Flanders Investment & Trade: Flanders - a hotbed of R&D

Complex local tax and business development laws can make it difficult to choose an R&D facility location. Claire Tillekaerts, CEO of Flanders Investment & Trade, discusses the merits of the north Belgium region, and which sectors are experiencing the strongest growth there at the moment.

Could you briefly introduce yourself as a company?
Claire Tillekaerts: Flanders Investment & Trade is a government-funded organisation that provides inward investors with financial and logistical advice, as well as helping them tap into potential business partners and services. All our staff have either a background or training in the private sector, and an excellent understanding of the investment issues facing today's C-suite business professionals. Our service is very much a one-stop shop, including a concise, personalised summary of Flanders' investment laws, as well as accurate comparisons with other regions and countries. In addition to the practical details, we help answer bigger questions, such as how moving to Flanders will open doors to the wider European market.

Which kind of company typically invests in Flanders?
Some of our biggest investors are in the sustainable chemistry sector. The American firm FRX Polymers recently came to Flanders to make plastic bases for renewable recycling products. They were drawn here by their research partners, the University of Antwerp and the surrounding city, which is home to the second-largest chemistry sector in the world. Moves like this tend to attract even more companies from related areas, creating a cluster effect. We recently had an Indian firm come to Flanders because they wanted to collaborate with BP, which has a petrochemical refinery here.

Does Flanders offer any financial concessions to attract firms interested in R&D?
Yes indeed. Companies investing in R&D can benefit from a combination of tax benefits, reducing their tax basis considerably. As a result of these incentives and the available subsidies from the region, in 2012, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development placed Belgium as second most attractive host country, immediately after Hong Kong.

What about for the practicalities of the R&D process?
On top of financial benefits, we offer excellent early-stage research facilities called 'factories of the future'. These are small factories based on lab research that can be built extremely quickly. They allow companies to test the market and optimise production on a small scale, before outsourcing to larger, cheaper factories for high-volume manufacturing, once processes have been clarified. We've also ensured the decision processes surrounding clinical research are much quicker than elsewhere. In Flanders, approval of a phase I clinical trial only takes around two weeks, whereas the same process could take two to four months in Germany or France. This saves companies huge amounts of time and money. Partly as a result of all these incentives, Flanders now has the fastest-growing biotech structure in Europe. It's bigger than Medicon Valley in Denmark, and surpassed only by Oxford and Cambridge in the UK.

Which sectors will experience the greatest growth in Flanders over the years to come?
With the increasing focus on business intelligence and cloud computing, big data looks set to have a strong future in Flanders. E-commerce also looks promising. We're currently a long way behind the UK and the Netherlands, but the growth rates for 2012 show that while their sectors are only expanding at 4-5%, it's 14% here, so we're definitely catching up. The other big areas to watch are biotechnology and renewables. A number of southern European biotech firms are coming to Flanders because they know they can find financing here and establish a good site. They're also attracted by the good access to northern and Western Europe, the strengthening relationships between Flanders' harbours, and the billions of euros of investment coming in.
With renewables, we know that Europe is going to be dealing with high energy costs and difficulties in its raw materials supply, so they look likely to become increasingly important. We've already established the Energyville site, which is subsidised by the European Commission, and deals specifically with renewable energy and smart grids.

Claire Tillekaerts, CEO of Flanders Investment & Trade.