Do spin-off companies meet the Walloon Region’s expectations? This is the somewhat cheeky question raised by Prof. Bernard Surlemont in a report he filed with the government of the Belgian French-speaking Community. A debate has thus been launched within the University of Liège. Patricia Janssens interviews Michel Morant, Director of the Industries-University Partnership Project (Interface Entreprise-université) and CEO of Gesval and Spinventure.
15e jour du mois : Why were you interested in this kind of research in the first place ?
Michel Morant : It is always useful to assess policies, so why not in 2006? A further reason would be that a comparison with what is going on elsewhere, for instance in Flanders, can be stimulating. I haven’t personally spotted anything new in the report: figures have been available on the various institutions’ websites and spin-off companies fall into clear categories, even though the French word “boutique” (“corner shop”) that is used in the report comes across as pointlessly offending. But this is only a detail.
At the University of Liège we have created some 45 spin-off companies since 1999, and these have directly produced 205 full-time jobs. This may not be a lot, but it means 205 new quality positions, and we must not forget indirect employment. Among those spin-off companies 24 have a high growth potential; nine are growing slowly, six more are undecided in their development, and the last six will remain very small enterprises. As I see things, any initiative is of interest, and while we obviously can do with locomotives, Wallonia basically needs entrepreneurs. We must be patient: all currently large spin-off companies started in the late 1980s - IBA, Eurogentec, Samtech, etc.
15e jour : Apart from initial assistance do all spin-off companies receive support from the institution in their early years ?
M.M. : They do. The process is in fact tailor-made, and I ought to add that, from among 90 projects, we selected those that seemed most reliable. Moreover for several years now we have felt the need to support the growth of these young seeds, particularly when they have a high growth potential such as Mithra, Nanocyl, or Kitozyme. As suggested by Prof. Bernard Surlemont, we set up Seed – now called Cide – in order to help young companies in their growth.
15e jour : Yet a comparison with Flanders shows that their spin-off companies are larger from the start and tend to grow faster. Is this true?
M.M. : It is. Because the R&D financing system is different in the Walloon Region and prompts any industrial initiative to take on the status of company to be able to receive public aid, access prototypes and other feasibility studies, market surveys, technical research, and clinical tests. This means that subsidies to finance the Proof of Principle (POP, i.e. the minimum threshold to attract investments) are granted within a company structure which is external to the university in the South of the country while in the North this occurs within the Institution. It is thus consistent that Flemish spin-off companies should be better equipped when they start on the market and should pick up faster while ours usually have to spend about three years consolidating their products or their projects.
Another thing: at the end of 2000 the technological bubble imploded. Investors substantially reduced their input in the high tech area, and the attacks on the 11th of September 2001 did not help. Now Flemish universities (particularly the KUL, that started five to ten years ahead of us) created lots of spin-offs companies between 1995 and 2000, and consequently benefited from a more favourable conjuncture. Unfortunately we came too late! But – fortunately – the conjuncture is slowly but surely picking up.
15e jour : Are there other elements that run against the development of these young companies?
M.M. : I think that in Wallonia we suffer from a kind of psychologic-al block that is noticeable in something like “fear of getting big” or fear of opening up! This is applicable to spin-off companies, I’m afraid. A fear of losing your hold on your project, of losing your independence…Yet this fear is not fed by investment companies, neither Spinventure nor Start it. On the contrary Gesval and Spinventure clearly invite spin-off companies to be run by an open board, that is able to join international networks and to find versatile capital thanks to genuine added value in the project.Within our Partnership Project (Interfaces) we also meet this concern in our general strategy. The Lieu network that includes similar structures in all French-speaking universities also examines the issue. One of the tracks we follow consists of information exchange and co-valorisation of research results. This seems to be a promising avenue, which meets the expectations of the Walloon Region’s Marshall Plan, beyond obsolete territorial or academic divisions which are less and less acceptable or indeed accepted.
Traduction Christine Pagnoulle
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