John Verzeele (JV) is the Director of Inward Investment at Flanders Investment & Trade. He talks to MCJ Lemagnen Associates (MCJ) about his work, talent in the region, support for startups and the assistance the region can offer generally.

MCJ   Can you give me an overview of your work at Flanders Investment & Trade?

JV   We focus on FDI attraction, including tech companies of all sizes, whether they are already Unicorns, scaling up or startups. We ask ourselves, how can we make a difference and add value to their company?

MCJ   In our recent ‘Rise of the Unicorns’ study, talent came out as the most important factor for Unicorns and aspiring Unicorns. Is this something you focus on much?

JV   Definitely. Although we are a relatively small region, we have a very high level of skilled people.  We’re in the Top 3 for the most talented workforce according to the 2017 IMD World Competitiveness Ranking.  We’re a very innovation-driven location; for example, we have a Cluster Policy to connect companies with universities in order to stimulate collaboration.  

MCJ   What kind of a welcome do startups get in Flanders?

JV   We have a specific ‘Kickstart’ package  with help available. For instance, there are no social security charges for the first six employees. This can really help companies to set up quickly in Flanders. We also have ‘Welcome Teams’  consisting of our own people as well as experts in different industries. These teams have R&D expertise too, and they help companies get connected into our ecosystem quickly. They cover sectors such as ICT, cybersecurity, biotech, ehealth, smart city and fintech.

MCJ   How do you help companies develop and grow?

JV   We know that helping companies to develop their markets is critical. We have a lot of expertise with that – because we are small, we have always been more outward-looking and export driven than larger countries. (Belgium was ranked the most globalised economy in the world in the 2018 KOF Globalization Index.) So that means we can be effective in helping companies to grow internationally. The ‘Flanders Accelerate’ programme is an international programme with our partners to assist companies at the next stage of their development. It includes financial benefits such as funding for R&D and innovation projects, direct investment and assistance for training. The R&D package is particularly strong as there is help available for salary costs. The innovation package for IP comes with a reduced tax rate. Showpad is a good example of a company that started locally in Ghent in East Flanders and is now enjoying international success with its presentation marketing tool. They found funding from a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley and are growing fast.

MCJ   What else can Flanders offer for R&D&I?

JC   A good example would be the biotech sector – we have international scale drug discovery work taking place here, and European and Japanese big pharma companies have invested in Flanders.  Swiss medical company Sequana Medical NV has announced the opening of its new corporate headquarters in Ghent at the epicenter of the Flanders healthcare hub, and an investment of 8.5 million euros from leading Belgian and Flanders-based investors including Newton Biocapital, PMV and SFPI-FPIM as well as existing shareholders. Sequana Medical is a commercial-stage medical device company focused on the development of innovative treatment solutions for the management of liver disease, heart failure, malignant ascites and other fluid imbalance disorders.

We also have a growing fintech and big data cluster, and a good example of a company in this sector is Ghent software start-up Silverfin  which grew from 30 to 70 employees in the past twelve months, and from 2.4 to 6 million euros in turnover. The company specialises in software for accountants and financial consultants, and they raised 4 million euros through Index Ventures. This year the young entrepreneurs want to double again in size. They have over 500 clients, of which Big Four of the more than 500 clients, Big Four consultant Deloitte is the most important. 

IMEC (the research center for digital and nano technology) plays a major role in our innovation activity, working on disruptive technologies and solutions. In 2017 Flanders was ranked third in the world on the Fraunhofer Institute’s Innovation Indicator and Belgium was ranked sixth worldwide for quality of scientific research centers (WEF 2016-17). We’re rated highly for robotics too - ninth in the world for robot density in manufacturing (World Robotics Report 2017). 

Our workforce is very well educated. Over a fifth of students in Flanders (20.29% - Flemish Department of Education) follow a STEM oriented program and this figure is rising. For example, with around 850 students enrolling every year, Howest’s Digital Arts and Entertainment curriculum provides the biggest gaming education program in the Benelux countries. International institute The Rookies even elected the bachelor program as the world’s number one game design and development curriculum in 2017, surpassing the academic offerings of top gaming nations such as the US, the UK and Sweden.

© MCJ Lemagnen Associates Ltd 2019

© imec (image)

Useful links


Flanders Investment & Trade:

Tel: + 32 2 504 87 11

Email: [email protected]

John Verzeele:

MCJ Lemagnen Associates:

Rise of the Unicorns study: