Roald, what has been the most significant development in the BE/EU entrepreneurial ecosystem in the last 10 years?
The most important change over the last decade is that the ambitions of entrepreneurs have shifted.
Founders used to build their companies with the long-term goal of developing a product or service. In recent years, it has become so easy to start and sell companies for a good price that the focus of entrepreneurs has shifted from developing products that they can sell to developing businesses that they can sell. Turning the company into a sustainable business was a problem for the acquirer to solve.
And I think investors accelerated that trend with an attitude of “anything goes”.
Ten years ago, local VC funds were 40 or 50 million funds. Then came international players like Bessemer and Andreessen who invested in the European ecosystem, and fund sizes grew to 200 to 300 million – it was, quite simply, easy to raise money. And it was also easy to get those SaaS ideas financed.
On the other hand, we saw a deterioration of financing options for more challenging segments – hardware, and long-term ideas where the returns are lower and the risks are higher. Everybody is talking about cleantech, but how many cleantech funds are there – compared to funds that focus on software?
That confirms the saying that ‘hardware is hard’?
Absolutely. Entrepreneurs tend to steer clear of hardware due to its difficulty and higher risk. Compared to hardware, software or SaaS is simple. You have your ARR, apply a SaaS multiple to it, and one day, when your ARR is high enough, you collect your multiple.
Compare that to the risks you face when building a recycling plant.
How do you feel about the innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem today in BE/EU?
I am optimistic about the future, provided we go back to having normal expectations about building a business for the long term. That means that entrepreneurs have to focus on creating economic value instead of just focusing on the finances.
I think the trend of building a business and flipping it fast is no longer trending, and I don’t see it returning very soon. I think for the foreseeable future, the Metas and Googles of the world have turned off the M&A tap, so that free money is no longer available.
That is not a bad thing per se, because it allows us to go back to the essence: building a viable company for the long term. The future is bright for those who jump on that bandwagon.
We are facing enormous societal challenges for which many companies are trying to create impact – for example, companies who develop cultured meat, work on precision farming, or look for durable energy sources.
You mention cultured meat and precision farming. How long have you been studying these areas of expertise?
We have been looking at novel foods and precision farming for years. That led to us having a specialised life sciences team working in white, green, and red biotech.
Belgium has quite a few companies doing impactful research and development in ecological crop protection, for instance, the Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant, lead by Prof. Dr. Soetaert. These companies have a long development trajectory with higher risks, so they are not always easy to finance. Cost efficiency is key.
It’s no good to develop delicious alternative proteins that end up costing 250 euros for a meal – you need to bring that down to a few euros at most. The technological innovation needs to be so successful that it makes economic sense.
What are your expectations for the coming decade in European tech?
I think the situation will depend on the life stage of the company.
There’s a lot of dry powder for small startups and early-stage scale-ups. Funds like Smartfin and Fortino raised new funds and can continue investing for a few years. It becomes harder for the soonicorns and the larger scale-ups. In order to be competitive, and in order to survive a long downturn with capital markets closed, you need to raise 100 to 200 million rounds. It’s easier to do in the US than in Europe, and we will need to work hard to build companies that are not prey but predators, that can grow into unicorns instead of getting acquired by the US-based unicorns.
I hope to see a shift in the ecosystem where companies develop a solid base to grow organically. It will allow them to become dominant players in the market consolidation.
What are the most interesting trends you’re currently seeing in your industry?
We are a very balanced fund compared to classical tech funds. We look at many areas that can positively impact society and the planet.
These areas include deep tech, cleantech, SaaS, novel foods, FMCG, and recycling.
One bigger trend we’re seeing is nearshoring. It’s a trend that became very apparent during Covid – it emerged out of necessity as business owners brought back their businesses from Asia to continue production here. But now we see that local production is getting closer to cost parity with offshoring in Asia – also because of the rising wages in Asia. It will be very interesting to see what opportunities that will create here.
Another thing we’re tracking closely is retail. How are consumer habits shifting, and what’s the societal impact? A shopping street is also an element of social cohesion: what’s the impact of things like e-commerce on that community life? FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) is an industry with a huge impact in terms of the materials and plastics that it uses, recycling and the ecological footprint of clothes. There’s a lot of new and relevant tech in that space.
HYPE OR REAL?
Lab meat, precision fermentation, alternative proteins: That’s very real to me, but it still faces challenges. It sometimes shares similarities with cancer research: breakthroughs are communicated very early on, long before there’s a real product. It might take years before you see the result as a consumer. Sometimes it would be better to allow these products to mature in relative obscurity, but of course, I realise these companies need that publicity and the subsequent attention to get funding.
Vertical/indoor farming: I find vertical farming quite interesting, but I do wonder about profitability. The crops – cucumbers and lettuce – cost next to nothing in stores. The investment is so big, but the output is so small, especially with energy prices where they are today. This kind of technology needs a lot of maturing because today it looks a bit like greenwashing or marketing rather than a real business.
VR/AR/Metaverse: We’re sceptical of the Metaverse and NFTs today. The purchase of digital clothing adds no real value, and there is a huge difference between seeing a remote island in real life versus “visiting” it in the metaverse.
I am more optimistic about specific tech uses that have a positive outcome, such as educational tech or the acquisition of a piece of art through an Art Security Token. Initiatives like the Ensor project at KMSKA spark my enthusiasm because they allow you to become co-owner of a painting at the museum. Something that otherwise is difficult becomes accessible through new tech. It had a slow start, but we may be looking at the beginning of something impressive here.
So, I believe in the useful applications of the technology, but I have doubts about the profitability. A company’s duty is to make a profit sooner or later. If there is no profitable business model behind the technology, the business will cease to exist.
If you would start your career today, which company would you join?
When I was young, I wanted to find a job that would pay well, and ended up in financial services. In the end, I missed a sense of purpose in that job, as it felt like I was just making rich people richer. My current job offers me real purpose: I can use my financial background to help entrepreneurs have societal impact. If I were to start again, I would search for a purpose-driven career from the beginning.
I would become an entrepreneur myself if I had the skill set for it. I, unfortunately, don’t, so I want to help people realise ideas that have a balanced and impactful financial, social, and economic return.