A Closer Look at the Belgian VC Landscape

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In 2017, venture capital investment has reached record highs with a total investment of $84.2B in the US and EUR 19.2B in Europe. Clearly, there was no shortage of funding in 2017 and venture capital investment worldwide is soaring.

Looking at Belgium, VC investment grew from €244M to €288M in 2016-2017. Yet, while VC funding in Belgium is growing, the numbers compared to neighboring countries are in a different league altogether. One can easily argue that this is due to the size of the country, as Belgium is one of the smallest countries in Europe. Yet, the per capita numbers show a more fundamental difference. Belgian VC funds invested a lower per capita amount than all of its neighbors, except Luxembourg. This indicates that there is a lot of room for growth when it comes to Belgian venture capital funds and the broader VC ecosystem.

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The smaller size of Belgian VC investments certainly is not caused by a lack of quality companies. In recent years, Belgium has been home to a substantial amount of successful tech scale-ups such as Collibra and Showpad, to name a few.

  • At the end of 2017, Collibra raised $58M in a series D round investment led by some of Silicon Valley’s most influential investment funds, such as Iconiq Capital (the fund that handles part of Mark Zuckerberg’s money) and Battery Ventures. To date, Collibra has raised over $130M.
  •  Showpad, which was recently chosen as one of Microsoft’s new software partners, raised $25M of series C funding from Insight Venture Capital at the beginning of 2018. It had previously raised more than $50M in 2016.

In short, Belgian scale-ups are on the rise, but we can also observe another trend: the marriage between Belgian scale-ups and Belgian VC funds is limited to earlier rounds. For later investment rounds, when scale-ups reach a certain size and bigger investments are needed, firms go to the UK or the US for additional growth funding.

What is the reason behind this phenomenon and how can we manage to anchor our scale-ups in Belgium? There are three prominent reasons why this is the case:

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First of all, Belgium doesn’t have any big venture capital funds. As the Belgian Minister of Finance Johan Van Overtveldt recently stated, there is enough capital, but it is fragmented over a large number of different funds. As Belgian funds are smaller, investing a substantial amount of money in a single investment round is riskier, and this is why Belgian funds are mostly absent in later investment rounds of €15M-€50M. This causes Belgian scale-ups to look for funding in other countries, mostly the US. An important trend in this regard is that the number of individual rounds in Europe and Belgium is falling, while investment amount per round is increasing.

A second reason for this phenomenon is the fact that Belgium is a small home market. In order to truly grow to the next level, international expansion, especially in the US, is critical. When the activities of Belgian companies in the US grow and they have genuine star potential, naturally they will attract the attention of bigger American VCs. Another advantage that comes with the capital raised from American funds is that when growing in the US, the name recognition of a big American VC fund and its successful portfolio companies might give the company an extra push. The companies in the fund’s portfolio also often serve as a valuable network. Also, companies typically need growth capital in their early stages, when they have a scale of about 50 employees. This of course makes those companies more flexible to move to the country from where they get their funding. This has a big impact on Belgian employment because not only are the jobs at the company itself lost, the loss of companies’ headquarters also has an impact on the market of service providing companies.

A third reason for the loss of Belgian companies is the fact that Belgium lacks second generation entrepreneurs, that have successfully founded and sold their companies. While there are a few, such as Marc Coucke, Jurgen Ingels, Bart Verhaeghe and others, the presence of a substantial core of second generation entrepreneurs is vital for the creation of a true scale-up ecosystem.

Belgium thus faces the important task of keeping promising scale-ups in their local home base, while providing them with enough capital in later rounds to grow and expand internationally. In this respect, there have been important efforts made by the Belgian government, which has revealed plans to create a ‘fund of funds’. This fund of about €400M will be used to strengthen existing VC funds, and will give them the additional firepower to support scale-ups in bigger investment rounds. Further efforts have been made by some of Belgium’s well-known tech ambassadors, as Jurgen Ingels and Duco Sickinghe both set up investment funds that focus specifically on later investment rounds (SmartFin Capital and Fortino Capital respectively).

Scale-ups do not only need capital to grow, they also need a network to boost their growth process and to squeeze time. Scale-Ups.eu is a newly set-up platform that brings together scale-ups, investors and industry experts. With efforts from the government and private initiatives, like Scale-Ups.eu, it looks like the Belgian investment world is turning the tide. It’s the perfect time for Belgian scale-ups to grab these new opportunities and, who knows, maybe Belgium will have its first ‘unicorn’ soon?

After its official launch in January, Scale-Ups.eu is organizing the first of a series of meetups: The Perfect Pitch for Series A and B Funding on Tuesday, March 27. In this first meetup, some of our selecting VC partners (Fortino Capital, Smartfin Capital and Volta Ventures) will share their insights on what they’re looking for in the perfect pitch. Further down the line in September 2018, SuperNova will put the spotlight on 55 selected European scale-ups, giving them an opportunity to pitch in front of international investors. This scale-up conference will truly put Belgium on the VC map, and will make sure it gets rid of its reputation as a no-fly zone.

SOURCES: Dealroom, Pitchbook, De Tijd, Trends, Datanews

Author: Philippe Olivier