10 min

From bright idea to booming business – imec’s venturing opportunities

Successful innovation requires a strong technological concept, but also a talent for business and the bravery to jump into the unknown. Imec’s supportive ecoystem can offer start-ups and new entrepreneurs the solid ground they need to be off to a flying start.

At the core of any successful tech start-up is a good, innovative idea. That being said, many absolutely bright and groundbreaking ideas never achieve commercial success. Either because they are timed poorly, struggle to find sufficient seed capital, are based on a doomed business model, or – perhaps worst of all – are left to gather dust on the shelf. Successful innovation requires more than only a strong technological concept. You also need a taste for entrepreneurship and – more importantly– the bravery to jump into the unknown. In the last few years, imec has stepped up its efforts in this area, building a supportive ecosystem that allows innovators to fully explore the business potential of their high-tech ideas.

An overview: imec as a fertile soil for innovation

Imec supports innovation in a number of ways, each program has its own focus and mission. 
First of all, there is imec.istart, the leading tech accelerator program that aims to boost digital innovation and entrepreneurship in Flanders. Imec.istart was founded in 2011 and has since built an extensive network of partners (including ING, BNP Paribas Fortis, Telenet, Cronos, the Flemish Government, etc. - click here for a full overview of the imec.istart partner network). The imec.istart portfolio now consists of over 150 tech start-ups active in very diverse fields, ranging from multimedia and logistics to the healthcare sector. Imec.istart was recently recognized as one of the world’s best university-linked business accelerators in the 2018 UBI World Ranking, which is based on the most comprehensive screening of university incubators and accelerators worldwide. Within Europe, imec.istart even topped the ranking. 

Sven De Cleyn (imec.istart program manager):

“With the imec.istart program, we want to give promising entrepreneurs in the digital field, from either outside or inside of imec, the extra push they need to really get their business off the ground.  

We do this by offering a combination of pre-seed funding (50k€), coaching, mentoring and specialized workshops by domain experts. In addition, we also offer other types of support like a shared workspace, software deals, marketing & communication advice, etc. Through the program, the start-ups become part of the imec ecosystem, which helps them to expand their network and find potential investors more easily. We basically give them all the support they need to make it through the first, risky start-up phase and grow into fully-fledged companies or scale-ups.”
Innovation is an integral part of imec’s organizational culture and throughout the years, our employees have frequently leveraged their experience to set up successful imec spin-offs, supported by our investment fund Fidimec NV, mostly in partnership with other investors. Some recent examples include miDiagnostics, which is specialized in fast, on-chip diagnostic tests; Ansem, which offers analog design services; EYEco EyeCO, which develops a new kind of digital glasses to tackle presbyopia; Bloom, which offers wearable devices for pregnancy monitoring; etc. 

Imec.xpand: a unique approach to early stage investing

To further maximize the impact of imec’s in-house creative and innovative potential, imec supported a venture fund initiative in February 2017, called imec.xpand.

Imec.xpand is an early stage and growth fund that aims to turn hardware driven nanotechnology innovation into commercial success. Unlike imec.istart, imec.xpand only focuses on ventures in which imec’s intellectual property, technology and expertise are determining factors for success. So even if the venture idea was conceived externally, the targets are those benefiting greatly from imec technology. 

Although imec technology plays a key role in all innovation projects supported by imec.xpand, the fund is managed independently by a partner team of entrepreneurs, seasoned venture capitalists and business experts. In addition to imec as an important contributor to the imec.xpand fund, the fund also has public, institutional and corporate investors. Having an independent management ensures that the fund acts in the best interest of all shareholders, carefully selecting only those ideas that have the potential to become a successful, scalable venture.

With a fund size of 100 million euros, imec.xpand is a powerful investment vehicle.

What makes imec.xpand unique is that it covers the whole investment process.

The hands-on approach in the early stages of development sets the fund apart from the more traditional VC funds. Imec.xpand advises promising ventures on their business plan, their go-to-market strategy, their funding approach and their team composition. The fund does not only offer pre-seed funding, but also follow-up funding and growth financing. In this way, it covers the typical financing gaps that start-ups struggle with and ensures an optimal return on investment for the shareholders. In addition to financial support, imec.xpand also differentiates itself by providing access to imec’s network of partners and state-of-the-art infrastructure, including low volume manufacturing.

Beyond research: release your inner entrepreneur!

The first source of inspiration for imec.xpand is IP developed within imec (that is not dedicated to any specific program). The biggest challenge here is to motivate employees to have the bravery to come forward with their ideas. Jo De Boeck (imec CTO) explains: “Throughout the years, imec employees have started an impressive number of spin-offs. Nevertheless, I believe that there is a lot of potential at imec that is still left unexplored. That’s why we organize a biannual Innovation Week for our employees. Here any imec employee or team can present an idea. Our internal innovation team runs the process to evaluate the ideas’ potential for venturing.” 

About half the ideas presented end up in a venture track and enter an enrichment phase. For a couple of months, the innovation team supports the innovators to explore the potential of the idea by conducting market research, to validate the product or service with prospect end-users, to make a first-approximation development plan, budget and business outlook. After enrichment, the most promising ideas are picked up by the imec.xpand program, where they are taken to the next level with initial financial support in a Venture Timebox, and – for some – eventually all the way to a round A investment.

Jo De Boeck adds:

“The road from idea to commercial success is not straightforward and it takes a strong team, a specific mindset and experience." 

"It’s important to know that sharing your idea does not necessarily mean that you are on your way to be CEO of your own spin-off. Many researchers have brilliant ideas, but have no interest in taking them further commercially.  We fully support these ‘smart creatives’ to support the success of the spin-off from within imec and to come with new ideas.  In parallel we expand our network of entrepreneurial individuals, both internal and external. We welcome so-called serial entrepreneurs, who use their start-up experience to take on  new, unexplored ideas and turn them into a booming business.”

Imec’s innovation team, with 5 dedicated staff members, is made up of these kind of people, with established expertise in entrepreneurship. They work in close collaboration with the spin-off team and the imec.xpand partners to shape ideas into new ventures with the best possible business outlook and suitable knowledgeable investors.  

What’s in it for you? Imec as the missing link

Imec.xpand is also open to external start-ups provided that imec technology is a determinig factor in the project’s success. For start-ups, joining imec.xpand is killing two birds with one stone: they do not only gain financial support, but also get imec as a powerful tech development partner. In addition, they get access to imec’s state-of-the-art infrastructure and network of partners. But the support goes beyond this practical side of things, to make it as a start-up you need more than sound technology and seed capital, but also business insight. Filip Merckx (imec CFO) emphasizes: “At imec, through the imec.istart business accelerator program, we have the in-house expertise to support first-time entrepreneurs. A lot of the coaching and workshops provided as part of the imec.istart program are also valuable for start-ups in the imec.xpand track. Although these are two separate programs with different approaches to venturing, the cross-fertilization potential is obvious. In this way, imec is well-equipped to further grow its leadership of high-tech innovation. This entrepreneurial spirit has always been part of the imec corporate culture, but with the launch of the imec.xpand program we have created a more formal framework to support this vision.”


Sparked your interest? Want to know more?

  • Click here for more information on imec.istart.  The next call opens in May 2018. Via this link you can explore our current start-up portfolio.
  • Click here for more information on imec.xpand.
  • Curious to know all about our spin-offs? A full overview can be found here.
  • Interested in joining our network of entrepreneurs? Contact


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