Ecosystem Spotlight: 5 questions to… Flanders Investment & Trade

Flanders Investment & Trade (FIT) is the key point of contact for international business in Flanders, Belgium. Since 2004, this external independent agency has helped companies grow internationally, both from Flanders and in Flanders. We sat down with Janne Kindt and Olivier Van Orshoven to discuss the region’s singularities, strengths and ambitions. 

What is unique about Flanders and its tech and startup ecosystem?

We have an ecosystem built on B2B SaaS companies. Our small domestic market, and our Flemish economic ecosystem as a whole is so strong as a B2B ecosystem because we are a supplier economy to geographies like Germany, France and the UK. Our startups have come forward to fill this role as well.

The story that keeps on sticking is that we have strong strategic research centers, like IMEC, which specializes in digital tech and nano electronics. As a startup you have the great benefit of being able to easily work with these research centers. At FIT we focus on facilitating this access for startups, and connecting them to relevant partners. Everything that’s built in Flanders has a focus on the triple helix model: Industry, academia, and government. Generally speaking, the startup mindset here is to work with international companies. The benefit of this is that data and technology are merging with life sciences and biotech, creating new technologies.

The linkages between startups and academia are incredibly short in the region. Belgium is ranked as one of the top four most innovative countries in Europe for R&D, based on the amount spent on R&D relative to GDP. At 3.6%, it is the highest in Europe based on total R&D expenditures by governments, corporates and universities combined. This innovation-driven reputation makes the Flanders ecosystem quite unique in the sense that these trends are also reflected in the strong deep tech and biotech startups that call Flanders home.


Dive into our in-depth analysis of the Flanders region and discover one of Europe’s fastest-growing tech hubs.

Report - The state of Flanders startup ecosystem 2022


Can you provide an example of local initiatives to support your startup community which you feel were successful, and why?

It’s difficult to name just one. What the Flemish government does is support a couple of initiatives on a four-year contract. The government really believes in these initiatives.

Flanders takes the leading role but other cities in Belgium work closely together as well with each of them stewarding their own unique programs. The cities work collaboratively, this approach is good for them, good for the companies, good for everyone.


How do you use data to grow and support your investment ecosystem?

In terms of attracting companies, we like our lead generation to be extremely data driven. We target high-growth companies by aggregating information sources from around the world. Dealroom is one of the sources we use to inform our prospect list and find high-potential leads. We have created a unique system of growth signalling and scoring, and so the data underneath the decision-making is quite important. 

We look for signals like capital raised, number of people on a company’s team, etc… We can also count on our dedicated technology attachés to assess companies! As an agency we are segmented by areas of focus across different industries, as well as growth of revenue. We try to target the right companies at the right moment: when they are ready to internationalize and to scale abroad. 


How do you foster collaboration within your ecosystem as well as internationally?

While FIT and the Flanders region take the lead as the encompassing umbrella organization, each individual city in Flanders has an important role to play. 

Under the startup Flanders umbrella every city adds to the strengths of the region overall. They all have a clear value proposition about what companies and ecosystem players can expect from each of the different cities. They cater to their own unique ecosystems, their sectors of focus, niches, strengths and weaknesses. 

On an international level, FIT seek collaboration with ecosystems thanks to a network that colleagues abroad have been buidling in recent years. FIT is  also part of the EEN network; The Enterprise Europe Network provides support for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises with international ambitions.


What is the biggest challenge(s) which you hope to solve in the next 5 years?

The main question is: as a small ecosystem, how can we ensure that we continue to match the level of growth that we have had. Our challenge is to put a unique brand for Flanders out there. We are also surrounded by other powerhouse ecosystems and we need to find our own special position, to find our place under the sun. We are positioned right in the middle of four major startup hubs: The Netherlands, Germany, France and the UK. This is both an advantageous and challenging location. We want to stay relevant, and really be that missing link right in the middle of everything. 

Our mature and exporting companies are very strong, yet our startup ecosystem is still developing. We have the raw ingredients required to compete as a major ecosystem: excellent research institutions, the participation of corporates and Government, an educated workforce, and the simple fact that mostly everyone speaks two or three languages! The opportunity is there for the taking, maybe all that’s required is a mindset shift.


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