Belgium in the innovation landscape
Belgium is an unusually complex Eureka country. Not only is R&D organised at federal level, but there are also three communities and three distinct cultural regions. Those regions are competent in applied industrial research and have their own budgets.
This diversity is also a source of possibilities, since each region can launch calls for projects and new funding opportunities individually.
In Belgium, regional support and subsidies cover the R&D of new products, processes and services in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
The federal government is responsible for the scientific research necessary to perform its own competences; scientific research (such as space, climate and Antarctic research) within the framework of international agreements and Belgian participation in international research organisation activities.
Eureka projects are funded by Belgium's regions whilst the federal government funds the housing of the Eureka Secretariat by means of a convention.
Because of its rich diversity, Belgium came up with a unique way of working within Eureka. Belgium is represented internationally at federal 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 a High-level Representative to Eureka, who prepares Belgium's, with the regions, to promote the interests of Belgian actors.
Each regional funding body, SPW Research (Wallonia), VLAIO (Flanders) and Innoviris (Brussels), nominates a National Project Coordinator to support the work of the Eureka network. Every year, one takes on the role of a principal National Project Coordinator on a rotating basis. The funding agencies have established an informal routine of working together and generally use English as their working language.
Wallonia’s interest is to have Walloon companies in global markets. As such, Wallonia is strongly involved in Eurostars, Network projects and Clusters programmes.
For Wallonia there was little political support for internationalisation in the past and the rate of success and funding is similar on regional and international levels. Nevertheless, new incentives (Horizon Europe subsidies) are showing up and are likely to encourage more Walloon SMEs to seek international cooperation.
Biotech is one of the most important sectors for Wallonia together with the materials 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.
On a European level, Innoviris collaborates with other regional agencies and does its best to maintain a balance of powers through informal and 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-startups. In its unique position, Innoviris has a natural focus on international and regional collaboration and 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, 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.
Flanders Innovation and Entrepreneurship (VLAIO) is the contact point for companies and entrepreneurs in Flanders. It encourages and supports innovation and entrepreneurship and contributes to a favourable business climate. VLAIO helps companies to start up their activities and grow their businesses.
The main research areas in Flanders are biotech, ICT, materials, manufacturing, electronics and construction.
VLAIO is active in all Eureka Clusters, mostly in ITEA, CELTIC-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 companies has been assigned to the Decision Committee of the Hermes Fund by the Flemish Government.
VLAIO do this with a true bottom-up approach; any R&D by companies from Flanders can be funded.
VLAIO keeps an eye on the amount of requests and successful projects and use quarterly reviews 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 Eureka projects. There are no ranking lists, so everyone gets funding if the project is deemed to be good.
International experts are used to evaluate 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 30% of Eurostars applications receive funding. For other local programmes, that amounts to 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 it is working on steadily increasing collaboration with neighbouring regions and other Eureka countries.
International programs like 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 organise more common events with other ministries and funding agencies 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 to access funding for industrial research.
In September 2018 a Memorandum of Understanding was also signed by the three agencies at regional level to further strengthen Belgian cross-regional collaboration.
The main aim of this memorandum of understanding is to assist enterprises that wish to collaborate across regions or with a cluster in another region to obtain support from their government.
The collaboration involves:
- individual enterprises in Brussels region, Flanders and Wallonia receiving support from the regional governments for R&D
- clusters with individual enterprises located in another region
Belgium is steadily developing its R&D and innovation 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 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 ministries and funding agencies through Eureka also strengthens and deepens bilateral collaborations after the fact, e.g. in promotional activities.