Why Belgium is an innovation hotspot

Belgium is a high magnetic forcefield when it comes to attracting innovation talent. Innovation touches almost every sector of this small northern European country, from fashion technology, to the famed comic book movement, to the way we use the Internet of Things to process big data at speed at one of the largest ports of Europe in Antwerp. Inventions seem to (Brussels) sprout from the ground. Shock-o-latier Dominique Persoone brought sniffing cocoa to the Rolling Stones. 

Steven Leunens was at the forefront of the e-sports movement. Julius Nieuwland invented the synthetic rubber that led to the invention of neoprene. Robert Cailliau, co-inventor of the Internet, is (surprise, surprise) from Belgium. Anywhere you look, this country is brimming with new ideas, and plans to make them come to life.

For the love of innovation.

Whether it’s monk-made beer, beer-made monks, chocolate fries or fried chocolate, anything goes here. Take, for example, the insect protein company Millibeter that uses the black soldier fly to convert organic waste into useful products for the feed and pharmaceutical industries. Or Charlotte D’Hulst’s MouSensor technology to digitize smell. Or space tech pioneer and keynote speaker Angelo Vermeulen who founded SEAD network and was crew commander of the 2013 NASA-funded HI-SEAS Mars mission simulation.

In all modesty.


Belgium’s impact reaches beyond our borders. More than 80% of the world’s rough cut diamonds pass through Antwerp, dubbed the Diamond City. Belgian-born artificial intelligence whiz Pattie Maes, of MIT Media Lab’s Fluide Interfaces research group, made Newsweek’s top 100 Americans to watch in 2000, and Fast Company named her one of 50 most influential designers in 2011. Her work centers around how immersive and wearable systems can actively assist people with memory, attention, learning, decision making, communication, and wellbeing. Online educational organization Udacity has an Antwerp chapter whose digital marketing nanodegree is set up by Anke Audenaert, co-founder of the startups Favrit, JumpTime, and more recently Sophos Productions. Lorenz Bogaert, a Belgian tech entrepreneur, co-founded social networking site Netlog, used by millions of users around the world, social discovery app Twoo, and cryptocurrency portfolio tracker app Delta.


Antwerp routinely makes the top ten fashion capitals of the world after a collective of six avant-garde designers (The Antwerp 6) disrupted the fashion scene in the late 1980’s with a radically distinct, anti-glamour aesthetic. More recently, Jasna Rok‘s interactive fashion uses the latest research and technology in the field of wearables, sensors, robotics, and electronics, and combines these with futuristic haute couture. Her work is relevant in every industry, from space, to healthcare, to the automotive industry. She delivered a keynote presentation at NASA not so long ago, and is artist-in-residence at Nokia.


In Belgium’s northern region, there are five academic hospitals with internationally-renowned pharmaceutical science and technology departments. Research centers VITO and VIB are also strong performers in pharmaceutical and human health. The University of Antwerp is on the global forefront when it comes to cutting edge cancer treatments.


Brussels has no fewer than 30 Michelin-starred restaurants, ranking eighth place worldwide by city. And Michelin-starred Belgian chef Kobe Desramaults was one of the first in the world to ask to be de-starred so that he could go back to making food the way he liked. Rebels for the win!


We are much more than the cliches we’re known for: beer and chocolate. That said, Belgium is home to the largest international brewery group, Ab Inbev, and one of the world’s largest chocolate producers, Barry Callebaut.

Okay, that’s enough bragging. It’s not really our thing.

Where to find hotspots

With a sizable chunk of the Antwerp population working in the creative class, it’s normal that people are dreaming up new ideas by the bucketloads. (Do ideas fit in buckets?) The EU has rolled out a strong digital agenda for its 2020 strategy for Europe, and Belgium has long-since been on board with the SmartCities program. FinTech is alive and well here, and innovators are gathering in great numbers at conferences, festivals, and startup hives.



This 2-day festival in Antwerp had its first edition last year to bring together big speakers, game changers and local startups. It is a future and technology meeting of the minds for entrepreneurs, professionals and creatives. Belgian speakers at SuperNova included Philip Inghelbrecht, the co-founder of Shazam and CEO of Tatari; Aline Muylaert, co-founder of e-democracy platform CitizenLab; Showpad founders Pieterjan Bouten and Louis Jonckheere, IMEC president and CEO Luc Van Den Hove; CEO of Robovision, Jonathan Berte; and co-founder of European innovation fintech platform B-Hive, Wim De Waele, to name a few.


Digital First

Digital First has been recognized as the leading digital event in Belgium that connects digital leaders. Running for the past 14 years, it is a conference for international networking, and an opportunity to meet the actors, experts, leaders and innovators of the digital sector. The event covers IoT, AI and machine learning, virtual and augmented reality, digital marketing, e-commerce, cloud computing, cyber security, and others.


Startup initiatives

Belgium is home to a vibrant and fast-growing startup scene, partly due to the strong service economy, and the fact that everyone speaks English very well. The number of newly established enterprises is spiking, there is high labor productivity, and an active gig economy. Startup Weekends, Hackathons, Café Numériques, Meetups, Open Coffees, events and workshops are commonplace. Acceleration programs and incubators are up and running in several cities across the country. Co-working and makerspaces are cropping up everywhere. The press gives startups lots of visibility, and several ‘startup of the year’ prizes create a buzz and provide leverage. The names of all the startups are too many to list here, (and we wouldn’t want to leave any out) but they are a force to be reckoned with.

Biohacking lab

On the flip-side of Belgium’s pharmaceutical reputation is a movement started by science communicator, biochemical engineer, education innovator, biohacker and entrepreneur (breathe here) Winnie Poncelet. Something of a local Belgian hero in the DIY science community, Winnie started up the community biolab ReaGent in Gent after leaving his job as an engineer in industrial insect breeding. At ReaGent, he collaborates with designers, citizens and artists on biodegradable materials. He helps teach children, minorities and teachers in the nonprofit Ekoli, launched by a group of community members at ReaGent, which aims to transform science education with the principles of DIY science. A renegade forward-thinker, he’s working on an open insulin project. That’s dope.

Sexual Healing? You're welcome

Belgium could have stopped at the invention of the chocolate bar and praline and rested on its laurels. But instead, it went on to become the breeding ground for the Flemish painters’ movement, art nouveau, produce more types of beer per capita than anywhere else in the world, invent jenever, create a sensation in the fashion world, and become a world-leading R&D and innovation hub in nanoelectronics and digital technology. Belgian gynecologist Ferdinand Peeters’ role in improving upon the contraceptive pill gave birth (pun intended) to the sexual revolution. Indirect inspiration for Marvin Gaye’s writing Sexual Healing at the Belgian seaside? Not likely. More likely it was the saxophone, also a Belgian brainchild of Adolphe Sax. Needless to say, this place has quite a lot of achievements under its (ahem…) belt for a country that many people confuse with its capital city.


I’m Julie de la Kethulle de Ryhove, Innovation Consultant @ Board of Innovation. Spreading innovation culture is in our DNA – if you liked the read, contribute to our mission by sharing this article.

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