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De Morgen – Leuven's start-up culture is booming!

25 January 2019

Why has Leuven’s start-up scene only started flourishing recently?

For complex technology, you need to be in the university city

Translation | Original article: 12-12-18, 06:00 AM - Freek Evers - Source: Own reporting - De Morgen

Fast-growing start-ups? In Leuven, they are shooting out of the ground. The university city is best represented in a ranking by Deloitte, "Here the focus is on complex technology, which needs time to break through."

When you have blood drawn at your doctor's office, they send the samples to a laboratory for testing. The results can take several days to arrive. Thanks, in part to researcher Wouter Foulon and the Leuven-based company Comate, doctors can perform certain blood tests in their practices or during a home visit and get in-house results.

Blood drop

"We are working with the Leuven-based Imec and an international consortium to finalize this technology," says founder Foulon, "They provide the chip technology, and we developed the mini-lab where that chip is used." Based on a single drop of blood, the chip can check patients' blood values in no time. This is just one example of the devices being developed within Comate, which Foulon founded in 2010.

At the time, Foulon relatively alone on the start-up scene in Leuven. In the meantime, that mindset has changed completely. The start-up culture from Silicon Valley has conquered Europe in the past decade. In the Leuven region, all the ingredients are now present for high-quality and innovative start-ups to grow. KU Leuven, which trains engineers and medical talent, is located here and with the research company Imec, Leuven has one of the most challenging innovation centers in Europe. "Anyone who creates a start-up in Leuven must immediately meet the quality standards of the most innovative university in Europe," says Foulon. "That ensures that you are always striving for the highest quality."

Top technology

So why is it that only in the past two years has Leuven been well represented on a list like the Deloitte Fast 50? For this list, the consulting firm annually ranks the fastest-growing Belgian start-ups. Part of the explanation lies in the types of start-ups in Leuven.

Start-ups from Antwerp and Ghent, which have dominated the Deloitte Fast 50 in recent years, focus on new media or data processing. These are start-ups that can grow quickly with the right vision and sufficient investment. Typical examples are Ghent companies Teamleader and Showpad, both of which sell specialized software packages to companies.

According to Deloitte innovation partner Sam Sluismans, it is interesting to look at companies that are not included in the list. "Think of a company like Materialise, which has been investing in 3D printing for years, or Xenomatics, a major player in software for the development of self-driving cars," says Sluismans. "These are companies that invest in complex top technology that has not yet broken through. They need more time than a start-up developing a tool for social media, for instance."

Ensnaring talent

This explanation does not cover everything. A Leuven company like Guardsquare, which tops the list of fastest-growing start-ups, has little to nothing to do with KU Leuven. The cybersecurity company provides banking applications with the necessary protection against hackers and data leaks. "They are currently surfing the cybersecurity market which is very hot right now," says Sluismans. Is that luck or vision? No one at Guardsquare could be reached for comment.

Finally, several industry experts point to the role of Leuven MindGate. This organization has been trying to combine the various talents present in the fields of healthcare, high-tech, and creativity since 2016. "We put the city, knowledge institutions, and companies in touch with each other and take the initiative to put our region on the international map," says Leuven MindGate Director Johan Merlevede. "Recently I was in China, and they were intensely interested when they heard I was from the city of the most innovative university in Europe."

In addition, Leuven MindGate helps to entice international talent to come to Leuven. According to Wouter Foulon, this is an absolute must. "In 2010, it was easier to find talent." Meanwhile, that situation has turned around. "It has never been easier in Belgium to find money, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract the right talent."