Digital Belgium

From the speech of Laurent Hublet, Advisor in charge of Digital Belgium at the Belgian Federal Government (Cabinet of the Deputy Prime Minister Alexander De Croo), at the Vlerick Fintech Bootcamp.

Laurent Hublet is advisor of Deputy Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and gave a speech on his behalf during the Vlerick Fintech Bootcamp which took place in March 2016. He presented an initiative from the Belgian government called Digital Belgium. This article is a summary of his speech.

According to figures from tech.eu, last year 12 billion euros have been raised by start-ups in Europe overall, for about 1500 investments. Fintech is the first sector in terms of both number of deals and total invested amount. In sum, a lot of money is going to Fintech at the moment showing that a major disruption is going on in the financial sector. The second and third sectors on which investors are betting are e-commerce and health, which both also have significant impact on the finance industry.

VENTURE CAPITAL INVESTMENTS IN EUROPE


Source: http://tech.eu/inside/7942/european-tech-funding-report-2015/

Belgium, the right place for Fintech’s

There has been already a number of success Fintech stories in Belgium. Let me just name a few. In 2007 the Keytrade bank was founded by the Zurstrassen brothers, who are now very active in the Brussels’ Fintech ecosystem. We also have Ogone, a payment company, which was sold three years ago for 360 million euros. A third success story in Belgium is Clear2Pay, founded by Michel Akkermans and Jurgen Ingels, both very active angel investors and entrepreneurs in Fintech.

A lot is going on in the Belgian Fintech ecosystem, it is booming now. One specificity of our ecosystem is that we have lot of B2B start-ups. It’s quite different from Silicon Valley for example, which is a very big B2C ecosystem. Berlin is also probably one of the biggest ecosystems for B2C in Europe. Belgium is still very much a B2B country, both in our traditional economy and in our high tech digital companies. It is probably related to the fact that Belgium is actually a relatively small market, so scaling rapidly is easier in B2B.

The success of Belgian start-ups

We recently saw a number of very successful companies in Belgium. 35 Belgian start-ups raised more than one million euros last year. Raising money is not necessarily a sign of success, the best way to grow is probably to sell the product rather than raise too much capital. Nevertheless having external investors investing in start-ups is a sign that they believe in the business model, and that there is a clear product faith.

When we look at the most successful start-ups in Belgium, there are a number of Fintech companies: MyMicroInvest, Edebex, Xpenditure are a few examples.

We actually are doing very well in Belgium in terms of start-up success. 11 companies in Belgium have raised more than a million in the first six weeks of 2016. That is really big compared to the size of the market. It's as big as Sweden, and Sweden has a very mature technology ecosystem. It’s half of Germany, a country that is 8 times larger in total GDP. So these are impressive numbers.

FUNDS RAISED BY START-UPS SINCE THE BEGINNING OF 2016


Source: O Mohout - Sirris

Fintech start-ups are a priority for the Belgian government. It is the first time that we have a minister at federal level that is formally in charge of digital agenda in Belgium. The strategy of digital agenda is called Digital Belgium. The overall ambition is to make Belgium one of the top digital leaders in Europe, because this is the major force of economic growth in this country. According to a study of Prof. Bruno Colmant, over the last 12 years, 85% percent of GDP growth in Belgium came from digital innovation, so this is really a major force of economic growth.

Public support to start-ups

Digital Belgium supports the development of this ecosystem and here are a few examples of the kind of initiatives we take.

  • Access to capital: The government launched the tax shelter for start-ups. Investments in companies of less than 4 years can lead to a tax decrease of either 30% or 45% the amount of the investment. It means that the risk of putting money into start-up businesses can be reduced by almost half. It is a way to reduce the risk for investors in young companies and for young companies to find capital more easily.
  • Talent: In digital companies, Fintech start-ups, the key aspect is talent of people inside the company. It is absolutely crucial that young Belgians have the right talent for these kind of companies. It is also critical that the cost of labour is sufficiently low to make it possible for young companies to hire people. The tax shift has lowered the cost of employing people quite significantly. Other tax benefits have been created, for example the first employee hired by a young company is totally free of social-security contributions. That significantly reduces the cost of hiring the first employees in a company.
  • Business model innovation: There is a lot going on with new technologies, internet of things, big data and so on. But a lot of the innovation that is taking place is business model innovation. Digital Belgium wants to make business model innovation possible and is now working very hard to get an agreement with the government. There are questions that appear in all countries, including in the US, and it's very important to actually show that Belgium can adapt its legislation to these new business models. It has been shown that the added value of peer-to-peer coming in Europe could be 18 billion euros in the short term. That potentially means one billion euros of added value for Belgium. Peer-to-peer is not only things like Uber, but also dozens of local start-ups around food, transportation, finance.
  • Open data: data is at the heart a lot of business models today, so the access to data that is owned by the government should be opened. The government probably owns the largest amount of data in the country, and there's no reason why this data isn't been made available to the public, to citizens, to the companies. In this respect, a legislation on open data is being passed. With this legislation, all government data sets are by default available to the public. It is typically something that the US and the UK are very good at. Belgium has been lagging behind but can now become one of the leaders in Europe. The first reactions so far have been extremely positive.
  • Becoming fully digital: a number of things in the Belgian legislation makes it complicated to be fully digital. If you want to do things in insurance today, there are a number of limitations that don't make it possible to have a full end-to-end online business model. In some cases we still need to sign papers, and can't do it digitally. A legislation called 'the digital act' is going to pass, which will basically put an equivalent load between paper and digital. This will solve a number of pinpoints that many insurance Fintech start-ups are now busy with.

The fourth industrial revolution

It can sometimes be interesting to reflect on the past and compare it with the future. The first commercial train in Europe was Belgian, it was a transportation between Mechelen and Brussels, only 2 years after the independence of Belgium. We were pioneers in the first industrial revolution.

The Solvay conferences, where Ernest Solvay was sitting with Marie Curie and Albert Einstein among others, really made a difference in scientific research during the second industrial revolution. These meetings all took place in Brussels.

During the revolution of the atom, Belgium was also one of the leading nations. Now there is a fourth industrial revolution, we have been pioneers in the first three, and the ambition is now to also be pioneers in this fourth industrial revolution.

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