With its baroque architecture and reputation for beer crafted over centuries, Belgium might not be the first country that casual visitors associate with cutting-edge innovations and technology. Yet the compact EU capital was ranked the world’s 14th most innovative economy by Bloomberg in its 2018 Innovation Index. In its ongoing quest to learn best practices from other countries and forge mutually beneficial partnerships with them, the Skolkovo innovation city recently welcomed a large delegation from the Belgian port city of Antwerp, following two business missions undertaken by Skolkovo startups to Belgian cities. Sk.ru sat down with the Belgian ambassador to Moscow, Jean-Arthur Régibeau, and Flanders Investment and Trade economics and trade attaché Andre De Rijck to learn about the secrets of Belgium’s success and what the two countries could learn from each other.

Jean-Arthur Régibeau, ambassador of the Kingdom of Belgium in Moscow. Photo: Belgian Embassy.

Belgium is renowned for its prowess in several areas of tech, including biotechnology, aerospace, nanotechnology, diamond processing and logistics, but according to Belgium’s ambassador to Moscow, the secret of the country’s success lies not in a specific area of tech or know-how, but in a flexible attitude.

“Where we are probably stronger than others is in terms of flexibility,” Régibeau told Sk.

“You might know that politically speaking, Belgium is a very complex country with a complex society. At the same time, we all have something in common: we are very pragmatic and result-oriented. We can talk politically for years, but what matters is how we live on a daily basis,” he said.

"Since Moscow is actually larger than Belgium itself – you have 13 million, we have 11 million in Belgium – there is certainly also a lot that we can learn from what you are doing here in Moscow, and that we could use and implement in Belgium."

Belgium is dominated by small and medium-sized companies rather than corporate giants, and this enables them to stay flexible, believes the ambassador.

“Most of these companies are still family-based, so they are the project of one man at some point, and if the business grows up to 5,000 people, it’s still medium sized, but they’re flexible enough to adapt to change in the market – and also to innovate, because that’s what they’re good at,” says Régibeau.

“I think that’s something we in Belgium are very good at: companies that are not very big, but very flexible, and they adapt.”

Trading nation

The roots of this flexible attitude, the diplomat believes, lie in Belgium’s trading history: as a small country that wishes to enjoy the benefits of trade with its neighbours, the nation is used to adapting to common rules with its neighbours if they facilitate trade.

“Economically, since the Middle Ages, we’ve always been a trading nation,” says Régibeau.

“Even when Belgium as such did not exist, we had Bruges, then Antwerp. Trade is really the lifeblood of our economy. Even when we went through budget crises in the 1980s, the government mantra was always: we are a trading nation,” he said, noting that the country’s GDP is roughly equal to its trade turnover – and indeed is often a direct result of trade. For example, he said, Belgium imports oil from Russia to its gigantic port of Antwerp. Belgian petrochemical facilities then process the oil, adding value to it, before it is exported. “That’s our GDP,” explains Régibeau.

Guild houses in Belgium. "Trade is really the lifeblood of our economy," says Régibeau. Photo: Dennis Jarvis / Wikimedia Commons.

The ambassador also cites Belgium’s geographical location at the heart of Western Europe, within easy access of Amsterdam, London, Paris and Hamburg, as a natural benefit in economic terms.

“This means that we’ve developed a lot of techniques in terms of logistics, because we’re a logistics hub. There are several Belgian companies operating in Russia that specialise in logistics, because we do have an added value, we’ve learned from history and experience,” he says.

But Belgium has not missed opportunities to build on its inherent advantages by adopting practices to nurture an innovative economy. There is no tax on revenue that is invested back into research and development, and researchers’ salaries are also tax-free, said Régibeau.

“This enables Belgian companies to attract researchers from all over the world, and to employ them in Belgium, and they will not pay tax – or will pay far less than a normal worker,” he said.

A public-private partnership

Another key to Belgium’s successful development of an innovations ecosystem is close cooperation between the government and private sector. In Antwerp, which positions itself as an innovations hub, much of the city’s new infrastructure for tech companies, such as the Blue Gate Antwerp business park and BlueChem sustainable chemistry incubator, are public-private partnerships. This cooperation is not unique to Antwerp: In 2016, the European Innovation Scoreboard praised the close collaboration between companies and public organizations in Belgium, and ranked the country first place for innovative collaboration (overall it ranked seventh in the rating).

“[Support for innovations] is both the result of action by the private sector, and by the governments,” says Régibeau.

“I mention the governments, because we have both the federal government, which is responsible for tax levels, but we also have the three regional governments: Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia. They can also support R&D independently,” he said.

One area of mutual interest and cooperation between Belgium and Skolkovo is the drone industry. Photo: Pixabay.

In Régibeau’s home region, the former industrial powerhouse of Wallonia, the government has implemented a new Marshall Plan (named after the U.S. aid programme for Europe following World War II): investment by the authorities to support development in some sectors.

“These sectors were carefully chosen, building on our current strengths, but also knowing where we have potential: for example, in Wallonia, that’s clearly biotechnology,” says the ambassador.

“And so you have a partnership between the regional government and private companies, with incentive to be active in this area.”

University talent 

“Economically, since the Middle Ages, we’ve always been a trading nation. Even when Belgium as such did not exist, we had Bruges, then Antwerp. Trade is really the lifeblood of our economy. Even when we went through budget crises in the 1980s, the government mantra was always: we are a trading nation."

When the Skolkovo innovation city was conceived, the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), a graduate research university, was established as a vital part of the innovations ecosystem. Belgium is home to eight of the world’s top 500 universities, and unsurprisingly, they play a key role in the country’s hi-tech industries.

Régibeau cites an example from his home city of Liège, when private companies and the university joined forces to work on the Hubble Space Telescope, testing the glass used in it.

Spin-off companies born out of fundamental research at universities are common in Belgium, says the ambassador.

“This happens not only in my home city of Liège but also in Leuven, for example, where the results of fundamental research are almost immediately used by a private company which markets a product that is the result of this new tech. So it’s a web of different actions. It’s also a web of decisions by both the state, the governments at different levels, and the private sector.”

A lot of spin-offs are generated by the universities of Liège, Ghent, Leuven and Antwerp, added De Rijck of Flanders Investment and Trade.

A Skolkovo partner

One example of the web of interaction between companies, the state and universities in Belgium is the nanoelectronics innovation hub IMEC, with which Skolkovo has already established a working relationship in the field of nanotechnology.

“IMEC is a world champion in nanotechnology, but it’s not a commercial company: it’s what would be called in Russia a non-governmental organisation,” says De Rijck.

“It’s generated from the university, the government and industry: it’s a triangle. Industry needs innovation, the university is the brains, and the government is there to sustain them, to develop the economy.”

Skolkovo tech startups pitching at IMEC offices during a business mission to Belgium. Photo: Sk.ru.

De Rijck, a regular visitor to the Skolkovo innovation city, was instrumental in bringing IMEC to Skolkovo and establishing talks between the two sides.

“This company has really good relations with Skolkovo,” said the Flanders trade representative, adding that IMEC is due to take part in the annual three-day Open Innovations forum held at Skolkovo on October 15-17.

Another area of mutual interest and cooperation between Belgium’s innovations ecosystem and Skolkovo is the drone industry, says De Rijck.

At a disused military airfield in the Brussels region, Belgium has created the DronePort: a 475-hectare site for the development and testing of zones. The DronePort, which acts as an incubator for companies working in this field, facilitates both indoor and outdoor testing, and boasts 58 hectares of experimental fields, where drones can be tested on various crops for irrigation, fertilization, disease control and other applications.

One Skolkovo company has already started working together with DronePort, notes De Rijck.

“Things with Skolkovo are definitely developing, and there is definite mutual interest to work together,” he added.

Last year, a large delegation from Skolkovo visited Belgian cities including Ghent and Brussels.

“We certainly see the possibility for more cooperation with Russia, because when I arrived here I realised that in some sectors, Russia is really advanced: for example, I can easily pay for parking with my phone, something that barely exists in Belgium right now,” said Régibeau, who took up the post of ambassador in Moscow in November 2016.

And Yandex has a fantastic GPS system, much better than everything I experienced in Belgium, and that relates to smart cities, because all these new products are very useful for people living in big cities like Moscow. Since Moscow is actually larger than Belgium itself – you have 13 million, we have 11 million in Belgium – there is certainly also a lot that we can learn from what you are doing here in Moscow, and that we could use and implement in Belgium,” said the ambassador.

The library of the Catholic University of Leuven. Universities are a key element of the Belgian innovations ecosystem. Photo: Wentao Jiang / Wikimedia Commons.

The elephant and the mouse

The diplomat is reluctant to suggest what Russia can in turn learn from Belgium.

“It’s like comparing a mouse and an elephant: you don’t guide a mouse the same way you guide an elephant. This is a very important factor and we have to be aware of that. That’s why I don’t like to give any advice, I think it’s for Russia to find its own way,” he says.

Belgium’s path has been influenced by the large number of wars that have been fought on its territory throughout its history, said Régibeau, noting the immense sacrifices made by Russia during World War II, during which his own father spent three years in a German concentration camp as a political prisoner.

“If you take a map of Europe – the whole continent, including Russia – and put a dot on the map for each battle of the last four centuries, you have a heavy concentration at one point, and that is Belgium,” he says.

“We have had enough of wars. We are so happy that together with all our neighbouring countries, we can develop a concept like the European Union where now war is simply unthinkable,” he said, adding that Belgium is pleased to provide the location for the EU capital, where issues are discussed and compromises found, rather than fighting over countries’ inevitable differences.

“I think this is also one of Belgium’s secrets, because we see the difference between war and peace, not just in terms of security, but also in terms of what it means for wealth and prosperity,” says Régibeau.

“We’ve seen that in the last 70 years, and it’s a result we’re proud of. We know we’re only a part of it, but for us it’s an essential ingredient for our success.”