Jurgen Ingels is perhaps the most recognizable Belgian entrepreneur of our age: an entrepreneur since his student days, a first mover in the fintech world with Clear2Pay, a leading VC with the SmartFin funds and a board member in companies like Materialise and Ghelamco. In between, he was the driving force behind initiatives like startups.be and scale-ups.eu, which aim to create a denser, better working European entrepreneurial ecosystem. These days, Jurgen is devoting his seemingly boundless energy on outer space. We got together with him to discuss the future of entrepreneurship and technology in our first episode of our “Shared Future” blog.
What has been the most striking evolution you have seen in the Belgian or European ecosystem in the last ten years?
A lot has changed in Belgium in the last ten years. Where there was very little structure, little internationalization, in the last decade, we’ve seen a number of companies that have broken through more internationally. Their example is good for others to see: Okay, it can be done, let’s go for it.
At the European level, we’ve realized that not all technology needs to come from the US or Asia, but that we also have a lot of technology solutions on offer here. We are also getting better at commercializing them – the Netherlands is in the lead, but I think Portugal is also doing well.
But all in all, we still have a long way to go. Let’s say that in the last ten years we have gone from ten per cent of our potential to twenty or thirty. There is no real “ecosystem” yet, certainly not in Europe. There is still far too little international contact, and it is far too unstructured. Companies should be able to pitch for investments much more easily across borders, but that happens far too infrequently. Everything is still very local.
What do you expect for the next ten years?
I think we are now in a transition period. There are very few mid-sized scale-ups right now. The early adopters, who have successfully grown a business, have now sold their businesses. We are now at the start of a second wave, with, relatively speaking, a lot of start-ups. It will take another five to ten years for those to become scale-ups.
The difference is that these entrepreneurs now have much more experience. In the first wave, you saw more opportunistic entrepreneurs who had to learn by doing. They still had to discover everything; growth was organic. This new wave of companies has been founded by people who already have experience in scale-ups, as a founder or as an employee. They now work in a much more structured way.
We are now at the start of a second wave, with, relatively speaking, a lot of start-ups. It will take another five to ten years for those to become scale-ups. – Jurgen Ingels
So do you expect more IPOs in that second wave?
You would expect that. There is a lot more experience. But you do need a lot more capital today than you did ten years ago. An investment round used to go 80% to infrastructure – like servers. Today that’s only 5 to 10 per cent. The rest goes into the company: product, sales, marketing.
This means that founders need to be much more creative with their resources and have to internationalize much faster.
We are going to run into the limits set by the available funds. Funds of 200 million are too small to invest 50 to 60 million in a scale-up – the price that has to be paid today to build a world player. To do that, we will need funds of 700 million and more.
What are the most interesting trends and innovations that you are following today?
I follow everything that has to do with accounting, with reporting and its automation. I am convinced that accounting is something that can be fully automated. With blockchain applications, you can make accounting completely automated, so that in time you’re not going to need tax returns anymore.
So this leads to everything related to blockchain and NFT (non fungible tokens) – not the “fun” applications of NFT but the business applications.
I also see a lot of future in exploitation of the moon and planets – not so much the mining itself – but rather on anything to do with data collection around the question: What and where should we start mining?
Bill Gates once said that people overestimate change in the short term, but underestimate it in the long term. What long-term evolution do you think people underestimate?
Purely technologically, I think we are at the beginning of everything. By that I mean that we have discovered 0.1% of the possibilities.
I think we really underestimate how much quantum computers are going to be able to make predictions in all kinds of areas. To be clear: I’m not speaking about Artificial Intelligence here. I think people have way too high expectations about AI in the short term. I really don’t think AI is going to solve everything.
Also, I’m very interested in what’s coming in nutrition and medicine. People underestimate how large an effect nutrition has on health. There’s going to be huge investment in nutrition in the next few years.
What are some things that we will find normal in 2032 but that we don’t expect today?
I think within ten years we will find it very normal that we are constantly monitoring our health through nanobots or microchips in our bodies. Adapting our diet to our health and with the type of 24/7 monitoring that says, “You need to go to the hospital because you are going to have a heart attack.”
For the rest, I think within ten years we will look at property differently – I think we will rent a lot more things than buy, for example: I won’t buy a car but I will rent one if I need to.
Do you think the following phenomena are fleeting hypes or will they really bring significant change?
- VR and AR: “I am more of a “real experience” animal. So I don’t think we’re going to spend hours a day in a dream world. As support in operations or in maintenance of machines, AR and VR is going to have a place though”
- Fusion power: “In any case, there are going to be big developments in energy, but I’m betting on small, decentralized nuclear power plants.”
- EVTOLs and flying cars: “I don’t see it yet. That will take another hundred or two hundred years.”
- Crypto and bitcoin: “Blockchain is interesting, but it is very unbalanced for now. As a private individual, you can’t play along with large institutions like banks because the transactions on a blockchain are so expensive and complex. Once that cost drops significantly and really everyone can participate, then you will start to see interesting applications. For NFTs, I see interesting use cases for notaries, for example, and for luxury goods: a bag from Hermès can be fake, but if an NFT is linked to it, you do have that traceability.”
If you were to start today in your career, which company would it be at?
Like I said, I think food is going to be the big wave in the next ten to thirty years, so that would interest me. Otherwise: anything around data and orchestrating data. I would probably like to join a start-up or scale-up that is working on data.
Which Belgian entrepreneur is going to help shape our future for the next ten years?
I am thinking of Qpinch: they have a fantastic technology for recovering heat losses. They are totally unknown today, but I would keep an eye on them.
What do you appreciate most in working with the Cresco team?
The combination of entrepreneurship with deep sector knowledge and top legal expertise for every stage of the private company life cycle, which is essential for any entrepreneur setting up and growing a business.
Since 2010 David Dessers, founder of Cresco, has acted as my trusted lead counsel together with a top Cresco team, from the Clear2Pay €50 million investment round led by Aquiline through the strategic €375 million exit to FIS, the formation of the Smartfin funds with an aggregate committed capital close to €500 million, and a large variety of investments, divestments and other complex transactions.
I wholeheartedly recommend the team to any entrepreneur, investor or corporate.