The Belgian start-up scene: who’s pulling the strings?

In the US a handful of former PayPal employees are behind the start of a number of large technology companies. Is our Belgian start-up ecosystem also concentrated around a number of key figures? Sirris went to find out.

Looking like a bunch of gangsters, they appeared in Fortune Magazine in the US in 2007: ex-PayPal employees who, following the sale of the software company, put their weight behind technology stars such as YouTube, Yelp, LinkedIn, Yammer, SpaceX and Tesla Motors. They have been known as the ‘PayPal mafia’ ever since.

Our country also has a blossoming start-up scene with a varied landscape of incubators and accelerators. In order to expose this ecosystem, we analysed the connections between people (blue), institutes (green), capital (red) and companies (yellow). The bigger the circle, the more connections that person or organisation has in the network. The result is surprising: it appears that the Belgian start-up network is also concentrated around a few powerful figures.

Select club

The best connected people in the start-up ecosystem are:

  1. Michel Akkermans (investment company Pamida, ex-top man from Clear2Pay)
  2. Luc De Vos (Finactum, Oxynade, CarsOnTheWeb, etc.)
  3. Jurgen Ingels (SmartFin Capital, The Glue, ex-Clear2Pay, etc.)
  4. Jan Vorstermans (Qunova, ex-COO van Telenet)
  5. Bart Becks (Angel.me)

In the vast majority of cases the nature of the connection is a seat on the board of directors, followed by making investments. This scarce source of experience, knowledge and capital is therefore finding its way to a select club of technology companies. This also substantially increases the chances of success. You will often find these five gentlemen on the board of research institutes such as iMinds for example.

It is noticeable that newcomer Marc Coucke also suddenly appears in the middle of this network. 

Separate ecosystems

The most connected institute is the iMinds research centre. Hummingbird Ventures is the most connected investment fund after Volta Ventures, with Duval Union making a spectacular rise over the last two years.

Also noticeable is that the imec and iMinds networks show very little overlap, despite being the two most pre-eminent Belgian technology research institutes. Imec has a very strong trump card, because with Michel Akkermans the Leuven research centre has the best connected person throughout all the ecosystems sitting on its board. 

Breeding grounds

Telecom companies such as Telenet and the former Skynet have emerged as the perfect nurseries for technology entrepreneurs. But the biggest hotbeds for entrepreneurial talent are still Netlog the former social networking company, and also information technology player Porthus. 

Start-ups Sparkcentral and Scanadu have succeeded in mobilising Belgian capital towards Silicon Valley, and not surprisingly, with a strongly overlapping network. 

Division between Flanders and Wallonia

Brussels and Flanders are connected mainly thanks to serial entrepreneurs Jean and José Zurstrassen. Although the brothers also have connections with the Walloon start-up scene, including the Liege incubator LeanSquare, there are fewer connections between the Flemish and Walloon ecosystems than there is with Belgians in Silicon Valley.  

Conclusions?

While our Belgian ecosystem is (provisionally) nothing in comparison with the US, there are striking similarities. The typical Silicon Valley phenomenon of connections between entrepreneurs, investors and researchers, exists here as well. At the centre of it all is just a handful of essential key figures. But are these strongly networked start-up ecosystems global constants? Food for thought … and further research!