How to make innovation thrive when you’re not London, Paris, or Berlin

05/04/2018
By Johan Merlevede

Shout the phrase ‘innovation hub’ into a crowd of European techies or start-up fanatics and they’ll probably assume you’re talking about one of the grand capitals known for their venture capitalists and propensity to spawn ‘the next big thing’. The European Commission, however, sees it differently.

In July 2017, it said that the ‘ideal’ European city of culture and creativity is a mix of 8 cities – 5 of which, including Utrecht and Cork, have fewer than 500,000 inhabitants. Leuven, Belgium was one of these 8 pieces to create the ideal creative city. Radical thinkers have been embraced by our small town tracing back to our medieval roots, especially at the University. But the success we’ve enjoyed is also due to the ecosystem we’ve built around the university and the decisions we’ve made to maximize impact. This is how Leuven did it.

1425: Connect the city to its educational institutions

In Leuven, the relationship between the city and its university, the KU Leuven, has always been healthy and symbiotic—one needs the other to be as successful as possible. The city and university constantly draw from each other for inspiration. In many ways, the city’s economy made it possible for the university to thrive: the Stella Artois brewery, for example, which traces its route back 600 years to the Den Hoorn brewery, helped establish an affluent community that was interested in building a quality university.

In fact, the university thrust the town to the forefront of learning in Europe from the very beginning, positioning it alongside other historic university towns like Vienna and Cambridge. Consequently, Leuven attracted notable scholars like humanist Desiderius Erasmus, cartographer Gerard Mercator, and anatomist Andreas Vesalius to work and study here.

​1972: Become a go-to resource by sharing knowledge

Picture: Samsonite's Cosmolite suitcases' material was developed at KU Leuven

In 1972, the University of Leuven opened one of Europe’s first technology transfer offices, KU Leuven Research & Development (LRD), to connect the scientific and business worlds. Inspired by the University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, LRD builds bridges between science and industry by transferring academic knowledge and technologies to the marketplace. Setting up the tech transfer office was a watershed moment for the university. It signaled the moment the school stopped being a place for inventors only, to being part of an innovation ecosystem, where businesses can create products from its inventions.

Today, LRD is a big success. Patents filed at the tech transfer office are some of the most widely cited by academics in the world. In fact, Reuters named Leuven the fifth most innovative university in the world for 2017 based on criteria such as the number of registered patents.

​1984: Embrace niche markets

In the early 1980s, the Flemish government identified the importance of microelectronics and the need to develop the field. imec was born in 1984 and has since become the world leader in nanotechnology. imec works with companies like Samsung and Panasonic to build the next generation of tech products. imec’s self-learning nanochip was recently named by the Financial Times as an invention that could change the world.

​1997: Signal that you’re ‘open for business’ with seed funding

In 1997, the Gemma Frisius fund was set up by KU Leuven, BNP Paribas Fortis bank, and KBC Bank. The fund signaled a cooperation between the university and the local business ecosystem on financial expertise in the same way that Leuven’s tech transfer office signaled a bridging moment of scientific knowledge between the university and the business community. The original investment was around €30 million. Today, it has generated over €900 million in third-party investments. For small cities, seed capital can go a long way with a multiplying effect. Initial corporate investments signal confidence to traditional venture capitalists.

​1999: Create local networks that connect people

A few years later, we realized specific groups were connected—the city and the university, financial institutions and private companies —but we needed a way to bridge all of them to create a community. What we came up with was Leuven.INC (innovation networking circle). The organization brought together Leuven’s movers and shakers from academia, the business world, and the public sector. Leuven.INC counted leading local companies among its members and hosted multiple events each month, covering a wide range of topics from networking events to knowledge sharing opportunities.

​2016: Help your champions share their stories

In 2016, a collaborative effort between companies, knowledge centers and the city of Leuven launched Leuven MindGate to showcase the region’s expertise in healthcare, technology, and creativity. The goal still remains to assist in Leuven’s economic, societal and international development. Since then, Leuven.INC’s activities and members have also been integrated into Leuven MindGate.

At Leuven MindGate, we think our local companies should be able to let everyone know about their successes and Leuven’s role in them. To make that happen, we bring Leuven businesses together to stimulate cooperation, growth, and entrepreneurship.

Take Materialise, a KU Leuven spin-off that was one of the first companies in Europe involved in additive prototyping. Now, the company has offices on five continents and is listed on the NASDAQ.

Or eSATURNUS, which has led the way in creating digital operating rooms. In August 2016, Sony finalized an acquisition of eSATURNUS, opening the door for the Leuven-born founders to bring their technology to customers around the world.

We’ve also seen Thrombogenics, founded by KU Leuven Professor Desire Collen, grow to where it is now: a listed company on the Euronext stock exchange since 2012. The pharmaceutical company develops ophthalmological medicines sold across Europe and the United States.

We see these companies as reminders that size alone isn’t a deciding factor to build a capital of innovation – it’s about the ecosystem you build by playing on existing strengths and propping them up.