The company was founded in 2011 and was one of the first start-ups to join the imec.istart program. Since then, ONTOFORCE – which still continues its collaboration with imec – has spread its wings. The company recently completed a new investment round of 4.3 million euros and has already established a foothold on the US market.
In this day and age, there is so much data that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find an efficient and relevant answer to our search queries. Hans Constandt (CEO and founder of ONTOFORCE) first experienced this when he was searching the web to find relevant, scientific studies that could help his son – who struggled with a learning disorder. From this experience, the idea for DISQOVER originated. Essentially, DISQOVER is an optimized search engine which draws on semantic technology to find links between data across databases faster and more efficiently. Although the platform was originally intended as a B2C offering, it is currently mainly used within the pharmaceutical and biotech industries.
Hans Constandt explains: “There are thousands of health research databases, clinical trials, literature reviews, patient studies, etc. available. Before setting up a new study, scientists first need to check what kind of research has already been done – both internally and externally – on, for instance, growth hormone applications for a particular disease. In many companies, even internal information resides in hundreds of different databases, each with their own interface and search logic. As a consequence, just finding this kind of background information is a very time-consuming process. This is where DISQOVER comes in.
ONTOFORCE was one of the first start-ups to join the imec.istart program in 2011. Hans Constandt: “Even after our imec.istart track ended, we have continued to collaborate with imec and with IDLab, an imec research group at Ghent University, through a number of different projects. I’m especially grateful for the networking opportunities that the imec.istart team created for us, not just in Belgium, but internationally as well. When we were first thinking of launching our software in the US (Boston), imec helped us find the contacts we needed. And today they are supporting us again, now that we are part of the Flanders New York Accelerator. The program has just started a couple of days ago, but I can already feel that we have come to the right place to expand our foothold in the US.”
The Flanders New York Accelerator (FNYA) is a joint initiative of the Flemish Ministry of Innovation, ERA (Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator), Flanders Investment & Trade and imec. The aim of the program is to help promising Flemish start-ups scale more quickly by helping them make a successful US market entry. ONTOFORCE is one of the six companies which were selected to join the first coaching track, which runs from January 22 to April 13, 2018.
Lies Boghaert (imec.istart internationalization coordinator): “The best thing about this program is that our Flemish start-ups are completely embedded in an American network of mentors and partners. They also get to work in an inspiring co-working space – together with other international start-ups – in ERA’s offices in Midtown Manhattan. As part of the three-month program, they attend highly specialized workshops and networking events. ERA also provides each start-up with a US mentor who coaches them and introduces them to the right contacts in their field.”
Although ONTOFORCE is looking for opportunities in the US, they are firmly rooted in Belgium. Hans Constandt: “We will definitely set up a sales office in the US, but we also need the local expertise and know-how that we can find here in Belgium, so our development team will definitely remain here. We’ve recently completed a new investment round of 4.3 million euros, bringing in two more Belgian investors, i.e. Korys and biotech pioneer Annie Vereecken. Our current shareholders, PMV and LRM, also decided to participate in this investment round.”
When asked what advice he would give other start-ups, Hans Constandt says: “As a start-up, you don’t get a second chance. There is very little room for failure. You have to make sure that you have a working product as quickly as possible – it doesn’t need to be perfect – but it needs to show your added value. As soon as you have a couple of paying customers – by preference big players – it becomes a lot easier to convince others. Of course, you also have to make sure that you have a good product-market fit. In our case, DISQOVER addresses a real problem that companies in the pharma and biotech industries are struggling with.”
As for the key to their own success, Hans Constandt’s first, intuitive response is ‘people’. Hans Constandt: “Human capital is essential. Over the years, we’ve recruited a passionate and complementary team.
I believe that it’s very important to know what your own limitations are and to then surround yourself with people who excel at precisely these things.
You cannot do everything on your own. Our success is the result of the hard work of the people who joined our team, from our amazing HR and finance experts to our office manager, top developers, and data scientists. That is also why we have recently attracted Dirk Pollet as our new co-CEO. We are upscaling at a fast pace now, so it’s good to have an experienced person next to me who can support us through this process.”