The best ideas are often sketched out on a beer mat over a few pints, right? And there is certainly plenty of beer in Leuven, the home of Anheuser Busch, the world’s largest beer company. There are also a lot of students — the city, capital of Flemish Brabant in Belgium, is also home to Europe’s oldest university, KU Leuven, founded in 1425. 

You might expect this combination to make Leuven simply a party town — and Leuven students do certainly have a phenomenal reputation for being able to have a good time — but the city is also at the forefront of technical innovation, with the university recently rated as the most innovative in Europe for the fourth year in a row by Reuters.  

A number of companies like Siemens and Huawei have research labs in the city to take advantage of the strong research skills clustering around the university, and there is a growing number of startups being created. Leuven startups raised more than €41m in funding last year.

Johan Merlevede at Leuven MindGate, an organisation that promotes Leuven’s tech sector and fosters collaboration between the regions companies, startups and government, explains how the Leuven ecosystem works: 

What is Leuven’s biggest strength as a tech hub?

There is never only one secret but we have a strong university that dates back to 1425. It was ranked by Reuters as the most innovative university in Europe for the fourth time in 2019.

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The university’s tech transfer office has been instrumental in creating a strong ecosystem. The transfer office started in 1972. It was among the first in Europe, and it was certainly not a popular thing to do at the time — people thought universities should concentrate on research rather than commercialisation. Now of course it is very common but Leuven has been doing it for more than 40 years.  

Imec, the research centre for nanotechnology is also creating a number of spinouts in the region. It started as a silicon chip company, so there are a lot of chip designers in the ecosystem. 

The other specialisms for the city are heath tech and cyber security. Guardsquare, which does security for mobile banking apps, is growing very rapidly, for example. 

Leuven’s small size as a city is also a benefit. There are some 100,000 permanent inhabitants, with an extra 50,000 students joining them during term time. Both the university and the city need each other, neither is dominant. The links between government officials, researchers and companies are pretty close, which makes it easy to get things done; the university can call the mayor to arrange things like permits very quickly. 

What are the challenges?

There is the usual problems with small cities — finding office space is becoming a problem. Leuven has a diameter of just 2.5km and everyone wants to be near the centre. But that is a very typical challenge that goes with growth. 

The university and city run a number of incubators, and the prices there are cheap, but availability is a problem, especially for startups that need labs and production facilities. 

How easy is it to find funding?

We have some local investment companies and it is common to get funding from abroad. 

How easy is it to hire people? 

We do have lots of talent via the university but at some point startups need people with international experience and there is less of that. 

How has Leuven changed in the last five years?

The students are definitely more interested in entrepreneurship — but that is the same everywhere. The city is working on solving the problems of space and sustainability. They are building more science parks, for example. 

What is the social side like?

AB Inbev has its headquarters here, and brews Stella and Leffe here. Put a lot of beer together with a lot of students…Well, there are a lot of festivals and festivities here. 

They say that the old market square is a bit of a metaphor for the balance of life in Leuven. On one side you have the university, symbolising education and science, and on the other three sides you have pubs and cafes. 

What are Leuven’s biggest tech success stories?

Materialise 

A spinout from KU Leuven focused on 3D printing, 3D printing software, medical applications

Imec 

A world-class research center for nanotechnology and digital technology, with ca €600m in annual revenue

LMS International 

Spinout from KU Leuven, bought by Siemens

Guardsquare 

Guardsquare provides cyber security for mobile banking apps and achieved 4700% revenue growth in three years.  The company’s technology is already embedded in more than quarter of Android apps on the market today. Battery Ventures invested $29m in the company earlier this year. 

What are the 5 companies that people might not know yet but which are worth watching?

Theoplayer 

In order to match strides with competitors, Verizon Communications Inc. VZ

collaborates with industry-leading web-based video playback services providers,

Leuven-based THEO Technologies and IRIS.TV, to enrich its video streaming

network. 

Comate 

Comate helps companies develop products or machinery.

Qaelum 

Makes software to improve the safety and quality of medical imaging. 

Rein4ced

Has created a patented composite material that is a strong as carbon fibre but more resilient in an impact. The first applications for the material will be in the frames of racing bicycles. Later on, Rein4ced plans to use it in cars and aircraft.  

Octinion: 

Has created a fully autonomous strawberry picking robot that can detect ripe berries and picking them without bruising. 

Where is the best place to meet other startup people?

Innovation and incubation center 

Bio-incubator 

De Hoorn (Stella Artois was first brewed here in 1926)

What is the best event or meetup to attend?

And& 

This is the biggest innovation festival in the region, run by Leuven MindGate, biggest innovation festival in the region. It took place for the first time in May 2018 and the next one will take place on 6-9 May 2020.

Leuven Value Network

Meetup DataScience 

Cronos Open Ba(a)r 

Who are the important people you should know?

Mohamed Ridouani, mayor of Leuven and the first mayor of a major Belgian with an immigrant background. 

Luc Van den hove, CEO of imec

Luc Sels, rector KU Leuven

You can see more influential people in Leuven here

What are the companies everyone wants to work for?

Boondoggle

Brand guidance and communication agency

Easi 

An IT services company that has been named the best workplace in Belgium four times in a row.  

Happy Volcano 

Designs and develops digital entertainment products with a focus on video games for brands and non-profit organizations.

Which newsletters or websites should you read?

The Leuven MindGate website and newsletter can keep you up to date on a lot of what is going on.

What are the most influential corporates in the city?

AB InBev 

Factfile:

Population: 101,396

Number of startups: 148 

Funding raised by Leuven startups in 2018: more than €41m

Average software developer salary:  €46,547

Corporate tax rate: 29.58%, decreasing to 25% in 2020

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