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VLAIO: “Everyone wins by working together”

22 January 2020

Everyone wins by working together

21/01/2020 – VLAIO & Guests: New Year;s Reception Agentschap Innoveren & Ondernemen

Agentschap Innoveren & Ondernemen brings together its partner organizations at their annual New Year's event. This year was all about collaboration, various organizations and companies were invited to tell their story and explain how important collaboration is to them. Our business manager Sander Van den Dries was one of the guests. He sat down with Hilde Crevits and Lieven Van Gils to talk about entrepreneurship, innovation and collaboration.

Read the full interview between Lieven Van Gils and Sander Van den Dries here:

Lieven Van Gils: To make the night complete, we invited real collaboration specialists. Sander, you are the business manager of Comate. If all goes well, we have a video ready in which you explain what you do at Comate. Some of the products are mentioned, but what other products can we know you from?

Sander Van den Dries: "It's very often B2B, but some people might recognize us because of the Kobi, an autonomous snowplow that works just like the robot vacuum cleaner in your home, but is developed to autonomously keep a driveway or yard free of snow. Or the Slimbox a machine to customize packaging for the object you want to ship so you avoid those boxes with filler or air. A very different example is the Gripper project. An orthopedic surgeon came to us with a problem that occurs during operations for hip transplants. We then worked with him to find a device that not only makes the surgeon's job easier, but also gets the patient back on his feet faster. The device improves the chances of success of the operation, it also relieves the strain on the surgical team. The product we developed will make patients able to walk again in less than 90 minutes after invasive hip surgery.”

Your company has grown rapidly in the last few years?

"Well, what is fast? The curves look good, but that's not our goal at all, rather a consequence. Everything we do, the decisions we make, is centered around one thing: giving the product the greatest possible chance of success on the market. If that means we have to develop more areas of expertise, it means we have to hire more people. We can't do that on our own. All the collaborations are dominated by getting that product on the market. That's why we do what we do.

I'm also very proud of our culture. We have a culture of trying to take down each other's designs, which we do not like. It is better that your colleague takes down your design than the customer. Or even worse: the market. We've also noticed how difficult it is to get a new product into the market. There is a lot to deal with. The idea is the easiest one, you then have to make sure that it is technically feasible, that it is adapted to your user and that there is a viable business plan. If we have any doubts that a certain expertise would make a product better, which we do not have, we get an expert involved or we call in a research institution. This can also be an investor, a market research agency, etc. You want to have done everything possible to give that product the biggest chance of success.

A good example: the isokinetic bicycle for Bakala Academy (Deceuninck Quickstep) [video]. KU Leuven provided the knowledge and expertise, Bakala Academy provided the business model, Comate provided the engineering and design skills, and the Province of Flemish- Brabant acted as investor. Otherwise, this would never have been possible."

So, you are specialists at collaboration? We might even say that you depend for your survival on your ability to work together?

"Yes, we rely on intensive collaboration with all kinds of startups, SME’s, multinationals and other organizations. At Comate, we strive for a collaboration and a joint result that is not only good, but also something our partners and we can really be proud of. We don't settle for less. So being able to work together well is crucial for us."

But a successful collaboration, how do you do it? Do you have any tips and tricks?

"In the first place, it is best to look for collaborations between complementary partners. Why do companies work with us? Because they can't do everything themselves, or because they do not have the right expertise. Each individual must know exactly what their focus is, something you are an expert in. And being technologically innovative and understanding the market and having design thinking? That is asking a lot from a startup. Comate provides you with an extensive team of engineers and designers who do that on a daily basis.

But complementarity is a crucial factor for a successful cooperation. If you don't have clear added value for each other, it is just a matter of time before the collaboration fails somewhere. For example, Comate often works with spin-offs from universities. I think it is perhaps one of the best collaborations we have. They've done maybe 8 years of research, put several doctoral studies on it to come up with an incredible technology. That's top-level technology, they did international research and are up to date on the state-of-the-art. They have the engineers coming up with a lab setup or build their own Proof of Concept, but there is still a huge gap between that lab setup and a market-proof device you can quickly reproduce a thousand times. If they had to teach themselves it all, it would take them years: coming up with concepts, drawing in 3D, getting to know suppliers, building prototypes, etc. Our added value lies in the fact that we can convert their concept into a market-ready product. That's a great example of how the expertise of two different parties is nicely complementary."

You often work towards radically new products that don't exist yet. In other words, you don't know where you're going to land. Doesn't that uncertainty sometimes weigh on the collaboration between parties? Doesn't that sometimes cause struggles?

"Yes absolutely. Indeed, together with our partners we are creating something that does not yet exist. So, you can't predict how it will turn out, or if it will work at all. You can only make a few promises. It is a process of advancing insight in which you review the process weekly. What results are being achieved, what adjustments and adaptations are needed? Making new decisions continuously. It all requires a great amount of mutual trust.

And you can cultivate that trust by constantly putting the common goal first: we make it clear to our partners that we want to make the final product a success in the market."

Is mutual trust the key to a good partnership?

"Absolutely. You have to imagine, many entrepreneurs come knocking on our door asking us to develop their idea. They often have only one chance, only once the money to fund it. That applies to large companies, but even more so to SME’s and startups. The startups sometimes put their savings into it, asked their parents for their inheritance early on and maybe another loan from a rich aunt. Only to be told that they can't promise that it will work. The confidence has to be there that everything will be done to make it work. And if it doesn't succeed, you have the peace of mind that you have done everything possible.

The confidence at the start is key, and then as I said, keeping the common goal in mind, a certain maturity in R&D projects = knowing that R&D is trial and error, but also managing expectations, and with open communication."

Open communication?

"Yes, the more open the communication, the better the collaboration. Sometimes you need to be able to give each other bad news: things are not working out or not yet, there has been a delay, there has been an unforeseen error. If you can't communicate openly and decide together what is best for the product, it undermines mutual trust. If the communication is there, sometimes you can make miracles happen. For Mealhero, for example, we developed a prototype for their press presentation at very short notice. We looked for a supplier within our own broad network who could respond to our needs and was flexible, in the end we met the deadline for the press presentation. The press was enthusiastic and the startup was launched."

Collaboration pays off for your company?

"Absolutely. And not just for us. I think collaboration between complementary partners is a must these days. You can't do it alone anyway; everyone get better by working together. In this way we also make each other better. If you can concentrate on what you're good at, it will only make you better. By having partners do the other parts, those partners will also become better at their thing. If everyone does everything themselves, we will all be average. Belgium, the country of the average, is not what you want. The country of specialists, that’s what you want.”

So, you have an extensive network?

"Of course. That's inspiring, that's how you get out there. We constantly have to be aware of what is going on and what is changing in the technology field. We cannot afford it to be unaware of anything. When our office is empty, I am satisfied. By designing only within our 4 walls we miss a lot.

We maintain contacts not only with entrepreneurs, but also with organizations that are here today."

Such as?

"Well, from Unizo we received the award "SME of the year" not long ago. When we started our business, we gained access to the network of Voka through a PLATO trajectory. We are strongly connected to the start-up scene in Leuven and we have connections with technology providers such as DSP Valley. We have been advised on a number of occasions by the former Innovation Centers, now VLAIO's business advisors. For the development of the Gripper we were talking about earlier, we received financial support from VLAIO. Many of our customers received innovation grants from VLAIO.

Other organizations we worked with are: FIT (Flanders Investment & Trade), Flanders Bio, Province of Flemish-Brabant, ... Our compliments to the business advisors at VLAIO, for the great work they do on a daily basis."

In a collaboration, everyone wins?

"Of course! That completely fits in our vision of collaboration. We can mean something to our customers, but often we can learn something from them. And vice versa: if you receive something from the network, you have to be courageous and give something back to that network. We have developed so many new products, we have set up 3 spin-offs and saw how difficult it is to get a product on the market. We share all that experience with our customers. Sometimes we put some customers together to let them learn from each other.

We need more of that group feeling here in Belgium and Flanders. The better we make each other, the better we become internationally, the better off we all are. Again, you don't want to be a country of averages, you want to be a country of specialists. We have to get out of our comfort zone. Learn from each other, and dare to be critical. I don't like it to criticize, but as long as you know from each other that that's to make each other better and that's not personal. You can learn from it and in the evening, you go out and have a beer together.

Working together and creating collaborations, is the quest I always will evangelize.