The Limburg division of the Flemish employers’ organization Voka yesterday announced that exports from Limburg to countries outside the EU have increased by 20% to 906 million euros. 10% is destined for China, while 9% goes to India, 8.7% to Russia and 8% each to the Emirates and the US. Polyvision Belgium, an affiliate of the listed Steelcase in the US, is a perfect example of the importance of exports for Limburg companies. Polyvision also proves that it is possible to pursue its own activities independently from the parent company. Polyvision develops and manufactures enameled steel plates for a range of applications, including wall coverings for tunnels and underground stations – with many of them lining the walls in Brussels and teaching boards for classrooms. About 8 million of these educational boards are used in schools across the globe. “Every day about 250 million pupils learn and read from our boards,” CEO Theo Vanheusden says with pride. The company’s intention to take this niche market further can be seen in the interactive teaching board which has been developed and produced at their Belgian outfit. “It’s still an ordinary white board that allows you to write with erasable filt pens and is magnetic as well. The points grid that we’ve incorporated into the enamel layer makes it possible to use with an infrared pen. If used with a projector and laptop, you can show projected images on the board as one does with a touchscreen and it allows digital writing too.”
Of the 28 million turnover recorded last year by this 116-strong company, 98% was earned from exports to 50 countries. Its US parent company has meanwhile set up a global research and development division in Genk to serve these markets while the parent company in the US serves the American market. “China and India, with their huge school-going populations, are countries with potential for tremendous growth, whereas the European education market only serves as a reference”, says Vanheusden.
Following a week of intensive talks, the Ford Genk board and trade union representatives signed the draft contract of a social plan for the factory’s workers last night. Blue collar workers have been invited to information sessions on Friday 8 March in the factory. They will also learn the individual conditions regarding the social plan and will receive a ballot. So far the board has remained tightlipped about the contract, with Ford’s spokesperson Jo Declercq saying that the workers should be informed first.
This agreement will only apply to the labourers as no contract has yet been tabled for the plant’s white-collar workers and employees of its suppliers. Their fate will only be sealed once talks at the Federal Public service (FPS) for Employment have been rounded up. Following weeks of intense negotiations they hope to obtain clarity on the conditions surrounding advanced dismissals and severance packages.Yesterday a large number of eager militants arrived at the FPS Employment’s doors under the watchful eye of about one hundred police officers who were deployed to maintain order as on previous occasions the hard core of militants rushed inside after growing tired of waiting. A number of employees also gathered at Ford Genk’s factory gates to see if they could find out more.
Koen Geens, former chief of the ministerial office of Flemish minister-president Kris Peeters (CD&V), has been appointed federal finance minister following the resignation of federal finance minister Steven Vanackere. Geens is a full-blooded technocrat and does not belong to the Christian Labour Movement (ACW) as Vanackere did. Heis also a professor at the University of Leuven, president of the Thomas Moore colleges with a seat on the BNP Paribas Fortis board, and a member of the Corporate Governance Commission. He therefore can count on a business network of immeasurable value. This network was already very helpful when het was the chairman of Flanders in Action (VIA), minister-president Kris Peeters’ (CD&V) programme to launch Flanders as one of the top achievers in Europe. Peeters and Geens share a history after all. Geens resigned however as his chief of staff in 2009 to focus on winning the rectorship of the university of Leuven. Mark Waer was eventually appointed, but that did not set him back as, according to those who know him well, he is defined by his unwavering drive to achieve. His new ministerial role is a dream come true, according to close sources. Politics has always been his passion, but an appointment in the federal government was never an option. Following his resignation in 2009, he told in an interview that he was not disappointed with politics, but added that “there was a world of difference between Flemish and federal policy levels”, saying: “Politics at federal level is, well, complex” and “Belgium is the most complex country I know. To engage in politics on a federal level you need to be an expert tightrope artist”. These prophetic words will surely come to play in his new role. With his heart still rooted in Flanders, he didn't hesitate for a moment during his phone calls with CD&V president Wouter Beke, his predecessor Steven Vanackere and his friend Kris Peeters on Monday night.
When Seaports Day is celebrated in the Norhern French port of Dourges tomorrow, Frenchman Marc Delbeke will be appointed representative for the Antwerp harbour, which is one of France’s key trading partners. The Northern/Pas de Calais region, which makes up 28% of all traffic between Antwerp and France, enjoys a highly strategic position.
When Delbeke takes up office in August, his immediate responsibilities will include a number of policy dossiers, among them the link between the North of France and the Seine (to make Paris accessible for inland shipping), the mapping out of freight currents arriving from France as well as representing and supporting the harbour from a commercial point of view. With his years of experience at the International Chamber of Commerce in Rijsel, he has forged an extensive network in the region which will make him more than well equipped for the challenge.
The Belgian beer market, and with it AB InBev sales, contracted by 4% last year. The sales volumes of the brewer of Stella Artois, Leffe, Jupiler and Hoegaarden dropped from 5.3 to 5.1 million hectoliters in a matter of a year in a market that saw volumes shrink from 8.5 million to 8.2 million hectoliters. “One could put it down to the structural trend of increased awareness about alcohol which makes people drink less beer. It could also be the bad weather we had last year, but then one cannot ignore the crisis,” says Sven Gatz, director of the Belgian brewers’ federation. “The catering industry is struggling. Many cafés are going under. And it doesn’t seem as if we are going to be able to stop the tide.” Ten years ago, more than 50% of beer sales were to the catering industry. This has now dwindled to 30%. The remainder is sold to the retail industry. Exposed to the same problems, AB InBev, who holds a roughly equal percentage of market distribution, addressed the problem by offering cafés and bars smaller casks of beer and by focusing on stronger brands and commercial support to cafés facing new management. “We have retained our 56% market share during a downward trend. That’s good. I foresee that we’ll keep our market lead this year. We have launched a TV campaign for Jupiter Force, our alcohol-free Jupiler, and we plan to do quite a lot of sampling. We must make the people taste to convince them,” says AB InBev’s general director for the Benelux and France, Eric Lauwers.
Despite weakening beer consumption, Belgium will remain a key producer for AB InBev as most of its production is destined for the export market, with France the biggest at 37% followed by 27% to the US. Here exports have quadrupled in the past four years, with Stella Artois and Hoegaarden positioned as the two top sellers. Says Gatz: “Belgian beer exports have offset the drop in the local market. There’s no doubt that the country still has a bright future as a beer producer.”
ABInbev's 15-million euro investment in a new packaging machine confirms the brewer's confidence in its Belgian production activities. Since the Brazilian brewer AmBev merged with Interbrew in 2004, the group has established a head office in Louvain and New York. This has at time raised questions about their Belgian operations, but spokesperson Karen Couck is quick to put all concerns to rest, saying: “We have probably invested 150 to 200 million euros in Belgium in the past five years.”
CEO Duco Sickinghe is to resign his position with the TV and telecoms group Telenet at the end of March after a career spanning 12 years. According to Sickinghe, who hails from the Netherlands but lives in Belgium – where he plans to stay after his resignation – disagreements with majority shareholder Liberty Global over the failed takeover bid “left its mark” and left him no option. “They were so deep that no bridge could be built across them,” he says. The Australian American John Porter (55) will take over the ungrateful task of managing the company after Sickinge. This former CEO of the Australian cable company Austar gets on well with Liberty owner Johan Malone. This should come as good news for Telenet employees. “John Porter is the ideal candidate to take Telenet to the next growth phase,” the board agrees. Porter, who will relocate to Belgium with his wife and four children in April, will arrive amidst the imminent opening of the cable network to other service providers. If changes must be expected with Telenet will entirely depend on Liberty Global as the Flemish telecom company is a part of the American concern more than ever today, that is very much interested in the large profits of the company. However, cutting costs at the expense of the quality of its services or at the expense of the client service could be counterproductive.
Flemish minister for innovation Ingrid Lieten (SP.A) yesterday responded to a question raised by the Flemish MP Lode Vereeck (LDD) about the distribution of subsidies by one of the biggest subsidizing agencies in Flanders, the Institute for the Promotion of Innovation through Science and Technology (IWT). Judging from Lieten’s figures, the 63.4 million euros received by the ten biggest beneficiaries in 2011 constituted 59% of all the business support released for research and development during the same year. “It’s no coincidence,” says Veerle Lories, administrator-general of the IWT. “These are businesses that allocate substantial research budgets. The co-financing system also increases the amounts that we supplement.”
It’s significant to note however that employment among these champions of innovation has meanwhile dropped from 25,667 jobs in 2003 to 19,027 in 2011, with Philips and Alcatel-Lucent shrinking their staff by more than 50%. These are classic examples of multinationals that have been systematically phasing out their production divisions in Flanders and Belgium over the past few years. IWT’s own analysis of 384 completed research and development projects dating back to 2007 indicates that 77% of the allocated support was received by major companies, and that from a global perspective employment and added value among these multinationals had dropped. “But it’s more complicated than that,” Lories explains, saying: “Innovation can stimulate the economy and create employment elsewhere. And the question remains whether the companies on the list would not have cut back their activities in Flanders even more if they did not receive the subsidies.” According to minister Lieten, “employment is only one aspect of innovation; it is crucial for a knowledge economy like ours. How else will we find alternative energy sources? And how will we secure innovations in the healthcare sector to absorb the ageing population?” She further points to the indirect effect on employment opportunities, with innovation often resulting in a new ‘ecosystem’ of activities which also benefit the suppliers.
Verveeck nevertheless believes the figures indicate a need for an amended policy, saying: “In view of the major job shedding among these multinationals in the past few years, the IWT should shift its focus for support to small and medium enterprises. This is where most potential for job creation can be found.” According to Lories, the IWT has been hard at work to drop the bar so that SMEs can also apply. “But its effect is not yet reflected in these figures,” he adds. Lieten has promised to approach this group more proactively in future.
The CD&V and SP.A parties in the Flemish Parliament are forcing the government to show its true colours on the issue of establishing a ‘metropolitan community’ between Brussels, Wallonia and Flanders, as agreed in the Butterfly Agreement on the sixth round of state reform. Flemish MP Eric Van Rompuy (CD&V), who raised the issue in a resolution, wants its other coalition partner in the Flemish government, the N-VA party, to co-sign the appeal. “If the party refuses, it will become an incident,” Van Rompuy said. The N-VA tries to obstruct the initiative of hte metropolitan platform, introducing motions in the councils of the municipalities in the Flemish Periphery. The Flemish nationalist party believes the platform for a metropolitan community between the three regions is a covert attempt to gradually extend Brussels. Van Rompuy has waved off the party’s insinuations as mendacious, saying: “The platform will simply debate on regional matters such as mobility. The N-VA tries to exploit the fear among Dutch speakers that the region will grow more French speaking. However, the consulting platform does not have a say in local matters.”
The as yet unestablished metropolitan platform is part of the sixth state reform. As the matter has not been addressed in the Flemish government, Van Rompuy tabled a resolution in an attempt to “provide clarity on participation and consent to an agreement on collaboration with the other regions”. He further added that he sees this “a test to determine whether the N-VA is prepared to commit to the sixth round of state reform and to not think only in terms of electoral logic”. Should the N-VA refuse, Van Rompuy has said that he will “turn that fact into an incident”.
Van Rompuy showed his dissatisfaction with the N-VA’s stance for the first time when the matter was discussed in a commission on Brussels and the Flemish Periphery last week. Minister of local administration Geert Bourgeois (N-VA), who is entitled to take decisions in the matter, was however reluctant to take a stand.
The Flemish community’s list of masterpieces has been extended with works from the Plantin-Moretus Museum, de Cultural Heritage Museum Hendrik Conscience and the FelixArchief in Antwerp.
Plantin-Moretus’s archive, a choir book and sixteen image motets, will now receive a place among the masterpieces. The printer and publisher Christoffel Plantin and his successors kept a uniqe commercial and family archive for more than 300 years. In addition there are also the thousands of letters which have been sent between scholars, writers, fellow publishers and book dealers. The archive contains documents dating from the 16th century to 1865.
Plantin printed Antwerp polyphonist Georges de la Hèle’s monumental choirbook, Octo missae, in 1578. In its folio format it served as the only copy for the entire choir. The museum’s copy is the only one to be found in Flanders. The sixteen image motets are a classic example of a Flemish typographical product of the contrareformation which involved a collaboration between the artist, composer, engraver and printer.
The works from the Cultural Heritage library and FelixArchief to grace the masterpiece list include photographs and glass panes from the 19th century photographer Edmond Fierlants, the Brussels photographer who was commissioned by the Antwerp town council to photograph significant buildings and city views just before the city’s face was destined for dramatic changes. The archive owns 79 negatives of these 165 photographs, mounted on panes of glass. This collection serves as rare testimony to the early days of photography. Works that appear on the masterpiece list enjoy special protective measures and export limitations in addition to being considered for restauration subsidies.
Despite Flemish minister-president Kris Peeters’ (CD&V) insistence that Flanders has already contributed more than its share towards the Belgian budget, fellow party member Steven Vanackere and federal foreign minister Didier Reynders (MR) believe the regions should support more. Peeters, who sees Reynders’ stance as 'transparent political games', states: “He only says that because his party (MR) is in the opposition in the Walloon and Brussels government. He has obviously spent too much time abroad recently to notice what is going on in our country.” Reynders on the other hand threatens to close the federal tap unless the regions make more efforts to contribute.
Tensions are mounting in the run-up to the budget control. Today the federal government will find out exactly how much needs to be raised as the monitoring committee, a taskforce of top officials, will present its report. Finance minister Steven Vanackere (CD&V) made it clear yesterday that the federal government may need to raise more than two billion euros extra to keep the budget on track, while the Flemish government will need 300 to 500 million euros to balance its budget. Europe views the country as a whole. The allover deficit of the federal government, the communities, regions and local authorities is taken into account. The dispute will hinge on the 350 million euros in so-called usurped powers: powers such as metropolitan policy, which is strictly speaking a regional power, but has been traditionally financed by the federal government. Reynders referred to the coalition agreement to eventually pass the bill with the devolved powers to the regions. He also wants the regions to pay the bill of the pensions of its own civil service. Even though Vanackere is less insistent, he does believe the regions should take up their financial responsibility.
On Saturday night an emotional Jeroen Meus, the undisputed favourite among foodies in Flanders, received a television star award for his television cooking programme ‘Daily food’. But Meus, who sells half a million cookery books each year, is not only loved in his home country. He has claimed considerable interest abroad and did extremely well during the Paris Cookbook Fair. “Jeroen can secure impressive figures,” says publisher André Van Halewyck. “A chef who sells half a million books to a market with five million readers is quite something. Edouard Cointreau, organizer of the prestigious Paris fair and well-known cookery book guru, also loosened his purse strings, sending a mail to his address book to advertise the Flemish wonder boy’s act. This promotional trick paid off. “There has been interest from various countries,” says Van Halewyck, who met with American booking agents while in France. But Meus’s plans for international expansion are closer to home. “Our first priority is the Netherlands,” says Van Halewyck. “In autumn we plan to launch a campaign to gain a foothold in the Dutch market,” he says of his plans to initially launch the cook books based on the daily TV series and even a TV programme on a Dutch channel.
The 1.58 billion euros foreign companies invested in Flanders last year created 3 740 new jobs, figures released by Flanders Investment and Trade (FIT) indicate. The total investment amount and number of investment projects were down from 2011, but the 3 740 jobs that were created outnumbered 2011’s total and if viewed in the context of the past ten years, was only exceeded in the pre-crisis years of 2006 and 2007. “In these uncertain economic times when major job shedding happens as a matter of course, this creation of jobs by foreign companies is critical. Even more so than in preceding years,” says managing director of FIT, Claire Tillekaerts. The region’s proactive investment strategy, with FIT actively screening opportunities and attracting potential investors to Flanders, is showing results, says Flemish minister-president Kris Peeters (CD&V). According to Tillekaerts, this requires considerable effort. “You can see there is a crisis if you consider how you have to fight for every dossier. Competition between the different countries and regions has grown fiercer and Europe’s regulations have become more stringent. You cannot simply promise much to prospective investors,” says Tillekaerts, who states that these investors always ask about the rate of corporate tax and wage costs before considering an investment. “In this respect we are not the pick of the bunch. But we do have other cards to play. The key is sourcing prospective candidates and presenting them with a business case before they remove us from their shortlist. Timing is everything.” Tillekaerts put the drop in the total sum of investments down to the fact that companies are more cautious in their spending. She and Peeters both point to the high incidence of ‘real new' investments (greenfield investments) by companies that have never invested in the region before. Another positive factor is the slight increase in the number of investment projects in research and development. “We plan to encourage this even more proactively in partnership with FIT,” Peeters announced.
Today the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts opens its impressive exhibition of 300 works by Belgian avant-garde artists of the early twentieth century. Faced with strong competition from Flemish Expressionists, this movement was often overshadowed and neglected. Antwerp and Belgian artists often struggled to secure public interest, official support and patronage or support from private investors, who hardly ever bought works by these ‘revolutionary abstracts’. Strangely enough, they had a following abroad, albeit mostly among very small art circles. Johan De Smet, curator of the exhibition, entitled "Modernism", carefully chose his presentation of the avant-garde artists for his exhibition. In the first three halls he mounted works by Jules Schmalzigaug, Georges Vantongerloo and Marthe Donas, the three most prominent artists, who left Belgium to explore the movement abroad. Schmalzigaug moved to Italy, where he joined Boccioni and the futurists. Vantongerloo spent the war in the neutral Netherlands, where he came into contact with Doesburg and De Stijl. “Belgium owes Vantongerloo,” says De Smet. The artist, who left the country to take up permanent residence in France in 1921, was totally forgotten until rediscovered in 1980. And yet this artist ranks among talents like Mondrian, even though he was more playful and ironic. Donas, who must still be (re)discovered, also forged her career outside Belgium. In Paris she came to learn about Cubism and often painted still lives along the vein of those by Picasso and Braque. In the next halls De Smet explores the situation in Belgium, with excellent works by artists ranging from Prosper De Troyer to the young René Magritte, Karel Maes and harbour view by Floris Jespers and a hill landscape by Victor Servranckx, showcasing the movement to Belgian Modernism in the post-war years. De Smet has not only used paintings of this period, but also photographs by Kessels, Ubac, Man Ray and Krull, and films by Storck. Literature and theatre have also been given a place, honouring poets and playwrights like Paul van Ostaijen, Gaston Burssens and Herman Teirlinck in this impressive and well-appointed exhibition which offers tremendous diversity and showcases all the relevant disciplines while creating a unique rhythm in every hall that will not disappoint.
Peter Carmeliet and his research team of the University of Louvain and the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIV) and their Harvard colleagues, have made a breakthrough in the treatment of medulloblastoma, the most common brain tumor among children. Together with scientists from the Massachusetts General Hospital in Harvard, Carmeliet found that the growth and spread of a tumor could be slowed down by suppressing the placenta growth factor P1GF. This is a very positive step towards a new therapy for children suffering from this brain tumor, as it could translate as a better and much more viable option with less damaging and long-term side-effects than the current treatments, which involve the surgical removal of the tumor or a part thereof, followed by radio- and chemotherapy. The protein P1GF plays a key role in the growth of blood vessels in a tumor. The protein causes the blood vessels to grow towards the tumor cells to supply oxygen and nutrients. When Carmeliet and his team researched the role of P1GF in various types of medulloblastomas in mice, they found that the protein was essential for the survival of these tumors and that it was also directly responsible for stimulating the growth of the cancer cells. Blocking the protein may therefore be quite efficient from a therapeutic point of view. When P1GF was blocked with an antibody in mice with a tumor, it slowed down its growth, reduced its spreading to the spinal column and increased life expectancy. The therapeutic value of this approach among humans will now be examined more extensively, but considering the fact that the protein plays a role in the stimulation of the forming of blood vessels in tumors, suppressing it could well have less damaging side-effects than current treatments, the researchers believe.
The 3 539 workers who lost their jobs as a result of collective dismissals in Wallonia in 2012 was almost double the number recorded the previous year, with steel processing works like Carsid, Duferco and NLMK taking a particularly hard blow. This year promises to be no better, with 1 300 jobs lost at steel giant ArcelorMittal that announced its intention to close seven of its twelve cold production lines in Liège. Excavation machine constructor Caterpillar also plans to shed 1 400 jobs. One could well ask if there is any future at all for industry in Wallonia and if so, who holds the keys? “The closure is primarily a result of the dramatic drop in demand on the European market due to the crisis,” explains Paul Soete, CEO of Agoria, the federation for the technology industry. “But competitiveness is also a factor,” he adds. When considering costs, Caterpillar decided that it would be cheaper to manufacture their machines in China and transport them to Europe than to manufacture them locally. Soete and CEO of Melexis Roland Duchâtelet agree that if the factory was located in Flanders, Caterpillar would have taken the same decision. But according to Fa Quix, director-general of Fedustria, the sector federation for the timber and textile industry, this is a bigger blow for Wallonia. “Flanders has a much more solid industrial base. It is broader and more diversified, with a better balance between small and medium enterprises and multinationals,” he says. And yet Flanders seems to face the same fate, with a massive loss of jobs in the industry. The planned closure of the Ford Genk plant is a clear example. “It’s time we woke up,” prime minister Elio Di Rupo (PS) said in parliament yesterday as he promised to tackle the European industrial policy as a matter of urgency. Soete believes short-term measures should be introduced as soon as possible without waiting for a response from Europe. Duchâtelet and Quix agree with him that these measures should come from a federal level. “Reduce social security contributions, establish a more favourable tax climate and increase flexibility,” suggests Soete. Quix feels the regional governments should also offer support. “The Walloon government can also contribute to a more favourable industrial climate. They can reduce energy costs and make more efforts for job training,” he says while stressing that a government should not tell businesses how to innovate but rather help them carry the risk.
If the German chemical and pharmaceuticals giant Bayer builds a new factory, you can almost bet your bottom dollar Fleming Dirk Van Meirvenne was involved. As head of Bayer Technologies Services responsible for design, building and maintenance of factories, he says his division has never been this busy. Never before has the company invested so much in its pharmaceutical, crop protection and synthetics divisions. Recently factories were built in China and Germany to manufacture MDI and TDI, substances used in insulation, mattresses and shoe soles. One could well ask why Bayer’s Antwerp installations, where 819 of their 1 647 employees in Belgium work, was overlooked when investment decisions were made recently. In 2010 an internal document ranked the Antwerp plant number 23 out of their 26 outfits in respect of efficiency and wage and energy costs. Van Meirvenne puts the poor ranking in perspective, saying: “The Antwerp cluster is one of the best in the world, with excellent access to raw materials. Moreover the investment climate in Flanders is much more favourable than in Germany, where the social support for major investment projects is less substantial. Van Meirvenne is convinced of a solid future for the chemical industry in Europe and Belgium. Thanks to state-of-the-art technology small, mobile factories can be set up in countries which do not have a large enough market to make a traditional factory profitable.
In future chemical companies will no longer function in isolation either, he believes. At the Invite Centre in Leverkusen, Bayer’s chemical installations and those of German rivals Evonik and BASF are located next to each other without knowing what the other is manufacturing, but sharing technologies in an attempt to establish a standard. “The tunnel innovation which sees each concern developing its own product is outdated,” says Van Meirvenne. “Just look at the auto and electronics industries, where close collaboration is on the increase.”
Flipping the classroom, in other words learning about trigonometry at home and then doing your exercises at school, is slowly becoming a trend in Flemish schools. According to the traditional education model, the teacher explains the subject theory to the pupils and then they start practical exercises. But with a period of only 50 minutes, the lack of time to exercise leads to work being taken home to do as homework. “But that’s when learners need their teacher the most,” argues Peter Van den Broek, an English teacher at the Saint Joseph Institute in Hamme. Van den Broek has been experimenting with the new trend on a large scale. “I now make considerable use of film clips to refresh their basic knowledge,” he says. “This allows you to start working on new subject matter in the classroom. I see it as an enormous time-saving.” Another advantage is that the lesson material is always accessible. On the internet one can find hundreds of clips on subjects ranging from verb tenses to integrals and limits for the maths' course provided by Flemish teachers and pupils. Van den Broek's teaching practice alternates between the two approaches. According to Bram Bruggeman, an ICT lecturer for teacher trainees who provides workshops on the method, it is ideal. “Because the students have worked out the basics at home, you can teach more indept-knowlege in the lessons,” he says. Education minister Pascal Smet (SP.A) and some pupils have also responded positively to the concept.
The Flemish Parliament met yesterday to discuss its social and economic action plan for the future, Flanders in Action (VIA). Minister-president Kris Peeters’ (CD&V) plans to resuscitate the initiative with a forum about the challenges of the future by the end of April. The opposition is doubtful about the success of such a forum and believes it won’t be much more than a “good news show”. Groen party leader in the parliament Elisabeth Meuleman came up with the fiercest criticism, saying: “VIA looks good, but it doesn’t work. Don’t even try to rake it up. VIA is like a raised corpse and it’s starting to smell.” The last intervention was by Peeters himself, who surprised them all when he referred to the latest Eurostat figures which indicate that Flanders has upped its ranking from number six to four among the 15 most promising European regions boasting excellent achievements in respect of innovative fields such as employee training, participation in lifelong learning, level of research and development, employee participation in knowledge-intensive sectors and number of patents. With a GDP of 29,895 euro per capita, the region has overtaken Southern Netherlands and Baden-Württemberg, and is only outperformed by Western Netherlands, the Basque Country and Bavaria. The GDP per capita proves how effective innovation has been if converted into economic wealth. Even though the GDP per capita in 2009 was down from 2008 (31 372), this drop was reflected in all regions as a result of the financial and economic crisis. Whatever the case may be, Kris Peeters is convinced there is still much work to be done.
“An authoritative signal,” Flemish innovation minister Ingrid Lieten (SP.A) said yesterday about plans by the Flemish government and the Flemish investment company Gimv to establish a fund to invest in medical technology and healthcare. Gimv and the Flemish government have each allocated 50 million euros and Gimv plans to seek additional financing in the next two years with a view to doubling this amount. Gimv president Urbain Vandeurzen is confident that a fund of this magnitude will rank among the top funds in Europe. Once the finances have been allocated, the fund will spend the next six years on sourcing promising businesses to develop medical technology for the healthcare sector, with about 10 to 15 companies in the Benelux, Germany and France already being considered. After a period of 12 to 15 years, when the businesses are well on track, the investors plan to withdraw their funds. The joint venture has raised some questions because Gimv is already involved in the biotechnology industry and the Flemish government runs ‘Flanders Care Invest’ via the Participatiemaatschappij Vlaanderen (Flanders Investment Company). According to minister for innovation Ingrid Lieten, the government’s participation in the latter focuses on small and medium enterprises and start-up companies, whereas the new fund will focus more on companies with an international position and with the potential to become international market leaders in their sector. “Challenges in healthcare are enormous,” she said during the presentation yesterday. “By 2050 almost one third of the Flemish population will be 60 or older. In current terms that’s almost one quarter of our population. Moreover those in the 80+ age group will almost treble in the next decades.” Vandeurzen agreed, saying: “The ageing population and increasing demand for healthcare have forced us to come up with new solutions.” Initially there was some opposition against the idea of involving the private sector in the healthcare industry,as it is managed by public administration, health insurance funds and hospitals, but today there is public support for private involvement, Vandeurzen confirmed. “The sense of urgency is enormous,” Lieten echoed, while adding: “Healthcare will become unaffordable if we only concentrate on current solutions.” According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OESO), the market for healthcare in Europe constitutes 10% of the GDP. A further objective of the new fund will be to create an ‘ecosystem’ in collaboration with experts from Gimv, Participatiemaatschappij Vlaanderen, Flanders Care Invest, the employers’ organization Zorgnet Vlaanderen, universities and research institutions like Imec.
“Anyone who is really intelligent needs to pass only one crucial test: explaining something highly complex to his grandmother in an understandable way.” With these words the rector of the Antwerp University, Alain Verschoren, explains why his institute joined forces with National Geographic Benelux to launch the first Flemish programme on the thematic channel on 21 March. The two parties met in their search for something new. National Geographic wanted to produce a Flemish programme for the Belgian and Dutch market while the Antwerp University sought a new marketing and recruitment strategy. Their paths crossed through Transfer, the media centre for a number of thematic channels, and LDV, the University’s advertising agency for the last two years. Things took shape when both realized they could benefit from working together.
Based on the idea that science is not boring, their 5-part series is entitled ‘Behind the science’. Each episode will focus on a specific theme, ranging from renewable energy to drug residues in our sewage. To appeal to both the Flemish and Dutch markets, the producers called in TV celebrity Bart Peeters to present and comment the programme. The producers do not expect to appeal to any other markets. “Unless it creates interest. But we don’t expect it to,” says Erro Verschoor, creative director of Fox Channels Benelux, the parent company of the Belgian and Dutch National Geographic Channel. which has ventured to invest in such a small market. According to Verschoor, National Geographic is producing ever more programmes with local content. He argues that despite the fact that programmes produced in the US have an international distribution range of more than 170 countries, local content creates a stronger viewership base and higher viewership figures. ‘Behind the science’ is a joint investment, with production paid by National Geographic and the University providing the scientific knowhow. The latter also released some of its advertising budget to buy time slots for recruitment advertising spots and to finance promotions for the programme. They plan to monitor the success via social media checks. So far no further plans for more Flemish programmes have been discussed, but Verschoor does not exclude any such possibility, insisting that a decision would not depend on the success of this series.