Expat owned: Flanders’ start-up scene is increasingly international


More foreign-born residents than ever before are launching businesses, in no small part due to the start-up accelerator Start it @KBC

40 nationalities

Flanders’ start-up scene is taking on an ever-more international character, not least because of the efforts of Start it @KBC, the country’s largest accelerator for young companies. According to its managing director, the Covid-19 crisis will only give this trend another boost.

“The Flemish start-up ecosystem is maturing rapidly, and the growing internationalisation is a logical step in this process,” says Anna Thomlinson, managing director of Start it @KBC and a British expat herself.

Start it @KBC has made great efforts to attract start-ups run by foreign-born residents to its hubs in cities all over Flanders and Brussels. It has also worked to support these companies in expanding their global outreach. The Start it @KBC community currently boasts more than 40 nationalities.

In Belgium you’d never close a deal in a pub, while this is a common practice in the UK

- Anna Thomlinson

According to Thomlinson, Belgium has many assets when it comes to international trade: highly educated  staff with excellent English skills, a strategic geographical position, the presence of many international companies and institutions. “Internationalisation is also a must for most local companies, as the internal market is relatively small.”

The accelerator helps its members through coaching, workshops and the practical advice of about 130 mentors – all business experts or experienced entrepreneurs. The support focuses especially on sales techniques, crucial for beginning business-owners.

The mentors can, for example, explain the particularities of different markets in Europe, the US, China, Singapore and India. “Business cultures can be very different,” explains Thomlinson. “In Belgium you’d never close a deal in a pub, for instance, while this is a common practice in the UK.”

British national Anna Thomlinson is the managing director of Start It @KBC

Companies can use the office space at one of Start it @KBC’s hubs and are regularly invited to meet-ups and activities. But they can also connect digitally from wherever they are based. Because of the pandemic, all services are currently provided digitally, in any case.

While the coronavirus crisis has inspired some to predict the end of globalisation, Thomlinson believes it actually holds many opportunities for start-ups to expand their scope. “It has made it much more easy for them to participate in pitching and networking events all over the world, because these were all done online,” says Thomlinson. “Many young companies don’t have the budget for regular flights to other continents.”

Wheel the World, an online travel agency for people with disabilities, is one of the many expat-run companies that profited from the expertise offered by Start it @KBC. The platform offers travel activities, tours and accommodation tailored to the needs of people with limited mobility. It operates in eight countries, mostly in Latin America and the US.

As an expat, Start it @KBC also helped me to meet new people and feel more at home in this country

- Arturo Gaona of Wheel the World

“We train local teams to make their travel experiences accessible to people with disabilities, through the use of special wheelchairs, among other things,” explains co-founder Arturo Gaona, who is from Mexico and now lives in Brussels. Wheel the World offers its clients the chance to, say, explore Machu Picchu in Peru, go zip-lining in Mexico and scuba-dive at Easter Island.

Wheel the World started, in fact, in Chile in 2016, among a group of friends who planned to hike in a national park in Patagonia. One of those friends was Alvaro Silberstein, a native of the country who uses a wheelchair following a car accident.

“That trip posed a huge challenge,” says Gaona. “It was difficult to get the equipment we need, and information on accessibility was equally hard to come by. A documentary on our trip went viral and prompted a lot of requests from people who wanted to have a similar experience. So we realised there was a big need for this kind of service.”

One of the company’s ambitions is to expand into Europe, including in Flanders, where Bruges tops the to-do list. “A great advantage here is that the Flemish government’s tourism agency Visit Flanders already provides a lot of accessibility info,” says Gaona. “Of course, old cities do pose a lot of challenges for wheelchair users. It also struck me that many of the restaurants here don’t have accessible toilets.”

Gaona says the support of Start it @KBC was of great importance in both his professional and social life. “It’s terrific to be part of this diverse community of entrepreneurs that you can exchange ideas with and to get all this useful feedback from the mentors and community managers. As an expat who has only lived here since 2018, it also helped me to meet new people and feel more at home in this country.”

Avantopy, a company specialising in Natural Language Processing (NLP), a sub-field of artificial intelligence, is one the most recent members of Start it @KBC. The company was founded by Andrea Pizarro Pedraza of Spain and her Flemish husband Dirk De Hertog.

We chose to start up here rather than in Spain because Flanders offers entrepreneurs a lot of support

- Andrea Pizarro Pedraza

They joined the Start it hub in their hometown of Leuven just a couple of months ago – at the peak of the Covid crisis. “We chose to start up here rather than in Spain because Flanders offers entrepreneurs a lot of structural and institutional support,” explains Pizarro Pedraza. “One of the many benefits of the KBC programme is that the team assists us in developing our sales skills, which is crucial for academics like us.”

Both Pizarro Pedraza and De Hertog have a PhD in linguistics, with experience at universities and in the industry. With Avantopy, they want to make NLP accessible to all kinds of companies and organisations, to help them deal more efficiently with digital tasks involving language.

They can, for example, enable a more intelligent analysis of user reviews, automate the processing of strategic data and set up smart ways to search for information. “Our field is very broad, but we are now examining which sectors we should target first,” says Pizarro Pedraza. “E-commerce, which is booming now, could in any case benefit greatly from our innovative solutions.”

Photos courtesy Wheel the World & Start It @KBC, video courtesy Wheel the World/YouTube