February 27, 2021

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Investors say Belgium’s startups are poised for international expansion – TechCrunch

We surveyed five investors from the Brussels, Belgium ecosystem, and overall the mood was upbeat....

We surveyed five investors from the Brussels, Belgium ecosystem, and overall the mood was upbeat.

Investors are backing companies in smart living, life sciences (“a really promising sector for Belgium”), B2B, “industry 4.0,” fintech, mobility, health and music tech. Food tech appears “an overcrowded space.” Another says: “COVID confirmed our strategy to invest in local companies and with a sector focus on smart living life science and tech.”

Belgium has a “dynamic ecosystem of health actors, from biotech firms, universities and startups and scaleups. We follow the #BeHealth initiative, which unites the various parts of the Belgian health sector.”

Belgium is “not a market for B2C startups” as it has a “small but complex market with different regions/cultures/languages.” They are focusing on Belgium and neighboring countries for investing.

However, finding funding for startups is still a “difficult task today” said one, as it suffers from a lack of “scale capital” for later rounds.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in the city? “As a well-educated environment, multicultural, multilingual,” says one. “The ecosystem is very dynamic, with great opportunities. While valuations are usually lower compared to other hubs in Europe, there is quite some money available on the market,” says another.

Brussels’ geography makes it “very well-connected to Europe and international by nature.” It is multicultural and multilingual, so as a result startups position themselves for international expansion, “whether first to France or the Netherlands or beyond. For investors that are scoping opportunities in Belgium, they should recognize that Belgian startups are well-suited for international growth.”

As a small and very dense country, Belgium “already has a distributed founder geography.”

Investors have also been advising companies “to make sure that they have enough cash to last until the end of next 2021 at least.”

We spoke to the following:


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Pauline Brunel, partner, BlackFin

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Fintech, insurtech

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Outstanding team, big opportunity.

Xavier de Villepin, partner, TheClubDeal

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Smart living, life sciences and tech.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Univercells — Series C.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
More startups needed in the smart living sector. In general, companies with international ambitions maintaining local sticky jobs.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Daring entrepreneurs within growing markets.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
We are wary of blockchain and crypto currencies.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
More than 50%.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Life sciences, including biotech, is a really promising sector for Belgium. On the contrary, Belgium is not a market for B2C startups (small but complex market with different regions/cultures/languages).

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
They feel Brussels is one of the main tech hubs in Belgium. Though the private equity and risk-on mentality is still not here. Finding funding for startups is still a difficult task today.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
I don’t think it will have a substantial impact, as many startups were already favoring remote work and flexible working hours.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19?
Definitely travel and hospitality (part of smart living). It suffered a lot. But it’s a good time to invest. It’s an opportunity for startups to rethink their model and challenge the way they were seeing things before.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
COVID-19 confirmed our strategy was right … to focus on local competitiveness in the backbones of our economy: smart living, life sciences and tech. But within each sector, each company may be impacted differently. So a case-by-case analysis and in-depth due diligence is a necessity more than ever. Our advice to startups is to consider this environment will stay for another year and to plan the cash flows very carefully.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
The last lockdown giving much more freedom to companies to continue to operate and witness that many of them adapted their way of working to stay operational.

Frederic Convent, partner, TheClubDeal

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Smart living, life sciences, tech.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Univercells Series C.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
More companies active in smart living, life sciences and tech.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Blockchain and crypto.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
50%.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Fintech is doing well in Brussels. We like an Antwerp mortgage B2B fintech: Oper.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
As a well-educated multicultural, multilingual environment.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Most startups are already used to working remotely so the impact for the hubs is less, as they and their clients proved able to work elsewhere.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19?
Travel and hospitality will suffer a lot in this COVID crisis. Life sciences are well-positioned to address the crisis.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
COVID confirmed our strategy to invest in local companies and with a sector focus on smart living, life sciences and tech.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
In medtech, essential medical intervention some green shoots benefit from the crisis.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
The last lockdown pushed companies to adapt their business model and to focus on the new situation.

Alexandre Dutoit, partner, ScaleFund

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
We aim at bridging the equity gap between seed rounds and Series A.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Kaspard, a silver economy company having developed a fall-detection technology.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
We like B2B. Industry 4.0 type of deals lack a bit in our opinion.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Above all, we need a great team. Then we want to see some commercial traction, being POCs, first contracts.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Food tech appears to us as an overcrowded space. A lot of B2C entrepreneurs are doing “more of the same.”

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We focus on Belgium and neighboring countries.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Biotech is definitely a hit in Belgium. Fintech and music tech are also growing.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
The ecosystem is very dynamic, with great opportunities. While valuations are usually lower compared to other hubs in Europe, there is quite some money available on the market.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
I don’t see that coming, especially as entrepreneurs like to network, share experiences and be in an emulative environment.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?

Very few, as great teams are able to adapt. We have in our portfolio a company closely tied to events that has been able to rethink its business model and is now even more profitable compared to before the crises. Besides, companies that foster remote work or can install service at a distance will be short-term winners.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
COVID has not impacted our strategy. Entrepreneurs are afraid of the uncertainty and lack of perspective. We encourage them to prepare themselves for the next opened window and to work on tech and processes, while reassuring them on the financing side.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Utopix, a startup linked to the event industry, has been able to rethink its business model as their sales were falling down. They have down their best month ever since then.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
I have seen hope after the summer period when companies were angry to do business again. Unfortunately, that hasn’t lasted very long. We try to remain positive and focus on important things.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
Brussels is a growing scene for startups, very well-connected to Europe and international by nature.

Olivier de Duve, partner, Inventures Investment Partners

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
At Inventures, we invest in a range of startups that have strong financial returns and a measurable social and environmental impact. Looking to 2021, we’re most excited about the mobility sector, HR tech, the blue economy (investing in technologies around water and ocean health) and the circular economy. These sectors started to grow rapidly in Europe, and we’re excited to source some great deals in the coming year.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
We just led a round in MySkillCamp, a Belgian HR tech company that equips SMEs and corporates with an adaptable platform for employee learning. MySkillCamp has been stunning us with their rapid growth, even during the pandemic, and it’s a testament to the fact that companies need solutions for upskilling and reskilling their workforce.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
I’ll flip this question to be investor-centric. We’d really like to see more impact venture capital firms that are active in the Series B and beyond stage in Europe. For now, the largest impact VCs are concentrated in the US — having that source of capital here in Brussels or in neighboring ecosystems will help earlier-stage European VCs continue to scale and support their portfolio companies in later rounds. Having that access to capital is key for making a sustainable ecosystem.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Our investment thesis is to find startups that are financially strong and tackle one of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Broadly that has meant companies in health, mobility, renewable energy, climate and more. As we’re rounding out our second fund, our next investment has to hit our sweet spot of clear commercial traction, a stellar team and solid plans for scaling internationally.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Several markets are oversaturated like shared light vehicle scooters or telemedicine solutions. D2C medical devices is also a tough market to break into. Given the pandemic situation, startups active in the recreational sector like tourism and sport are struggling more than ever. All products or services that are not digital are less resilient and will need to shift as soon as possible.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
About half of our startups are coming from Belgium. We’ve historically invested in the U.K., France, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, however we’re open to investing across the EU.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Two sectors that come to mind are mobility and health. Belgium is a hyperconnected country, and mobility startups that address user needs for a more sustainable and efficient transportation will do well here. As for health, Belgium has a dynamic ecosystem of health actors, from biotech firms, universities, and startups and scaleups. We follow the #BeHealth initiative, which unites the various parts of the Belgian health sector. One company that we wanted to highlight is Citizen Lab — they are a digital democracy platform that helps local governments organize voting, participatory budgeting and more. They’re setting the conversation around civic tech and we’re so excited to see what the founders Wietse Van Ransbeeck and Aline Muylaert have in store for 2021.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Belgium is a multicultural, multilingual country — so startups that are grown here naturally are positioning themselves for international expansion, whether first to France or the Netherlands or beyond. For investors that are scoping opportunities in Belgium, they should recognize that Belgian startups are well-suited for international growth and a role that they could play as investors is helping to introduce Belgian startups to other markets.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
As a small and very dense country, Belgium already has a distributed founder geography. In Brussels we have Co.Station, which is home to dozens of startups. However, we also see strong growth in innovation coming from Leuven, Ghent, Antwerp, Liege — and these cities are maximum two hours away by train. Our latest investment, MySkillCamp, for example, is based in Tournai, with an office in Brussels.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
We found out in our portfolio that companies are quite resilient to the crisis because they are addressing societal issues like health, climate and energy. SaaS companies or other digital services are also less exposed, which points out that digitalization is key to survive. Companies that are highly dependent on large governmental contracts could be more exposed to shifts in spending patterns due to COVID.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
COVID-19 has not impacted our investment strategy so much as our post-investment strategy. Since the pandemic started, we’ve been “all hands on deck” with helping our portfolio companies weather the storm — from organizing new fundraising to scoping out new markets and helping on strategic growth projects. We’ve been advising our companies to make sure that they have enough cash to last until the end of next 2021 at least. What we’re seeing is that contracts are taking longer to be signed, especially for our companies looking to partner with governments that are more cash strapped and limited because of the pandemic.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Definitely! On the ecosystem level, we’ve seen a lot of fundraising activity in the last six months, particularly in the health and biotech sector — one example of that is Belgium-based Univercells. For our portfolio, we’ve seen that tools that serve governments and the transition to a more digital economy has created enormous opportunities for our B2B and B2G companies to thrive during this time.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
A few moments have given us hope during 2020. Seeing the racial reckoning in the U.S. spark conversations in Europe about justice and D&I has given me a lot of hope around the role of the venture capital and startup sector in creating a more equal society. Initiatives like Diversity VC are helping us to do that. Also, the sheer number of startups with climate benefits, from cultured meat to sustainable packaging and more, has showcased the financial viability and the demand for expanding the world’s options for sustainability — another large societal challenge.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
Belgium is home to a vibrant, active and fast-growing startup scene!



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