Bart Deconinck has unrivalled experience in founding, building and operating global financial businesses that deliver trust and corporate services to clients worldwide. He was the lead founder, Chairman and CEO of Vistra Group, one of the largest international providers of corporate, fiduciary and company formation services, and is co-founder of Zedra, where he currently holds the position of Group Deputy Chairman.
A Belgian national, he is on the board of a variety of Belgium-based tech startups including The Glue Solutions (FinTech), TRAINM (MedTech) and Yuso (EnergyTech), and is among the community of investors of Smartfin Capital, Belgian’s leading fund in smart and financial technology.
As an entrepreneur, founder of two leading global financial services companies, startup board member and investor, what do you consider to be the key opportunities in Belgium for investors?
There are three main areas that are really taking off in Belgium: financial technology, insurance technology and connectivity technology.
Belgium has always been a frontrunner in banking technology. Why? Well, a concentration of big banks in a small place created a specific need for IT services. The country has a long history with FinTech: it was the first to have a clearing system for banks and was at the forefront of the ATM revolution. On top of that, companies such as Capco, Realdolmen, Cegeka and Projective all originated in Belgium, so with this kind of ecosystem, many people had access to knowledge that they then applied when setting up their own businesses. By FinTech, I don’t just mean in the sense of helping banks, but also in the sense of disruption, so the opportunities for creativity are vast.
As for insurance companies, what we’re dealing with is just a giant paper trail! They have a more arcane system than banks with no digital interaction at all. I’ve seen a few startups in Belgium working on business models to completely eliminate insurance companies.
Then there are startups focused on community-driven tech related to connectivity between different ecosystems. Unified Post is a great example of this: it provides solutions for document handling and exchange between multiple parties. It calls itself a “one-stop shop for all your financial data,” and that’s pretty much the essence of the concept – all the data is integrated, centralized and available to the community.
How has the tech ecosystem in general evolved since you started in the financial services business?
Put it this way, when I began my career at Ernst & Young, they had only just installed a fax machine! We didn’t use it initially as it felt too impersonal, and there was always the risk that the recipient would receive an ink-smudged message. So, we relied on the postal service and wrote letters! Now, of course, everything is online and we are not bound to nine-to-five bank opening times to carry out transactions. Soon, going to the bank to close a loan will be a thing of the past; we’ll be able to take out a mortgage or a car loan through our iPhones. It’s just a question of time until the Blockchain revolution!
How is Belgium’s tech scene set apart from that of other “startup nations”?
The word that immediately springs to mind when I think about Belgium’s tech scene is “tangible.” Belgian people are creative, hardworking and do what they say they will do. They make things happen, and often with limited funding. In contrast, the Dutch government, for instance, invests heavily in startups in the Netherlands, but this funding manifests itself more in marketing than materialization. I would say the Netherlands excels at ideas and strategy, where Belgium is about concrete innovation and delivery, albeit more under the radar. With less emphasis on marketing, you really need to seek out the opportunities, which is how I came across the startups I am involved in.
Belgium is also making its mark in MedTech with innovators like Materialise which specializes in, amongst other areas, biomedical 3D printing. I am on the board of TRAINM, which is set to launch in January 2017, and makes use of technology in medicine in an exciting way. It will be the first and only outpatient neurorehabilitation center to offer patients personalized high intensity therapies combined with neurotechnology and robotics.
I would say that being a small country with a history of big companies has helped to fuel growth in the startup arena. An important factor to remember is that the active investor community in Belgium is driven by private and informal investors, and not by VCs. As a result, angel investors are always coming back to invest in Belgian companies in the knowledge that VCs will likely only join the party at a later stage.
This article was first published in SILICON