Helping small deep tech companies become giants in Belgium

Imec researchers are helping deep tech startups in Belgium become global giants

Having seen tech giants in other parts of the world benefit from the results of their work for many years, Belgian researchers may have found a way of growing big tech companies closer to home. 

Venturing is a part of The Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre (Imec) that transforms disruptive technologies into disruptive companies,” says Annelies Falepin, senior manager in venture development at the organisation. “We have developed an approach to starting companies based on our innovation and helping them grow fast.”

Venturing is one of two ways Imec is helping build a startup community. The venturing team focuses on deep tech that is positioned to disrupt an industry. Deep tech is a term that refers to fundamental technology that requires a lengthy phase of research and development to industrialise. The technical risk is very high, but the market risk is relatively low because of the clear value of the innovation. 

The other way of helping startups is through imec.istart, a part of Imec that serves as an accelerator for startups that may be disruptive but aren’t based on deep tech. In May 2023, UBI Global named Imec number one in the world in the category of Business Accelerator Linked to University.   

Why are spinoffs important to imec? 

“Spinoffs are a natural part of Imec,” says Olivier Rousseaux, the research organisation’s director of venture development. “Imec has been innovating for a long time and bringing technology to industry. In the past, we gave up most of our IP to technology giants in other countries. But now we want to help establish spinoff companies and help them grow into technology giants in Belgium.

“We also want to get a share of the upside potential of our innovation. Today, Imec gets paid typical research project fees for innovation that goes into the market and generates billions of Euros. We make good money, but peanuts compared to what we could make.” 

Three fundamental ingredients are in place for Imec to help spinoffs grow big. First there’s the expertise: Imec has more than 5,000 highly skilled and dedicated researchers and they cover almost all deep tech areas.

The second ingredient is the infrastructure: Imec has more than 12,000m2 of clean room space, hosting over €3.5bn worth of equipment. When a new company wants to take technology from the lab to the market, it’s important to have access to a pilot line that is representative of what is happening in industry.

The third ingredient is the ecosystem of trusted partners, which creates opportunities for young spinoffs to collaborate. 

These three elements are available to spinoffs, but that’s not all they need. Imec also offers a dedicated team of venture builders, who work daily with entrepreneurial researchers and in addition to that dedicated team, money is available. 

Imec has a special partnership with imec.xpand, an independently managed venture capital group with two separate funds under management. Its first fund has already supported 15 companies, eight of which successfully secured follow on funding.

The second fund has €225m under management to support new spinoffs – much more capital than the first fund, which is in indication of investor trust in the model. They specifically support deep tech companies that need large budgets at very early stages of company creation.  

“Our venturing approach is a stage-gated process from idea to spin-off creation and it starts with a bottom-up call for ideas,” says Falepin. “Every researcher within Imec can bottom up submit their idea and then we take it through this specific trajectory with dedicated decision points in time.

“The first stage is what we call enrichments. The goal is to try to find the best possible venture model for the idea. After that, there is already a first pitch on which a decision is taken on whether to take that project into a venture time box.

“When a venture time box is started, we try to further validate the company model to make the business and financial plan, and we start building the team. When this is further developed – and when we get green lights from the investors that they are committed – the fundraising initiatives are accelerated.

“We continue building the team and we prepare all the necessary documents that the company needs to become incorporated. And at the end, the team is fully equipped, the funding is available, and the team can actually go to execution of the venturing plan.” 

How has venturing done so far? 

“Over the past five years, we have helped create 27 ventures out of more than 300 ideas we reviewed,” says Falepin. “The collective valuation of those companies is now over €350m. Venturing started with more than 300 ideas, which ended up in 56 timeboxes—28 were funded by imec.xpand and the other 28 were funded directly by the venturing organisation.” 

The reason for the different funding is that not every idea fits within the strategic investment scope of imec.xpand. If the venturing team finds ideas highly promising, they support the ideas themselves. 

At the ITF World 2023 event in Antwerp in May 2023, the venturing team highlighted three spinoffs that had begun in the past year. In the deep tech space, there was a company called Swave Photonics, a spinoff from Imec and Vrije Universiteit Brussels that markets Holographic eXtended Reality (HXR) technology to improve virtual reality. 

In the digital technology space, there were two other companies. One was IoSA, a spinoff from Imec and the University of Antwerp. IoSA, which stands for Internet of Small Animals, markets a bluetooth low energy-based animal-behaviour monitor. The other digital technology spinoff is Dyamand, a spinoff from Imec and University of Ghent that develops smart buildings and IOT solutions. Its main product is called eSave, which helps building owners reduce their CO2 emissions. 

“What we try to do at Imec is reduce the technical risks by helping the companies with our expertise, facilities and ecosystems,” says Rousseaux. “The survival rate of the ventures we create is exceptionally high, with 26 of the 27 ventures created still in existence today.

“The only venture that had to stop so far had to so because of a market adoption issue, not a technological problem. Despite taking on substantial technology development risks, not a single of our ventures had to stop because the technology didn’t do its job.” 

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