: What global resources and relationships do you think could help you overcome persisting challenges for startups?
An important element for Flanders is to improve the access to international finance for Flemish companies and to get international VCs to target Flanders as an interesting startup market. A second aspect is to help our startups to access new markets. Flanders Investment and Trade helps them to find the right market and ideal business partners.