In the small Belgian city of Antwerp, a startup revolution is happening. This tiny European country already ranks 17th out of 137 countries on the Global Entrepreneurship Index, which takes into account infrastructure, locals’ qualifications and factors such as broadband connectivity. Belgian startups have one of the highest success rates in Europe, a stat based on length of survival and success.
Since 2015, the Belgian government has been considering legislation to support startups. Tax policy has been reshaped to provide ‘tax shelters’, an incentive designed to encourage investors to support the burgeoning tech scene. This includes a 30% reduction on investments in SMEs and a 45% reduction on investments in micro-enterprises.
Antwerp is a small city, but it packs one hell of a punch. Antwerp Powered By Creatives is a group that connects the extensive fashion and design elements of the province, while House of Innovation offers regular workshops to boost business skills. Antwerp Woman Entrepreneurs Meetup is targeted at women wanting to network and build startups, while the Antwerp Startup Fair is an annual event started in 2016 where startups can meet suppliers, creatives, and potential customers.
BAAS, which offers coaching and training for young people, is a critically important part of Antwerp’s startup scene. Its goal is to inspire, encourage and support young entrepreneurs. ‘No idea is too crazy and no sector too strange,’ says founder Jonathan Stuyven.
SuperNova, a festival that brings creative startups together with visionary tech for four days in September, is also a huge draw for Antwerp’s fledgling business crowds. Anner Tiete, co-founder of Beyond design studio, says, ‘The city is also spearheading a lot of tech initiatives, enabling and incentivising a transition to the smart city. There are a lot of amazingly talented individuals here; there is space to experiment and I find that the city’s art and design heritage is inspirational.’
Beyond the cobbled streets and behind the ornate baroque facades there is a thriving collection of collaborative workspaces and studios. Thanks to its industrial past as a port, Antwerp is blessed with cavernous warehouses which lend themselves well to co-working spaces. House of Ape has an academy to support entrepreneurs in addition to co-working desks and private offices.
In the centre of town, innovation hub StartupVillage (see below) has plenty of desks, as does the Start it @KBC accelerator. Tiete adds, ‘As a startup or scale-up, you can find interesting office space relatively cheaply – we had offices in an old bakery, a huge warehouse and the former headquarters of the Port of Antwerp. Also, city hall goes a long way to accommodate startups, organising events and having specific departments to focus on entrepreneurship.’
David Dos Santos, an expert in design and product design located in Antwerp thinks one of the best parts of the city is its scale. ‘It’s big and vibrant enough to support the young crowd and small enough to get anywhere in no time,’ he says. ‘One of the most interesting parts of the city is “het eilandje”, the old harbour which is now full of creativity and some of Antwerp’s best restaurants.’
Antwerp is perfectly suited for trade too, with one of Europe’s largest ports, direct flights to London and Eurostar connections to Paris and beyond. It also has a multilingual community. ‘The harbour has enabled us to transport two huge shipping containers to the centre of Brussels in the middle of the night for one of our projects,’ explains Tiete.
LET’S HEAR IT FROM THE LOCALS
David Dos Santos
Owner of Studio Dos Santos
David Dos Santos is a designer based in Antwerp who has worked with brands including Ikea and Coca Cola. He says, ‘I see a lot of international talent coming to the city – Antwerp is supporting a lot of events, programmes and organisations to promote the startup scene, such as Us By Night, Flanders dc, Design Kortrijk, to name a few.’
Creative Partner at Yellow Window
Yellow Window is a design agency with 40 years of experience based in Antwerp. Szyf came to the city to study and stayed put. He says, ‘The startup scene has a big focus on creative entrepreneurship. For example, APBC fosters cross-collaboration. There’s also a diverse offer of co-working spaces such as De Winkelhaak.
Co-founder of Beyond
Beyond is a design studio that creates experiences for brands. Anner Tiete moved to Antwerp from Brussels to start the venture with co- founder Kevin Verelst. ‘For each project we assemble the perfect team from our network of Antwerp professionals: fashion designers, mechanical engineers, embedded software engineers and architects,’ he says.
Founder of BAAS
BAAS connects young people with the information and organisations to help them go one step further in business. ‘We reach people other initiatives aren’t able to reach,’ explains founder Jonathan Stuyven. ‘Like in many cities, the most energy and money is invested in the privileged high potentials, but we see the need to focus more on those who are not usually labeled as “high potential” by the system. 70% of our young entrepreneurs are women and 50% are in the creative industry.’
Start Up Village
StartupVillage was founded to help startups get up and running right in the city centre, without long in flexible leases. It provides flexible office space for up to three years, meaning there’s plenty of opportunity for young businesses to get their turn. Currently, there are several corporate incubators and an accelerator programme, Netwerk Ondernemen, which combines mentorship and networking.
Businesses currently operating from StartupVillage include Senso2Me, a health-tech company which develops products to support mature adults live independently for longer. There’s also POM, an app that helps you to pay all your bills via a smartphone, and PlayPass, which supports cashless payments for events and festivals.
Find out more at businessinantwerp.eu