iMinds incubator praised as one of Europe’s best


The iStart incubator for digital start-ups run by Flanders’ digital research centre recently achieved a top position in an international listing of university incubation programmes

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A new generation

In a recent interview with De Tijd, Marc Coucke, founder of pharmaceutical company Omega Pharma and one of Flanders’ best-known businessmen, complained that the press always portray him as an example of successful entrepreneurship. “I’ve been a textbook case for almost 20 years,” he said. “Where’s the next generation?”

Maybe these new entrepreneurial faces are to be found in the world of information and communications technology (ICT), more particularly in the rapidly expanding sector of software development.Flanders’ digital research centre, iMinds, launched a business incubation programme three years ago to help these digital entrepreneurs and their start-up companies grow.

“Our core business is to help firms and young entrepreneurs, even students, to secure paying customers, to create steady growth and to obtain an international outlook,” says Sven De Cleyn, co-ordinator of the centre’s iStart programme. “Hence, by entering iStart, they raise their chances of being successful.

So what happens once your company has joined the iStart programme? “We support start-up digital entrepreneurs, people who develop innovative ICT applications,” De Cleyn explains. “We give them a leg-up in the form of a large coaching and support package carried out by our experts. This package deals primarily with the development of a working business around one product. We also provide a bit of start-up capital.”

Semantic queries

One of the first iStart participants in 2012 was the digital start-up Ontoforce. Founded in 2011 by three Ghent students and currently employing nine people, the company offers a web-based smart search engine called DisQover that can perform semantic queries: In other words, it can take into account the different meanings of a word. 

We give them a leg-up in the form of coaching and support

- iStart co-ordinator Sven De Cleyn

In a world that increasingly revolves around data, a tool like DisQover could help companies search their databases more quickly and thoroughly, and help them separate useable data from nonsense.

“In the first place, we are aiming at pharmaceutical and biotech companies,” says Hans Constandt, one of the Ontoforce founders. “With our search tool, these companies can save a lot of time during the first phases of their research programmes for new drugs.” The Ontoforce founders have already sold DisQover to one big pharma multinational and to several Flemish biotech firms.

Ontoforce received €100,000 from iMinds in its start-up phase. “But more important was the access to a large group of experienced people, provided by iMinds,” Constandt says. “This gave us the opportunity to begin with and speed up the commercialisation of our product. It was only thanks to this expertise – also in marketing and sales – that we were able to reach the next level.”

Seventh-best incubator in Europe

With its recent high ranking in the University Business Incubator index, the iStart programme itself received a significant boost recently. The annual Swedish initiative offers a comprehensive list of more than 300 business incubation programmes around the world. 

Thanks to the iMinds expertise, we were able to reach the next level

- Entrepreneur Hans Constandt

While this was only the first time iStart had participated, it finished seventh in Europe, and 25th around the world. According to the Swedish compilers of the list, the strength of the Flemish programme relies heavily on proper access to funds and good post-incubation performance indicators. This means that iStart’s participants show higher survival and growth rates than the average incubator participant.

Still, it bears mentioning that not everyone is simply allowed to join the iMinds incubator. “We have rather severe selection criteria,” De Cleyn says. “Only one in five applications is approved. Nevertheless, we have given support to more than 50 start-ups since the programme was founded in 2011 – good for more than 150 new full-time jobs in less than three years.”

Photo: Entrepreneurs mingle at a recent iStart event in Beervelde, East Flanders. 

The iStart incubator for digital start-ups run by Flanders’ digital research centre recently achieved a top position in an international listing of university incubation programmes.

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