Antwerp – a bright future built on a history of innovation

Belgium’s second city is ready for trailblazers

Belgium has a long, proven track record of being central to global affairs. As the centre for both the European Union and NATO, the countries international outlook is easy to see. But what about innovation and business? Can they find a home here too?

The answer to that is a resounding yes and nowhere is that more apparent than in the second city of Belgium, Antwerp. Even more, the Financial Times recently named Antwerp the best ‘large European city for investors’.

With new initiatives soon to be announce to further cement it as a centre of future technology, we decided to take a look at Antwerp’s history and the current state of innovation within this vibrant city.

Havenhuis Antwerp by Sigrid Spinnox

'"Antwerp offers everything an international city should have — it is a great place where tradition and innovation go hand in hand." - Kentaro Morikawa, Secretary General Nippon Shokubai Europe N.V.'

A quick history lesson.

As a port city with records showing cargo and passengers using the city back to the 12th century, Antwerp has a long, and varied history as a centre for business. The city is world famous as a hub for the global diamond, with the first diamond being cut in the city in 1476. This led to the city’s Diamond Quarter, which traces its roots back to the 16th century. To this day, this area features cutters and dealers in the world trade for these precious stones.

But this isn’t Antwerp’s only industry. Around the same time as the diamond trade bloomed, so did the fashion industry. The city was also heavily involved in the import and refining of sugar during the 16th century, and established its first petroleum refineries in the 1920’s and 30’s.

As with any port city, the shipping industry attracted a wealth of related businesses including import and export firms, banking establishments, insurance companies, and commission agents. The city also developed an impressive onward transport system, including road-haulage businesses and railway companies.

Now the second largest port in Europe, the Port of Antwerp-Bruges is a crucial link in the global supply chain, but how will it stay that way?

Tomorrow’s technology, today.

Antwerp has come a long way since the first cargo ships arrived. As industry and technology has developed, the city has remained at the cutting edge of innovation. This extends both in the businesses which call it home, but also in the services, and facilities used within the city.

The Port of Antwerp-Bruges remains central to the life of the city. But how it operates now is vastly different from when it was founded. The port is now a global example of what can be achieved by integrating modern technology with fresh thinking.

At the heart of the port is the Antwerp Port Information and Control System (APICS) which monitors and coordinates everything throughout the port in real-time. But how? With a range of next-generation technology including high speed 5G networks, drones, smart cameras, and smart sensors. All of this works together to give unparalleled command and control to the port team.

But what comes next? Well, the port also includes The Beacon, a business centre with a focus on creating revolutionary maritime, city and business breakthroughs. With over 100 businesses in the facility, it’s a vibrant centre of innovation.

For the healthtech and medical industry, Antwerp already offers world-beating facilities. Within the city, we have the Institute of Tropical Medicine, Vaccinopolis at the University of Antwerp’s Drie Eiken campus, and 28 hospital campuses. This has already attracted many in the sector to setup here.

Some of these can be found at Antwerp’s health hub, Dunden. This location is home to more than 50 digital start-ups, giving them premises and expertise as they move into their scale-up phase.

Businesses within the city are working in many diverse fields, but one of particular interest is smart health. This is less one solution and more a range of complementary technologies and ideas aiming to improve health care for all. Current areas of development include integrating digital flows within hospitals and remote digital healthcare. By making better use of existing patient data and processing it with new technology, such as AI, care planning, diagnosis, and service management can be greatly improved for all.

Antwerp is also home to Europe’s biggest integrated chemical cluster, the second largest worldwide. With innovation hubs such as BlueChem, the city provides everything you need to help your business grow from concept, through start-up, then scale-up to maturity. Such is the city’s commitment to future technology and supporting a future proof chemical industry, that Antwerp was recognised for its commitment in the worldwide fDi Strategy Awards in 2024, achieving second place for strategy.

Current innovations include  @C, a CO2 reduction project initiated by the Port of Antwerp-Bruges. This ground-breaking carbon capture, utilisation and storage facility was made possible through the collaboration of seven leading chemical and energy companies: Air Liquide, BASF, Borealis, ExxonMobil, INEOS, Fluxys and Total Energies.

“At our BlueChem innovation hub, the physical presence of major companies such as ExxonMobil and Ineos is very important. That’s how we forge connections between start-ups and the chemical industry.” – Barbara Veranneman, Chairwoman at BlueChem

…so, what about Expats?

So, what does all of this have to do with ABRA? Innovation comes from fresh perspectives and new experiences, and one of the most effective ways to do that is to bring in experience from outside. As new businesses are founded and develop within the city, they will need knowledge, experience, and talent, which is where expats come in.

By recruiting experts from outside Belgium, businesses don’t just get someone’s qualifications, but also their ideas and life experience. That’s why so many large companies recruit globally. Which is where our members  come in. So, if you or your business would like to join this exciting period in Antwerp, then our members can help you find a home and settle in.

If you’d like to know more about the companies, facilities and benefits of Antwerp, we recommend that you check out the ‘Business in Antwerp’ website here.







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