It’s Actually not that Big…

At only 30,528 square kilometres, Belgium is the fifth smallest country in Europe. Whilst you might think that being small isn’t a benefit, it means you can get to France, Luxembourg, Germany or the Netherlands with only 2 hours driving, not bad at all.

You’ll also find yourself really close to some key European capitals including London (320km), Paris (265km) and Amsterdam (173km) with train services to all three.

So, if you’re looking for a home that lets you travel and see the rest of Europe really easily, you won’t find a better one than Belgium.

(And if you’re wondering, the four smallest countries in the EU are Vatican City, Monaco, San Marino, Liechtenstein and AndorraNow you’re trivia quiz ready!)

4 Languages, 1 Country.

Did you know that four languages are spoken widely in Belgium?

Well, there are, and one of them certainly surprises many people:

  • 59% speak Dutch*.
  • 40% speak French.
  • 1% speak German.
  • And 55% speak English as a second language.

The area you live in will define which language is most prevalent. So, make sure you know which language you need to know for your chosen home city.

Whilst the main cities will see most people able to use English, for more remote or quieter areas, even a basic level of the local language is beneficial.

*Though this could most accurately be called Flemish, which is to Dutch what American is to English. The same but some different words, phrases and pronunciations.

Local Government Rules.

Where some countries have large, centralised government, Belgium does things smaller. Every Belgian municipality has its own City Hall, called a Commune, which handles the administrative and bureaucratic side of life.

If you’re staying for more than three months, you’ll need to inform your local Commune. This is where you get your Residence Visa, so take along lots of identifying documents including your passport, ID, any marriage certificates and birth certificates, for you and your family.

But the Commune is about more than admin, here you can find out lots more about the local area and your new home. Information on local events, schools, and pre school facilities can all be found here, so don’t forget to ask!

The Favourite Form of Transport.

The Belgians are great lovers of sport and the outdoors, so, of course, they’re into cycling. The country offers a lot of choice for those who enjoy life on two wheels. If you’re a casual rider who likes the flats, fancy a challenge with hilly areas or just see a bike as a commuter choice, the Belgian cycle network has you covered.

From urban Antwerp to bucolic Flemish Brabant, getting around by bike is easy.  In fact, in a country of 10.4 million people, there are over 8.8 million kilometres of mapped cycle routes. Those are split into over 158,000 individual routes, 9,800 of which you’ll find in Brussels.

The paths themselves are really well signposted and kept in great condition. However, the Belgian weather doesn’t always play ball, so make sure you take the right clothing for any cycling adventures you have planned.

That said, if you prefer off-road mountain biking, there are over 2,800km of trails documented by enthusiasts. These trails cover over 55,500m of route descent, letting you choose the level of challenge you want from your trip.

Whether you’re a beginner or ride as a serious sport, Belgium has the terrain and infrastructure for you. Is it any wonder that Belgium gave birth to the world’s greatest cyclist, Eddy Merckx?

Dinner is Served.

While many people know that Belgium is famous for chocolate, waffles and beer, do you know just how big those foodstuffs are and what else you can get? After all, you can’t live on beer and chocolate. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Well, let’s start with the beer. As of 2021 there were over 400 active breweries in Belgium, producing over 1,500 different types of beer. Whatever your beer of choice, you’ll find it in Belgium and some distinct varieties around it as well.

When it comes to chocolate, things are even more impressive. Boasting over 2,000 chocolatiers, producing over 172,000 tonnes per year, chocolate is big business in Belgium. Though this isn’t a surprise when you consider that chocolate production in the country can be traced back to the 17th century.

If that’s dessert and drinks taken care of, what about the main course?

Many people are surprised at the importance of Belgian fries, or frites as a staple. You’ll find many shops selling them in the towns and cities across the country. That explains why Belgians eat more fries than Americans, per year, and why they’re the national dish.

But once you have your fries, what to put with them? If you’re feeling saucy, there’s a lot on offer including familiar sauces like mayonnaise, curry and tomatoes, but you’ll also find more exciting varieties. These include Andalouse sauce (peppers, mayonnaise, tomato paste, & pickles), Samurai sauce (mayonnaise, Tunisian chili, spices, tomatoes, & peppers) and sauce Americaine (mayonnaise with tomato, chervil, onions, capers, seafood stock, & celery) should you be feeling more adventurous.

From there, we’d recommend trying moules-frites (mussels with fries), stoofvlees (a hearty beef stew to drench your fries with), and waterzooi (a creamy stew of fish or chicken). Whatever your tastes, you’ll be well fed in Belgium!

These are just some of the hidden gems of wisdom you’ll need to know to live in Belgium. If you’d like help unlocking the secrets of Belgian life, then we recommend working with some of our members. They can help you plan and complete your move with ease, then support you as you find your way in your new home country.

 

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ReLocate spoke with professor Greg Clark, urbanist and Senior Fellow at the Urban Land Institute Europe, to find out more. He is a widely published author on city development and investment issues and advises a wide array of international organisations. In May 2016 he presented a new report analysing the competitiveness of Brussels and Antwerp. Where most analyses of a city’s competitiveness rely on economic performance, The Urban Land Institute report looks at a much wider range of issues. Ranging from liveability to geopolitical risk and sustainability, these are the things that influence a city’s attractiveness to residents and companies alike.

Brussels and Antwerp are very different in nature: how did you approach the comparison?
“We put together two benchmarking groups, ran workshops, visited the cities and conducted a ton of interviews before running this comparative analysis in which we measured Brussels and Antwerp against groups of peer cities to arrive at an assessment of their competitiveness,” explains Greg Clark. “We didn’t just look at economic performance, but at other issues that impact a city’s attractiveness to residents too. Matters such as liveability, governance, geopolitical risk and sustainability are just as important in urban life. Brussels was tested against well established capitals such as London and Paris, cities that provide tough competition. Antwerp on the other hand was held up against peer cities that are reinventing themselves – some of them port cities – like Hamburg and Amsterdam, and other (former) industry greats such as Manchester and Liverpool.”

Antwerp has a huge opportunity to build a central role for itself as part of a regional system of cities.

What are their main selling points?
“Both cities have very good fundamentals, and their own, unique attractions. Antwerp is compelling for its extraordinary DNA. It has always been one of the world’s greatest trading cities and has invented many ideas about the connection between trade, innovation and discovery. Antwerp knows how to build a city around a port. Located within a north-western European economy of roughly 100 million people with a huge GDP, it’s well connected with Belgian, Dutch, Northern French and German cities on all sides. Antwerp has a huge opportunity to build a central role for itself as part of a regional system of cities.”

“The Antwerp port is embracing innovation in terms of how goods are managed, how energy is used and what technology is applied. They’re building an innovative port and energy complex, with a big focus on the circular economy, which is important and fascinating. Of course, the city of Antwerp is synonymous with the craft and design of high-quality goods. From the diamond industry to its fashion sector, Antwerpians know how to make items of high value work in the market place. This mercantilist attitude means it is truly open for business.”

left: Antwerp right: Brussels

“Boasting a young and vibrant population that is committed to taking the city forward, Antwerp is further boosted by a government with big ambitions. From building a canopy over the ring road to creating more public spaces and developing the left bank, the city is redesigning its urban fabric to make a future-proof city. Smart citizen initiatives activate people to act as the eyes and ears of the city, giving feedback on the quality of bicycle lanes or roads and public facilities that might need maintenance. These distinctive edges of Antwerp amount to things that are quite exciting considering its small size. Thinking about the business opportunities that arise from disruption runs deep within the Antwerp DNA.”

Brussels’ youthful population and great cosmopolitan mixity give rise to a highly scientific, entrepreneurial labour force that is willing to work in all sorts of industries.

“Brussels on the other hand is distinctive in a completely different way,” Greg continues. “It is a major capital city, and as home to the various European institutions and NATO it has an influential presence on the global stage, although it is yet to leverage it to its full potential. It’s interesting when you compare Brussels with cities like Washington DC or Singapore, which play an influential role by hosting global institutions, international summits and other gatherings that really work for the city.”

“It has a youthful population and great cosmopolitan mixity giving rise to a highly scientific, entrepreneurial labour force that is willing to work in all sorts of industries. The high calibre of educational institutes in Brussels is somewhat obscured by the presence of international institutions such as the EU and NATO, but the educational cluster has enormous potential thanks to leadership in fields such as IT, life sciences, or medicine. Most obviously it has enormous potential to be a global school of government, public policy and management.”

“When you look at productivity progress in Brussels a lot of it is to do with the dynamism of the labour market and its liquidity. People want to spend time in Brussels, partly because of its influence, but then find they want to stay and do other things too. It’s important to remember that government institutions feed and support a huge cluster of other kinds of decision making and communication activities. There are very big, positive spill-overs and multipliers that you can leverage into other industries. If you thought a government town can only ever be a government town, you’d be wrong.”

All attractive qualities indeed, surely there must be some drawbacks?
“They also both suffer from a number of challenges,” agrees Greg. “Part of this is that they are located in Belgium, and, great as Belgium may be, it is not a country that enjoys a clear institutional framework. Both Brussels and Antwerp struggle to build their identity and present themselves in a way that cities in less confusing countries do not. Brussels has far greater assets than say Vienna or Zurich, yet these cities have fewer difficulties presenting and promoting themselves on an international stage. Similarly, whilst Antwerp has greater or equivalent assets to Liverpool, Lyon, Genoa, and Turin, it has difficulty articulating what it is, where it is, and why.”

“They’re also rather late to the urbanisation agenda compared to other European cities. Citizens in Brussels and Antwerp are highly dependent on their cars and prefer the suburbs to the city centre. The Belgians tend to sub optimise the use of land and real estate, which translates into low levels of densification and very few mixed-use development projects. It also means there has been very little focus on transport and connectivity as a way of embracing and spurring on urbanism. The third thing that seems to be true for both of them – although each city has a slightly different version of this – is that they have had some difficulty creating the right geographical and institutional space through which to apply leadership to the city.”

“Brussels Capital Region struggles due to the way it is defined; geographically it’s too small for the – much larger – Brussels metropolitan area and then of course there is the fragmentation of having 19 separate municipalities, which rather effectively prevents an integrated governance model. You need a leadership platform for the whole area, otherwise you end up with different policies being pursued in different parts of the region, which is not particularly helpful. For Antwerp it was more of a question of leadership appetite in the past, although I think this is now being addressed. The current leadership has the appetite to succeed and a vision for moving the city forward. It’s just been slow getting there.”

“The public sector almost has a monopoly on leadership control in Belgium. Other sectors, such as business, cultural and higher education, have not played active civic leadership roles like they do in other cities of comparable sizes. There’s been too much waiting around for city government to put things right, rather than civic leadership working hand in hand with city governments to create forward momentum. I suppose you could say both cities have become somewhat institutionalised. This is now being addressed in Antwerp where civil and trade movements are working together with the city towards creating a more sustainable future for the city.”

Both cities need to build a strong brand and identity. Getting together with organisations that will back the city and help create a new global story will help put them on the map.

How can Brussels and Antwerp improve on their competitiveness?
“We focused on three main areas for our recommendations on addressing these weaknesses,” Greg tells us. “First, Brussels and Antwerp need to start embracing urbanisation. This means being proactive in extending and developing public transport as a way of reducing car dependence. By strengthening the urban mix, you create excitement and vibrancy. Creating exciting city centres and sub centres, together with a more active transport mix, helps attract and retain corporate investment and the dynamic workforce needed by these companies.”

“Secondly, the institutional frameworks have to be right. This creates room for city leadership that is continuously thinking about their city as somewhere people will want to live and work, rather than getting stuck in Belgian politics. Thinking about public and private partnerships on a city level is a big part of this, just look at how Antwerp is involving its citizens in the maintenance of its city.”

“This in turn leads into our third point: the promotion of Brussels and Antwerp. Both cities need to build a strong brand and identity. Getting together an alliance of organisations that will back the city and help create a new global story will help put them on the map. This is certainly happening in Antwerp, and I believe efforts are underfoot in Brussels now too.”

“Finally, both cities have really creative industries which are part of the impact of the cosmopolitan diversity of the city. You should be able to really use that cosmopolitan diversity as a driver of creative endeavour. The idea isthat diversity creates competitive advantage through interaction. To realise that, you’ve got to address the challenges of social exclusion and segregation. Brussels has two cosmopolitan populations: one is the elite that services the global institutions, the other is the population of migrants who have come from a poorer set of countries in search of a better life. Somehow, you’ve got to make those two kinds of populations work together.”

To read the full report, visit the Urban Land Institute website:

Brussels and Antwerp: Pathways to a Competitive Future

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“What makes you feel at home?” Iliv, the Belgian information platform on daily life at home, asked over 2000 respondents last year. Exactly half of these respondents feel it is imperative that the people they love live there too. And over thirty percent listed ‘my things’, ‘decoration’ and ‘crockery’. Almost a third felt a pet was an essential part of home life and over a quarter feels a garden or terrace and own furniture are important, just as connections with friends, family and furniture play a role in how at home we feel. In short: it’s both our favourite people and our favourite things that turn a house into a home.

“It is both our favourite people and our favourite things that turn a house into a home.”

That we like having our favourite people around seems obvious. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy living together. Creating a warm and stable home for your family is essential according to the Flemish child- and youth psychiatrist Peter Adriaenssens. Last year he wrote a book entitled ‘Nesten’ in which he attempts to answer the question of what makes a family home. “It’s a work in progress,” he feels. “A house becomes a home when each family member feels free to be themselves, and where there is noticeable effort to form a unit. A nest really. And seeing as you can’t just buy one, nor create one from one day to the next, nesting equals some serious work,” he writes in his introduction.

Adriaenssens pleads for slow and steady creation, a critical view and including the children in the process of furnishing the home. “A house takes care of our physical needs, as it provides warmth, quiet and a safe haven. But nesting is only possible when you are free to turn your house into your own.” Inspiration, he says, can be found anywhere: in your own past and the house you grew up in, through talking to family members, from other families, or from magazines and books, but putting your own stamp on it is essential.

“Interior magazines shouldn’t dictate how you create your home. That the lamp by designer X works so well with the table of Y is a possibility, one of a thousand. But we wouldn’t wish a life in an interior upon any family with young children. We shouldn’t begrudge them life in a living, breathing environment; we should allow them to experience a real home.”

That we should want to keep our favourite things close by, as shown by the Iliv survey, makes sense according to Ruth Mugge. Ruth is an associate professor at the Industrial Design Faculty of the Technical University Delft and researches product attachment; the strength of the bond that we feel with a product. “An object that we feel an affinity to conjures up emotions. People can feel happy, proud or warm towards their favourite things. Or sad in regard to an heirloom. An object to which you are attached has a special meaning that brings about feelings of protection.”

“People can feel happy, proud or warm towards favourite objects.”

“These are also the things we take along when we move house.” Her research shows there are four main reasons for attaching to an object: because they give expression to your own identity, because they bind you to a group, because you enjoy them or because they remind you of something or someone. “Of these reasons, memories are the strongest binding factor, as they make an object irreplaceable. Logically this is the most important reason to keep them with you or to display them in your home.”

“Moving often means a change of identity, whether it’s becoming a resident of a new town or a new country. If you want to keep your old identity intact, then it’s important to give the objects that show your identity an important place in your home. But if you’re looking forward to a ‘new you’ then they will be less important,” And, Ruth Mugge admits: “Extreme expats, people who move regularly for professional reasons, have one of two strategies: either they are less likely to bond with objects than others would as they know it is only temporary. Or they will take a little bit of ‘home’ with them with each move.” A kind of survival kit that can easily be integrated into a property, essentially.

This product attachment may partially explain why we are seeing so many display cabinets in furniture catalogues these last few years, both in high-end and high-street design. The still life’s you can create here are literally that; they bring instant life to a home. Only recently British interior magazine Elle Decoration devoted no less than six pages to ‘the art of display’; smart ideas for modern-day still life’s in trendy colours.

“An absolute must for any home is a great sofa; somewhere you can retreat to and relax.”

“An absolute must for any home is a great sofa; somewhere you can retreat to and relax,” says Katja van Putten, project manager at Iliv. “It’s surprising how many people find this indispensable to feeling at home somewhere,” she stresses. And then of course there are the tricks of the trade that will make any house feel warm and welcoming.

In her book ‘Home is where the heart is’ interior design specialist Ilse Crawford highlights the most important ones. “There are certain basic things that make us feel safe – and have for centuries. They are irrational and independent of style: drawers and doors that close with a sturdy clunk (why else would car manufacturers add the noise digitally?); high back furniture; overscale tables, beds and lamps; things that resonate of home, and help us create a new and deeper sense of domestic comfort.”

She feels it makes sense that we should like vintage furniture, as it reminds us of childhoods spent at parents’ and grandparents’ homes, and she knows that our bodies much prefer rounded shapes. That we should love rocking chairs, sheepskin rugs, traditional textiles and cosy corners to sit in is logical, as is a warm environment with mood lighting and healthy, clean air. It’s hardly surprising to her that comfort and decoration have become important again in the world of interior design. “Patterns, wallpapers and artisanal items bring more intimacy, privacy, sensuality and beauty and offer a counterbalance to the more clinical designs. “Home,” she writes, “ is a mental state as well as a place.”

Five easy suggestions that will ensure you feel at home instantly:

• ensure you have somewhere to retreat to;
• make sure your house is warm, literally, but also through the use of warm colours, materials
and mood lighting;
• involve all housemates in the decorating and be flexible;
• put together a survival kit of your most precious items when moving house;
• have a display cabinet with favourite photographs, memories and meaningful objects.

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Thanks to Leuven University, Europe’s eldest, the city has long been an international hub for students, researchers and companies. Their presence has done the region good, but it doesn’t mean the people who want more for Leuven can sit back and rest on their laurels. That’s why, in 2016, Mohamed Ridouani (alderman for SP.A) initiated Leuven MindGate, a network of local institutions, government bodies and industry sectors joining forces to guarantee long-term sustainable development, innovation and welfare in the region. How? By creating optimal circumstances for businesses (e.g. attractive tax conditions), research & development, studying and living.

Research + White Paper
Everything starts with people. With the aforementioned survey Leuven MindGate wanted to “investigate what makes Leuven an attractive place to live and work and where there’s room for improvement. A special taskforce was created to come up with practical recommendations and to specify the right actions required to establish this high-level living and working climate within the region”. The results are bundled in a white paper titled ‘Towards An Outstanding Working and Living Environment: needs and practices for supporting international knowledge workers’.

To start with a general conclusion: success boils down to integration. Not surprisingly these are the paper’s three main focus points: integration of the worker in his or her job, the family or partner into the new environment, and both of them into the Leuven community. In spite of the abundance of help on a wide variety of subjects that is offered by relocators and other specialists, several gaps in the supply of information for newcomers kept surfacing. It is here that the city has decided to step up and take responsibility.

A selection of conclusions from the report:
• The knowledge workers were least happy with the help offered in the search for a daytime activity (e.g. a job) for the partner, a school or day-care for the children and cultural integration;
• The partner’s wellbeing often seems to be the determining factor for a longer or even permanent stay in the Leuven region. Fewer than half (42%) of international staff currently feel part of the local community, 45% of partners who want to work in Belgium experience difficulties;
• The City of Leuven plays a vital role in the integration of international knowledge workers, but their initiatives are scattered and not all accessible;
• [Most] people want the City of Leuven to inform them about administration and registration, activities and healthcare;
• The gap-analysis between the importance rated and the quality of the support shows that in the future the greatest improvement (high importance combined with current low quality) can be made with actions targeting partner job search, housing, relocation, schools and childcare and tax matters;
• 54% of respondents indicate that more information from the City of Leuven about cultural and social activities would be useful.”

Leuven, hidden pearl (policy)
Alderman Mohamed Ridouani makes it his personal matter to address these issues. From an interesting but rather unusual portfolio containing (among others) economy, education and real estate, he works on the internationalisation of Leuven. Again integration is key here. “I try to make it one of my assets, because a city with a high quality of living – liveable, tolerant, bustling – is an attractive city. I visited Shanghai during the course of our research for MindGate, and found they’re experiencing trouble attracting knowledge workers partly because of the smog.”

Like many innovations, Leuven MindGate and the dream of an International House originate in frustration. Ridouani: “Leuven has and offers a great deal of opportunities. Everyone knows it as university town, but it’s much less known that we’re also leading in research. Because of that we’re only reaching part of the international talent that might be interested in working here, which means less companies, and less European research funds.”

Ridouani wants the world to see Leuven for what it is: a pearl. In order to do this Leuven MindGate has set two main goals. One: putting the city on the map for health, hi-tech and creativity (Did you know Teno-fovir, one of the most frequently used medications to treat AIDS was developed there?). Two: Combining forces for a larger (social) coherence. “There’s research going on at IMEC (world renowned nano-electronics research centre), there’s research going on at the university hospital, combine those two and you get biotech. This in turn opens up a world of possibilities for start-ups, investments and so forth,” Ridouani enthusiastically explains.

“The university is good for six hundred years of scientific development and gaining knowledge,” Riduani continues, “twenty years of transforming that into products and solutions lead to companies like IMEC that brought wealth to our region. And I don’t just mean financially, with 156 nationalities in one city we can speak of cultural wealth as well. The next step is to make sure we attract and foster activity and business for more prosperity, more jobs, an even higher quality of life. We can only make that happen if people stay.”

Laying the Foundations
When asked about remarkable conclusions that came out of the Leuven MindGate research, Ridouani says: “I was surprised to learn that such a large percentage of respondents like to live here, but they don’t feel integrated. I think 80% of the respondents said they don’t know who their neighbours are. In fact a very important reason for people to leave Leuven is their partners’ lack of activities and integration. I was also surprised that the city’s offerings like cultural activities, schooling, child day care, etcetera are hardly known. It supports my conviction that social cohesion starts on a very local level.” That’s where the International House comes in. Besides investing in affordable workspace and housing, issues like schools for accompanying children are a necessary means to remove the barrier to come to Leuven. In Ridouani’s words: “integration into the local society is a top priority”.

Even though the idea of one location where everything the expat needs is concentrated under one roof was a product of his own imagination, Ridouani is humble enough to admit that he might not be the only one to have had this thought. Research took him to Denmark, to the International House in Copenhagen. The house accommodates public authorities, public services, private services and the University International Staff Mobility team. It offers support before, during and after relocation and integration. “We also visited the International House in Eindhoven. Each has it’s own specialties, but the basic offer is the same: an overview of online resources and forms to prepare the expat’s stay and help in his or her search for accommodation. Once they arrive they will be guided through their emigration process. The International House will be a home base where expats can find all possible information they need to integrate as quickly as possible: information on schools, (cultural) activities, volunteering, job markets. Besides practical and administrative help, we are planning to organise events and a festive International Day. What I think will be unique in the Leuven International House is the integration of the International Primary School that is currently situated in Heverlee.”

“We already have 17.000 international workers in Leuven. I want them to feel at home, to break the barrier between them and the Flemish community, something the people from Leuven would like as well.” Ridouani sounds inspired. “The International House should become the central place for all affairs international, but I hope it will also become a symbol or flagship for Leuven’s international aura and ambition.” By no means is Ridouani planning to replace the service providers that are currently operating in Leuven: instead he’d like to join forces. As far as integration goes Ridouani is thinking big. “Think of all the local applications that research could lead to: city planning, mobility, safety, air quality…”

It looks like 2017 is the year in which many a relocator, expat and employer’s dream finally comes true: Belgium’s first International House is well on its way to becoming a reality. We highly recommend reading the report. Find it here:
www.leuvenmindgate.be/en/news-press/hr-event

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How come Belgium’s such a big player? And what does this silent giant of an industry actually entail? Life Sciences are those fields of study that deal with living organisms and their life processes. You may think in the direction of biology, healthcare and medicine, nutrition, microbiotics, ecology and the various interconnections between those fields. Especially Research & Development, and more precisely the expertise in the area of clinical studies, puts Belgium at the European summit of biotech, the cross-pollination between biology and technology. Twenty-nine out of thirty top pharmaceutical companies that operate in this field (including of course Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Bayer) have offices in Belgium.

Let’s start with some facts and figures. The Belgian biotech industry:
• Is the number one R&D employer in Belgium;
• Was the 2nd largest biopharma exporter in Europe in 2013;
• Creates three indirect jobs for every biopharma job in Belgium;
• Has high global rankings in actual production and patents.

As for the other question, why Belgium, there are a number of factors to account for. Call it a tripod made up of political, economical and scientific factors. Of course this industry didn’t drop onto Belgian soil out of thin air. It all started in the early 80’s. Mark Vaeck, currently CEO of Complix, was “lucky enough” to witness it. “In 1980 Amgen, one of the pioneering biotech companies, was founded in the US,” recalls Vaeck. “In 1983 I started out with Belgium’s first biotech company, which was founded only a year earlier. Only two years later a second company was raised and from there it was a speedy development on account of very important molecular biology research done at the university of Ghent and the spin-offs this created. Two laboratories in particular were important to that development, that of professor Van Montagu, scientific founder of Plant Genetic Systems, and the virology laboratory of professor Fiers that formed the basis for Innogenetics. A lot of the people who now hold top-jobs in biotech in Belgium started out in one of those two companies. So you could say Belgium is a cradle of biotech.”

“Flanders has an innovation culture similar to Silicon Valley. It’s multi-cultural and multi-lingual – research shows that people from such a background are better innovators,”  – Bernard Munos, founder of InnoThink

The whole region of Flanders, with clusters around Ghent, Leuven, Brussels and Hasselt and Antwerp, compares very favourably to the rest of Europe. “It has an innovation culture similar to Silicon Valley. It’s multi-cultural and multi-lingual – research shows that people from such a background are better innovators,” says Bernard Munos, founder of InnoThink (innovation in pharmaceutical industry, ed.). What’s more, the proximity and cooperation between different companies and researchers make Flanders attractive to small companies and small(er) companies can innovate more easily.

But that still isn’t all. Let’s not rule out the importance of a government with a nose for opportunities in growing business and welfare. Minister De Croo (Open Vld, Vice-President, involved with the World Economic Forum) summarises the reasons why he believes Belgium holds a 16% market share in Europe:

• Top-notch academic research facilities;
• Fiscal system geared towards innovation;
• Tax reduction on labour costs for researching;
• Big amount of foreign investors.

Mark Vaeck explains why he and Complix chose to set-up and stay in Belgium. “I have experience in The Netherlands, the US and Belgium. Since I was born and raised here, it’s the most evident territory for me. The technology of Alphabodies was developed within Algonomics, also a Belgian company, in which I was a Board member until we decided to establish a new corporation especially to develop the Alphabodies for therapeutic applications. So my network is here. It’s hard to predict the future, but the next logical step might be to start a subsidiary in the US, as stepping stone towards a listing on the Nasdaq stock market. Other than that, I don’t see any reason to go anywhere else but Belgium, especially the UK,” Vaeck chuckles.

“The surface of Flanders is comparable to that of a large city in the US. If you consider that, the amount of businesses here is hallucinatory,” Vaeck continues. “This density is good. There’s a network of related service companies, good staff, short distance to the universities and we are centrally located in Europe with connections to all the large European cities. Fiscal and practical governmental support also adds to the attractiveness of the region. Subsidies and a reduced income tax for expats compensate for the high taxes and labour costs.”

Science Parks
The activity is mainly concentrated around the universities and the affiliated science parks, the largest being those of Ghent, Leuven and Brussels, which are in a sense a combination of the previously mentioned factors: location, knowledge and financial benefits which attract investors and thus create more jobs. No wonder they call them incubators (from the dictionary: ‘a place, esp. with support staff and equipment, made available at low rent to new small businesses’).

Mark Vaeck acknowledges the benefits of a science park. “We cooperate with several of the universities on a regular basis, but also with VIB, an umbrella research group. Being near such locations makes communication easier. Because of the short physical distance and close cooperation, our branch in Hasselt for example provides us access to the animalium for animal testing. Complix also has a small subsidiary in Luxembourg. The offices are situated at the LIH (Luxembourg Institute of Health), which grants us access to their infrastructure, including machinery that’s too expensive for a small company like ours to buy.”

Expats and a Global Mobility Policy
When asked about a global mobility policy, Mark Vaeck can’t help but laugh. “We’re only twenty five people, what do you think? No, we try to stay lean and mean, with little administration. At this moment we have one foreigner working for us, the Chief Scientific Officer, who is an Irish lady. It’s an important subject though. To be competitive you have to be able to attract the right people, and you won’t find all of them within one small country. Luckily we’re attractive right now, also because of our alliance with Merck & Co (a US  pharma giant, LLtV) which means a real boost for the company’s profile. When we start growing in the future we’ll be able to attract more international people. I always refer to Ablynx (another biotech company that Mark Vaeck also co-founded and led as CEO for the first 5 years, LLtV), we started out small there, and now it has a 300-people staff, which counts, especially within the management, several foreigners.”

“Belgium is an attractive place for biotech companies,”  Vaeck concludes. “The advantages on income tax for expats makes it agreeable, the fact that most people speak English much better then in our surrounding countries, Brussels’ multicultural melting pot, a high standard of living and decent housing at acceptable prices, short distances between hotspots like Ghent and Leuven, good restaurants, nice festivals; Flanders scores pretty well on all those subjects. One thing that needs improvement is the number of international schools. And the traffic jams, they’re a real pain.”

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