A Belgian unicorn? Why not!

What FAST 50 teaches us about start-ups and scale-ups in Belgium

Deloitte’s Technology’s recent FAST 50 competition put young and promising tech companies in the spotlight. Frederik Falepin from Deloitte and Veroniek Collewaert, professor of Entrepreneurship and jury member, are critical of the average young Belgian technology entrepreneur, however, claiming that they have “insufficient ambition to grow internationally.”

Deloitte - Frederik FalepinDeloitte’s Technology FAST 50 awards were presented on 16 November. The energy technology company REstore was the clear winner, with an increase in turnover of no less than 2294 %; runner-up Collibra chalked up a 610 % turnover increase.

What does REstore have that the others don’t?

“Let me get this clear: each of the 50 companies that are selected to take part in FAST 50 is a winner. The most important criterion for participation is that your turnover has increased between 2012 and 2015”, Frederik Falepin tells us. “That is a very black-and-white indicator, but it is also objective. REstore’s growth percentage is enormous, even by Silicon Valley standards. The extreme growth percentages are naturally higher among young Fast 50 companies that had a very limited turnover in their first year. The real challenge is to keep reaching the Fast 50 rankings year after year, considering you are competing with younger companies that can easily achieve extreme growth in their initial phase. That is why we have also introduced an award for ‘Most Sustainable Growth’, which goes to the company that has reached the Fast 50 list most often in the past years. This year, that award went to GeoSea for the second time.”

What can other technology companies or businesses prioritising digital transformation learn from the FAST 50 laureates?

“All 50 of these companies have the ambition to scale their activities and link them to an international growth strategy”, says Frederick Falepin. “Our country is full of strong technical scale-ups, but they focus on their R&D too heavily and for too long. So the message is: don’t only concentrate on those few add-ons that a customer asked for, but invest in marketing and sales. Don’t hesitate to market the simpler services or products more intensively.”

“Don’t only concentrate on those few add-ons that a customer asked for, but invest in marketing and sales” Frederik Falepin, Accountancy Partner at Deloitte Belgium

“That lack of ambition to grow is also apparent from our Rising Star Monitor, a study we carried out of companies no more than seven years old”, says Veroniek Collewaert, Professor of Entrepreneurship. “Only one third of them has high growth ambition and can be called a scale-up. Those companies really form the future of our economy. They don’t just have the potential to grow: they also have the ambition to grow. You can also see that in other aspects of their company; their business model is considerably more innovative, they have more external financing, their team includes more founders (and also more CTOs and COOs), they keep fewer shares for the founders and they are somewhat more professional in their shareholder agreements (e.g. by including dynamic options).”

Professor Collewaert, you were on the jury of the Rising Star Award, FAST 50’s ‘little sister’, in which tech companies under four years old compete against one another. What stood out for you when evaluating those businesses?

“First and foremost, these rising stars already demonstrate the characteristics of a good scale-up that I just mentioned”, says Prof. Veroniek Collewaert, smiling. They have clear ambition to continue growing:  either they already have customers worldwide, or at least they have the potential to go global. With respect to that final point, there were also a few that could really be exceptionally disruptive and turn their industry upside down, such as UgenTec, which has incidentally been a member of our Entrepreneurship 2.0 round table since the beginning of this year”.

“These rising stars already demonstrate the characteristics of a good scale-up” Veroniek Collewaert, Professor of Entrepreneurship

“It was a question the Rising Star jury members asked explicitly: would we be able to create a unicorn in Belgium? (A start-up valued at 1 billion euros – Ed.) The answer was: not yet. To achieve that, they would have to outgrow the limited home market much more quickly”, adds Frederik Falepin

Mr Falepin, finally: as the initiator, what does Deloitte get out of the FAST 50 competition?

“Thanks to FAST 50 we keep our finger on the pulse of the extremely rapidly evolving technology market,” answers Frederick Falepin. “Our eleven regional offices enable us to be close to the entrepreneurs. Many family SMEs are taken over by bigger players. This shift increases the importance of start-ups and scale-ups. They are the most challenging companies in our portfolio.  As they respond rapidly, we are kept alert. And that is a double-edged sword: however great their idea is, however driven they are, we soon put them through the hoops. That enables us to evolve into a balanced partnership in which are not endlessly mollycoddled. Because really, in the long term, that is of no benefit to them at all, as Geert Noels rightly commented recently.”

At the table!

Together with Prime Foundation Partner Deloitte we are committed to Entrepreneurship 2.0. Besides the research, we organise four one-day workshops. At those Entrepreneurship 2.0 round tables about 30 selected scale-ups come together to exchange experiences and gain new insights.

Wouter Uten, UgenTec: “Like-minded individuals and instantly useable insights” © Luc Daelemans

“The strength of the round tables is in the combination of likeminded participants and the well-substantiated, theoretical insights that you can immediately apply in practice”, says Wouter Uten (24), business manager at UgenTec in Limburg. His software to automate specific DNA analysis is causing considerable disruption in the biomedical sector. “At the last round table, Professor Katia Tieleman came to talk about the importance of negotiation in a complex sales cycle. I used her recommendations straight away in my talks with a large diagnostics company. They were a definite success.”

Would you like to take a seat at the Entrepreneurship 2.0 round tables? Send an email to veroniek.collewaert@vlerick.com.