Whereas a couple of years ago Belgian entrepreneurs had to look hard to find any support at all, they now sometimes struggle to find their way in the abundance of programs on offer. Is there such a thing as too much support for start-ups?
How the Belgian accelerator scene evolved
In the last few years Belgium has ramped up its efforts to support tech start-ups and scale-ups. Whereas in the past it was hard to find any support at all, there is now a mature ecosystem in place.
Sven De Cleyn (imec.istart program manager): “When imec.istart was launched 8 years ago, the Belgian start-up ecosystem looked entirely different. Beginning entrepreneurs could only turn to Byro, the Voka-network that still takes up an important place in the Belgian start-up scene. In addition, imec.istart was the first program that targeted tech start-ups specifically. Since then, the Belgian start-up scene has caught up: numerous new support programs have been launched in recent years.”
Reaping the benefits of a successful ecosystem
New entrepreneurs are happy to grab these opportunities with both hands. The number of starters has also grown. UNIZO figures indicate that in 2018 we reached a record high: 100,113 new one-man businesses and companies were founded, i.e. 5.29% more than the previous year.
Perhaps they were inspired by the success stories of their predecessors, because in the last few years there were quite a few. The best example is Collibra, the specialist in data governance that can call itself the first Belgian unicorn, and Showpad, a digital sales platform that managed to bring in big clients like BASF and Coca Cola.
Sven De Cleyn: “Our imec.istart companies have also been doing well. DataCamp, which offers an online learning platform for data science, recently raised 25 million dollars through the American venture capitalist fund Spectrum Equity. And Ontoforce, a kind of Google for life sciences, was praised as the Flemish start-up of the year in 2018.”
Not to mention the growing number of promising start-ups that have greedily been swallowed up by the really big boys in the field. For instance, Newtec was taken over by ST Engineering, Graphine by Unity, and Intuo by Unit4. As far as acquisitions are concerned, Belgium occupies a beautiful ninth place in the European Tech Scaleups Report of 2018. In the same report, we are ranked sixth in terms of investments - whereas before we did not even make it to the top ten.
Is there such a thing as too much support for start-ups?
Belgium has experienced strong entrepreneurial growth in recent years. But there is also a downside, because this explosion of support programs threatens to lead to over-saturation.
Suppose you are a promising start-up looking for money and good advice. These days, you won't have to look far to find an opportunity. Accelerators, incubators, investment funds, SME growth subsidies, innovation projects, communities, meet-ups, etc. Have your pick! At least... if you can find your way around…
Sven De Cleyn: "This choice overload can still be dismissed as a luxury problem. More dangerous is the risk that our start-ups do not make a clear choice at all and keep drifting from program to program. I see a lot of young entrepreneurs fall into this trap. And I also understand why. Every time you get selected for a program, funding or coaching, you feel like you've accomplished something. It feels good if your idea gets praise and acknowledgement. But the danger is that you start confusing encouragement with victory. In the end, you often - literally - buy nothing with your selection. What really matters is whether your business results improve. If they don't, you end up as an 'eternal promise', artificially being kept in the running longer by relying on the extended support system. Whereas you could have used that time to develop a new idea that actually has a realistic chance of success.”
“I believe that to a certain extent this surplus of support programs is a problem that will fix itself. Even now there are indications that the scene is consolidating: programs disappear or join forces to survive. At the same time, start-ups and scale-ups also need to make conscious choices to avoid the indecision trap mentioned earlier.”
How do you choose the best support program for your start-up?
It is – without a doubt – a good idea to join a support program as a start-up. What is not a good idea? Taking everything you can get. Choose and choose wisely. The three tips below might help you.
- Choose a program that is relevant to your idea or product
Whether you’re developing an energy drink or a cryptowallet, new entrepreneurs all face the same challenges. Or at least, that what the popular saying implies. But – as is usually the case – this is only partly true.
Sven De Cleyn: “It definitely does make a difference whether the support program has expertise in your field. Are you launching a technological product and are you in need of a supporting partner with the right know-how and network? Imec.istart is your place to be! We focus on start-ups in the domain of digital technology and nanotech. However, if you have a brilliant idea for a new board game, you’re probably better off with another accelerator program.”
- Choose the right program at the right time
When proudly presenting your ‘idea’, you immediately face a tsunami of tricky questions. How specific is your idea at this stage? Have you checked whether you are really the first? Have you registered your idea? Have you already developed a prototype? Did you do any market research?
The answers to these questions do not only determine the stage your idea is in, but also which support program would suit you best, because some programs are perfect for the first ideation phase, whereas others have more added value in a later stage.”
- Walk and don’t look back
Have you found a support program that suits your start-up or scale-up? Then go all the way!
Sven De Cleyn: “I still see some start-ups that follow two programs or more at the same time, turning it almost into a fulltime job. Because every program has certain requirements, like attending workshops and events. This way, you won’t have any time left to actually develop your product or client base. And in the end, isn’t that why you’re doing it in the first place?”
Are you ready for imec.istart?
Beginning entrepreneurs who would like to participate in the imec.istart program can submit their project up until October 1st. Selected start-ups get access to both professional coaching and financial support.
For more information, take a look at our website.