Belgium in the innovation landscape

Belgium is an unusually complex member state of the Eureka Network. Not only does it have a federal level, three communities and three distinct cultural regions, those regions are also competent in applied industrial research related to the economy and have their own budgets, whereas in most other countries, innovation is a national level competence. This diversity is also a source of possibilities, since each region individually has the possibility to develop initiatives in the framework of Eureka.

In terms of innovation, regional support and subsidies cover the development of new products and processes in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and technology transfer.

The federal government is competent for the scientific research necessary for it to perform its own general competences; scientific research (such as space, climate and Antarctic research) within the framework of international or supra-national agreements and Belgian participation in activities of international research bodies.

Eureka initiatives are funded by the regions; the federal government funds the housing of the Eureka Secretariat by means of a convention. The convention started in 2013, for 6 years and for a maximum of 600.000/year. From 2019 on, a new term of 6 years will start, for a maximum amount of 485.000 EUR/year.

Because of its rich diversity, Belgium came up with a unique way of working within the Eureka framework, as the federal level represents the country on the international level, but the regional funding agencies are the ones practically executing the various cooperative projects. The Belgian federal administration in charge of Science Policy, BELSPO, nominates the High-Level Representative to Eureka (HLR), who then prepares the Belgian position, with the regions, in order promote the interests of Belgian actors.

Each regional funding body, SPW Research (Wallonia), VLAIO (Flanders) and Innoviris (Brussels), nominates a Deputy National Project Coordinator to support the work of the Eureka Network and every year, one of the deputies takes on the role of National Project Coordinator (NPC) on a rotating basis. The funding agencies have established a very informal routine of working together and generally use English as their working language

Wallonia SPW-DG06 (aka. SPW Research)

Wallonia’s interest is to have Walloon companies involved in the European Market. As such, Wallonia is strongly involved in Eurostars calls, but is currently also considering a broader engagement in the rest of Eureka’s funding instruments. The reason why SPW has been reluctant to participate in more Eureka programmes in the past, was because the way how Eureka programmes were managed was not always very clear for them on the one hand and because of a lack of staff resources on the other hand. Eurostars always provided a greater clarity on its processes. As the selection procedure became more transparent with time, SPW is now hiring additional staff and could increase their Eureka portfolio in the near future.

For Wallonia there was little political support for internationalisation in the past and the rate of success and funding is similar on the regional level and on an international level. Nevertheless, new incentives (SWAN, Horizon Europe subsidies) are showing up and are likely to bring more Walloon SMEs to seek international cooperation. They also legally have to oblige applicants to submit applications in French. However English texts are used in annexes of applications to allow for international collaboration. Technically, German language applications are also accepted in Wallonia. However, there is not much interest from German speaking innovative companies to do so.

Biotech is one of the most important sector for Wallonia together with the Material sector which makes up for almost one third of all projects funded by SPW. ICT is also important, but not as strongly represented as in the rest of Belgium.

Innoviris Brussels

On the European level Innoviris collaborates with other regional agencies and does its best to maintain a balance of powers through informal as well as formal collaboration with BELSPO and the other agencies. Given that it is a city-state region, Brussels has its focus on IT. A lot of financial institutes and headquarters are located in Brussels and as such R&D is mostly centred around IT and IT-start-ups. In its unique position, Innoviris has a natural focus on international and regional collaboration, as well as collaboration between industry and academia.

Funding applications can be submitted in French, Dutch and English, the latter of which is preferable in the case of international collaboration. As most international contracts are signed in English, e.g. the EurekaNetwork agreement, English applications are the standard for international programmes. This is also the case when academic and industrial players are involved. All legally-binding documents, such as funding agreements, are however drafted in French or Dutch, the official languages of the Brussels Region.

VLAIO is the innovation funding agency in Flanders

Flanders Innovation and Entrepreneurship (VLAIO) is the contact point for companies and entrepreneurs in Flanders. They encourage and support innovation and entrepreneurship and contribute to a favourable business climate. They help companies with the start-up of their activities, the growth and continuity of their business.

The main research areas in Flanders are: Biotech, ICT, Materials, Manufacturing, Electronics and Construction.

VLAIO is active in all Eureka Clusters, mostly in ITEA, in CELTICN NEXT and PENTA and most recently also in SMART.
Unlike other agencies, VLAIO has a high degree of operational autonomy in innovation, in which the authority to grant support to R&D to companies has been assigned to the Decision Committee of the Hermes Fund by the Flemish Government.

They do this with a true bottom-up approach. Any demand from companies from Flanders can be met. There are no restrictions for funding.

They keep an eye on the amount of requests and successful projects and use quarterly reviews in order to ensure there is enough budget for all the companies. In recent years the ministry has topped up the budget around the end of the year when needed. This has been a constant policy, independent of the party in government.

On top of basic R&D applications, the companies can get bonuses for international projects, e.g. via Eureka. There are no ranking lists, everyone gets funding if the project is deemed good.

International experts are used for evaluation of international projects. As with the other agencies, the language used is important. Dutch or English language applications are used for local funding and cooperation, and both languages are used in the evaluation process. International projects must be submitted in English. In Flanders the success rate for Eurostars applications is about 30%, other local programmes are 60-70%, but international collaboration encourages Flemish companies to apply for international funding.

VLAIO is very keen on increasing the proportion of international projects in its portfolio. That is why they are working on steadily increasing collaboration with neighbouring regions and other Eurekamembers. International programs such as Eurostars are attracting new companies to VLAIO. VLAIO also benefits from greater collaboration with other neighbouring countries, like The Netherlands, Germany, but also France and the UK due to their membership in EUREKA. They intend to organize more common events with other National Funding Bodies from those countries. This is also in the interest of the Flemish ministry.

Belgium benefits from Eureka

In collaborative meetings around Eureka, the agencies always speak English, because it is more convenient as a common language and because the relevant documents are also already in English.

Due to R&D funding being regional, for the longest time it was impossible for companies in one Belgian region to apply for funding in another region, or even to collaborate with another Belgian company from another region.

Recently, a new instrument, BEL-SME was established to overcome this issue: BEL-SME is a call between all the regions. For the first time it is possible to collaborate between Belgian regions with funding for industrial research.

In September 2018 a Memorandum of Understanding on regional level was also signed by the three agencies to further strengthen Belgian cross-regional collaboration.

The main aim of this memorandum of understanding is to assist enterprises that wish to collaborate with an enterprise in another region or with a cluster in another region to find its way to obtain support from their government.

The collaboration involves:

  • the collaboration between individual enterprises in Brussels region, Flanders and Wallonia receiving support from the regional governments for R&D
  • the collaboration between clusters with individual enterprises located in another region.

Belgium is steadily developing its R&D&I infrastructure and is interested in taking on a stronger role in Eureka’s Eurostars and Globalstars programmes. Eureka makes it easier to reach beyond European borders, because projects go through the Eureka framework and there is no need to set up bilateral calls for international collaboration. This is very interesting for small regions that otherwise might not be able to extend their reach globally.

The close collaboration with other National Funding Bodies (NFBs) through Eureka also strengthens and deepens the collaboration between NFBs bilaterally after the fact, e.g. in promotional activities. One might say that Eureka brings the nations closer together.