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Belgian tech start-ups on a mission to expand their business internationally

17 February 2019

‘Conquest of Paradise’: the title immediately brings to mind Ridley Scott’s movie ‘1492’ about the discovery – and conquest – of the American continent by Christopher Columbus. In 2019, over 500 years after Columbus, an increasing number of Belgian start-ups is preparing for their ‘Conquest of Paradise’ as well – i.e. their expansion into foreign markets (from Europe to America and Asia).


This is logical too: if you want to keep growing your business, you quickly reach the limits of your local market. But between dreams and reality is a path full of obstacles. To help start-ups avoid as many pitfalls as possible, imec has developed a customized internationalization trajectory. Lies Boghaert from imec.istart, imec's tech start-up accelerator, explains how young companies can benefit from this initiative.

Imec.istart: when (international) growth is part of your DNA

Imec is not only investing in its position as one of the world’s foremost research centers for nanoelectronics and digital technology; it is also committed to strengthening (Flemish) entrepreneurship – providing (financial) support and professional coaching for high-tech start-ups. The imec.istart accelerator program is a good example of imec’s commitment in this domain.

Start-ups that apply for the imec.istart accelerator program are partly evaluated on the basis of their (international) growth potential. Once selected for imec.istart, they are constantly triggered to think about new markets, and to employ these insights to finetune their products.

However, imec.istart is not just about raising awareness. The program includes a concrete internationalization trajectory that flexibly responds to start-ups’ needs. As part of its offering, imec.istart – being one of the founding partners of BelCham, the Belgian-American Chamber of Commerce – has offices in BelCham's New York and San Francisco locations. Start-ups can use these offices for a certain amount of time while they are launching in the U.S.


Moreover, thanks to its large international partner network, imec can bring young entrepreneurs in contact with other start-ups and larger corporates at home and abroad; or introduce them to organizations such as the GAN community – an international group of corporates, accelerators and investors.

But imec also organizes international business missions itself, which we talk about more extensively in this article – because of their specific, customized nature. After all, the scale-ups from the imec.istart portfolio derive a considerable part of their revenues from foreign sales activities as well...

Customized business missions: from inspirational visits to true ‘deep dives’

As part of their internationalization efforts, start-ups that are supported by imec.istart can benefit from two sorts of missions. First, there are more inspirational visits that are primarily aimed at exploratory market research; and second, there are real ‘deep dives’ for start-ups that want to prepare extensively for a definite launch in a foreign market.

What makes both formulas unique is that the program is always short and focused – and specifically aligned to the domain and the region in which the start-ups are, or want to be, active. What’s more: by deliberately limiting the number of participants, more interaction is possible – with the start-ups even being involved in the shaping of the program.

Case 1: an inspiring, exploratory visit to Scandinavian media companies

Nearly 25% of the starters in the imec.istart portfolio are active in the domains of media and content production. To support their internationalization activities, imec took seven of them on a business trip to Scandinavia – including Small Town Heroes, Limecraft, Tinkerlist and Spott.

During the three-day mission to Stockholm (Sweden) and Bergen (Norway), the Scandinavian media market was examined in detail – featuring visits to, and guest lectures from, Modern Times Group (a leading player in digital entertainment), Nordic Entertainment Group (specialized in virtual reality productions), Schibsted (the biggest media group in Scandinavia, which is already collaborating actively with local start-ups) and Norway's TV2 news studio (the world's first fully automated news studio).

The mission’s goal: to give the Belgian starters a good idea of what the Scandinavian media landscape looks like, how local media companies innovate and collaborate with start-ups, and how easy/difficult it is for foreign businesses to kick off activities in Scandinavia.

The impression of the Belgian delegation? Kurt Victoor from Tinkerlist describes it as follow: “The added value of the trip was not only in getting to know the Scandinavian culture, companies and market. But equally important was the opportunity to get to know the Belgian companies that travelled along and to build a more informal relationship with them.”

In the meantime, we learnt that one of the Belgian start-ups has closed a deal with one of the Swedish media companies.

Case 2: ‘Deep dive’ for health start-ups in Boston

A nice example of a more in-depth mission was the recent, five-day working visit organized by imec.istart and Cambridge Innovation Center to Boston (U.S.). Aim: to provide a number of Belgian healthcare start-ups with the ideal springboard to expand their activities in the U.S. Four imec.istart companies were selected for this initiative – DEO, Ectosense, Epihunter and Helpilepsy.

Their ‘deep dive’ consisted of two phases. Three months before departure to Boston, a preparatory workshop was organized during which more information was given about specific U.S. product demands, potential investors, the most important local research and corporate partners, etc. American coaches supervised the whole process, providing the necessary support and introductions before, during and after the Boston mission.

During the second phase, in Boston, the program featured a large number of focus meetings – with potential customers, investors, and even users (such as hospitals). As such, the start-ups could extensively test the introduction of their products in a completely new target market – and furthermore, could immediately take into account issues such as the prescribing behavior of doctors and specialists, local reimbursement protocols and medical authorization bodies such as the FDA. The aim of this – largely individual – process with local coaches was to get the start-ups geared up for the American market as quickly as possible and help them get in touch with the right people.

The first success story quickly emerged here as well: one of the participating start-ups, Epihunter, was selected for the MassChallenge HealthTech accelerator in Boston.

“The trip laid a foundation for building a valuable network in Boston – resulting in our selection as a finalist for the acclaimed accelerator MassChallenge HealthTech,” said Tim Buckinx, Epihunter.

Source: imec

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