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2021 as a year of growth

2021 is a wrap... What a year it has been. It would be easy to focus on the challenges we all gave head to during the ongoing pandemic. However, what struck me most in working with the entrepreneurs and startups at imec.istart, is the huge agility and positivity, despite the peculiar situations they were in (and sometimes still are), and the strength and resilience they show in these ambiguous circumstances.

How I would like to describe and remember 2021, is by declaring 2021 as the year of growth. Growth has many dimensions and touches upon many aspects of my professional (and private) life.


Personal growth as an entrepreneur

First and foremost, my team and I are privileged witnesses in the growth path of many entrepreneurs. As an example, just last week I attended the closing acceleration board (aka graduation) of Scarab Sports, a startup active in the sports tech sector by developing and commercialising an interactive and smart rebound plate for soccer teams. They joined imec.istart mid 2020 with three co-founders coming straight from university (some not even graduated yet). Tanguy, Matthias and Oliver: dynamic & ambitious young people, but also a bit naïve in the way they wanted to develop their business (which is exactly one of the reasons why they joined our accelerator program). Throughout the past year, they have grown tremendously in many regards. In the closing acceleration board, I saw self-conscious entrepreneurs, that now talk the language of tech entrepreneurs, understand and manage the challenges ahead, raise funding, successfully close partnerships and commercial deals with some of Belgium’s most renowned soccer clubs and media players, and so much more. Despite their startup not being considered a successful business yet (the first commercial products need to be shipped still), they joined the meeting with 1,000% growth in their know-how, expertise and confidence.

That’s the kind of growth we’re (also) very proud of. Their startup might become successful, or not, but at least they grew tremendously as individuals (and as a team). Startup acceleration is not only about accelerating the business. It is also about putting the entrepreneur on steroids. No better MBA that doing your own tech startup. They will be better prepared in any case for the future challenges they will have to face with Scarab Sports, or with any other new (ad)venture in the future. There are many examples of entrepreneurs in our imec.istart community that went through similar growth and hopefully many are still to come.


Startup business growth

As tech accelerator, we’re working with digital and nanotech startups, and more than the average business, they seem to come through the challenges of the pandemic quite well. They are surfing on the acceleration of the digitisation wave and in our portfolio, we notice startup business growth in a wide diversity of industries. Alumni such as UgenTec, active in the domain of solutions for faster and more accurate PCR testing in medical laboratories, have managed to grasp their part of this fast-growing market. Other great examples in our portfolio can be found in the hospitality industry (Deliverect, most likely Belgium’s next unicorn), fintech (Yields), insurtech (WeGroup) and many others. In vastly different industries, and often also facing the challenges of building a hardware startup, notable examples include Ngrave (cryptocurrency hardware wallet), Constell8 (innovative lighting solutions) and Moonbird (a personal breathing coach fitting in the palm of your hand).  Just a couple of examples of great ventures that have grown significantly in the past year.


Startup ecosystem growth

Next to the startup growth, we are also witnessing a strong growth of the Belgian startup ecosystem over the past decade. It was nowhere when we started 10 years ago and it matured in many regards. New startup support programs and venture building initiatives have been arising, the amount of investment funds and vehicles has been growing steadily, many startups have had successful exits and the founders are very often reinvesting their expertise (and money) in new generations of startups (and/or starting new ventures themselves), international investors increasingly find their way to promising Belgian startups and scale-ups, ...

We are only one part of the entire chain, and with other, complementary initiatives the entire chain becomes much stronger. All the others are equally important, with players such as Start it @ KBC, BlueHealth Innovation Centre, SportUp, investment funds, ... Our Belgian ecosystem has a lot of quality to offer (we have great research institutes creating breakthrough innovation, the quality of our talent is amazing, we have great businesses etc.), and more and more actors start to become fully aware of its potential and not only witnessing its growth, but also actively contributing to it.


imec.istart community growth

Last but not least, our imec.istart ‘family’ has also grown significantly in 2021. New, promising startups joined our program, new partners eager to contribute and learn jumped on our train, additional mentors with amazing expertise and networks joined our mentor pool for the better of our startups, ... Additionally, our Belgian team grew further, adding additional quality and great people to the team.

2021 was also the year we set our first, exciting steps abroad with our program in The Netherlands, teaming up with a strong partner (Novel-T) as co-producer on the accelerator program, and with many relevant partners in our pre-seed investment fund or as program partners.


But foremost, I’ve witnessed the (further) growth of the amazing people I get to work with every day. We have a lot of talented people in the team, who continue to be curious, eager to learn, give it all for ‘our’ startups and form a talented team making the impossible happen. It is a true pleasure to see people growing to new heights in their personality, skillset, and drive.

Now I can only hope I can personally keep up with the growth of the fantastic people in my team, the amazing entrepreneurs we are supporting and their promising startups.

I am wishing you all lots of positivity and the hunger to further grow in one or more dimension in 2022! And hopefully see you around at imec.istart in some way or another, either with your startup applying in one of our open calls, as mentor, as partner, as investor or a startup supporter!

Author: Sven De Cleyn, Program Director at imec.istart