Flanders’ incubators help fledgling businesses fly

Summary

A music app created by three entrepreneurs is just one example of start-ups in Flanders being supported on the path to success by accelerators and incubators that offer mentoring, funding and access to business networks

“Get rich or die trying”

On the face of it, the Antwerp workspace where Bart Van der Roost has been fine-tuning the app he masterminded with two friends breathes the usual high-adrenaline, high-stakes vibe of an upstart business. “None of us have any money, we only have liquid equity, and we want to get rich or die trying,” Van der Roost says. “That’s the kind of atmosphere we have here.”

But when he leaves his floor to get a coffee from the cafeteria and spots the managing director of major consulting firm Accenture in line behind him, he is reminded that he is not, in fact, working from just any garage start-up.

Rather, Van der Roost (pictured, left) is based in the iconic Boerentoren in Antwerp and being cushioned in his entrepreneurial leap by some of Flanders’ foremost businesses as part of the Start it @kbc incubator programme (pictured below).

“There are a lot of partners hanging around here,” he says. “The free office space is nice, of course, but the real value is that you are together.”

In the past 18 months, a host of start-up incubators, accelerators and boosters like Start it @kbc, many of them targeting the tech sector, have popped up across Flanders in never-before-seen fashion. Often administered and bankrolled by a mix of government agencies, research institutes and large corporations, they are part of a growing movement to support and promote entrepreneurship in a region where experts and seasoned entrepreneurs have long complained about the lack of a real start-up scene. 

Enhanced entrepreneurship

For Hans Crijns, a professor in entrepreneurship at Vlerick Business School, these initiatives have been a long time coming. “This is positive because we need more entrepreneurs, and we need more start-ups – not just in Flanders but in the whole of Western Europe,” he says. “And incubators are a way to enhance and increase the entrepreneurial activity in any country.”

We have a social responsibility to help start-ups

- Guido Vandervorst of Deloitte

These local initiatives are so new that there is no data available yet on their precise number and no consensus on their merit. But one thing is clear: Supporting start-ups has become big business.

“As a major advisory audit company, we have a social responsibility to help start-ups,” says Guido Vandervorst from the Belgian division of consultancy firm Deloitte, which launched its own Deloitte Innovation Centre booster programme at the end of April.

While pointing out that they’re obviously not a non-profit, he adds: “We also see some interest in having new companies and start-ups, which will then hopefully become full-blown companies in the future, which boosts the economy and is good for all business, including ours.”

Originating in Silicon Valley, accelerators and incubators essentially act as launchpads for promising entrepreneurs and early-stage companies. They offer a mix of facilities and resources, like workspaces, funding, mentoring from veteran entrepreneurs and access to critical industry networks.

In return, accelerators typically demand a stake in the company, while incubators usually charge participation fees. But their objective is always the same: To quickly transform an idea or small company into a successful business.

The Deloitte Innovation Centre, for instance, targets more mature start-ups and offers them auditing, legal and accounting support to help them take their first steps in international markets. “What we were missing were boosters that bring those start-ups to the next level,” Vandervorst explains. “Our key theme is that we want to take them to the Champions League.”

Professor Crijns attributes the increase in support programmes to the decades-long efforts of experts and academics like himself to spread the gospel of entrepreneurship. “Now at last, a thousand flowers are blooming,” he says. “It’s on top of the agenda of the European Commission, on top of the agenda of most EU countries; it’s on top of the agenda of regions. Politicians understand now what it takes.”

Remaining realistic


But amid all the positive noises, some are also warning that incubators and accelerators aren’t the big solution to reaping successful companies, or creating a start-up ecosystem for that matter.

“It’s good that there’s lot of enthusiasm; we can all be happy,” says Bart Clarysse, a professor at Ghent University and chair of entrepreneurship at London’s Imperial College. “But don’t have high expectations. They might create a bit of an entrepreneurial mindset, but they won’t be the solution to creating an entrepreneurial region in Flanders.

They won’t be the solution to creating an entrepreneurial region

- UGent professor Bart Clarysse

“Even in Silicon Valley, most accelerators aren’t successful,” Clarysse points out. For every Y Combinator and TechStars – two pioneering and acclaimed US-born accelerators – he sees 50 to 60 programmes that aren’t successful. Referring to the local initiatives, which he emphasises aren’t mature accelerators like the ones found in London, Berlin and Paris, he asks: “What gives them the background, the ideas to make it a success in an even more difficult environment?”

Clarysse attributes the increase in such programmes to the targeting of technology start-ups. Unlike the incubators at Leuven nanotech research centre imec and the Flemish government’s life sciences research institute VIB – which have long accounted for the sole incubator programmes in Flanders, together with digital research centre iMinds – these newer initiatives don’t require costly investments, like a state-of-the-art lab or a cleanroom. “Often they just need a computer,” he says.

The participants in these new programmes are typically students who lack the entrepreneurial knowhow to transform a great idea into an actual business model. “These accelerators try to bring mentors with entrepreneurial experience to these kids with ideas,” Clarysse says. 

Speeding up innovation

Yet the economic downturn appears to have fuelled the boom of the incubator and accelerator scene in Flanders, as lawmakers have embraced it as a long-term job-creation strategy and a sure-fire way to speed up innovation. 

Finding somebody who believes in you – that’s already a huge benefit

- Neoscores co-founder Bart Van der Roost

After US carmaker Ford announced in 2012 the decision to close its Genk plant at the end of this year, the government of Flanders prepared a comprehensive policy plan to help the province rebound from the huge economic blow and the expected loss of 4,500 jobs. As part of that SALK plan, a new incubator on the Corda ICT campus in Hasselt was announced in March, alongside a number of other initiatives.

The incubator, which focuses on IT and digital media companies, was heralded by the organisers as a project that would kickstart entrepreneurship in Limburg. “The SALK report shows that innovation and creativity are the best guarantee of sustainable economic growth,” Hasselt mayor Hilde Claes said in a statement. “The incubator fills an important role as a means of leveraging growth, employment opportunity, innovation and creativity.”

But Crijns says it just doesn’t work like that. “Just because you create an incubator, that doesn’t mean you will have 200 new companies,” he insists. He sees a trend in which initiatives to promote entrepreneurship have mushroomed with rising unemployment rates.

That’s because, in Crijns’ view, policymakers tend to see two solutions when large businesses move or go bust – outplacement or entrepreneurship. “Entrepreneurship is seen as a solution to unemployment, and rightly so, but they exaggerate,” says Crijns. “They see it as a solution for everything.”

A long journey


Such concerns haven’t much been on the mind of Bart Van der Roost. With co-founders Bob Hamblok and Jonas Coomans, he is about to go live with their Neoscores app.

It’s the end of a long, bumpy journey that began when the three friends came up with the idea for an app that could create digital versions of sheet music, which would allow musicians to throw out their volumes of impractical paper scores and step into the 21st century. 

Before they joined KBC’s incubator eight months ago, the Neoscores founders participated in iMinds’ incubator (pictured above), a move that Van der Roost credits as being instrumental to their growth and success.

Since then, the three men have convinced the Brussels Philharmonic to give a paperless concert using a beta version of their app, hired two-full time employees (with plans to hire two more) and been chosen for this year’s Tech All Stars Competition as one of the 12 best start-ups in Europe.

For Van der Roost, aside from any business and financial support, the psychological value of incubators like that of iMinds can’t be underestimated. “This is one of the better decisions I’ve made in my life – to quit my job and become an entrepreneur. But it’s not an easy choice,” he says. “Finding somebody who believes in you and actually says ‘yeah, go for it, go for the entrepreneurial route,’ that’s already a huge benefit.”

At the same time, he admits that the light of these initiatives can sometimes be blinding. Underlining that this was never an issue at iMinds, Van der Roost says he has seen fledging entrepreneurs at other incubators become so mesmerised by the idea of being a start-up that they no longer seemed interested in becoming a real business.

“There are so many options these days to go to incubators,” he says, “that I feel there is a risk we will attract dreamers – but we also need doers.”

Photo, top: From left, Bart Van der Roost, Jonas Coomans and Bob Hamblok already have Brussels Philharmonic sold on Neoscores. Photo by Noortje Palmers

A music app created by three entrepreneurs is just one example of start-ups in Flanders being supported on the path to success by accelerators and incubators that offer mentoring, funding and access to business networks.

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