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Located in the heart of Europe, Antwerp is proud to be home to Europe’s second-largest port and the continent’s top chemical cluster. This pocket-sized metropolis is also the diamond trade capital of the world and Belgium’s favourite retail destination. . A solid base, which is being renewed by a strong innovation drive in digital, circular, health and creative economy.

How the Sector Developed in the Region of Antwerp

Antwerp has a particularly strong track record in terms of innovation and trade. For over five centuries, the superb connectivity of the city, together with the strong business drive of its people, has contributed to making it a major economic hub.

Today, the city is stepping its game up, with digital innovation, circularity, health, and creativity forming the pillars on which its future economy is built. These powerful ecosystems develop innovations for Antwerp’s traditional business clusters – such as its port and chemical industry – and help achieve new successes in various societal domains, like health and mobility. The solid consumer base, together with strong ambitions and an open culture of innovation, makes Antwerp the ideal launchpad for innovative companies in Europe.

Antwerp is currently home to the fastest-growing ecosystem in digital innovation in Flanders developing into an international reference in the fields of IoT and AI. Over the past years, the number of start-ups has doubled to more than 500. The amount of capital raised quadrupled over this period. Therefore, it is the City’s priority to allow these start-ups to develop into scale-ups.

Rising Trends and Developing Technologies

Antwerp’s dedication to innovation is just as tangible in sustainability as it is in digital innovation. If Antwerp wants to be a future-proof city, it will have to consider its environmental impact. The city takes a lot of initiatives in this regard.

For instance, at the end of 2020, Antwerp adopted an ambitious Climate Action Plan 2030. It aims to reduce carbon emissions by 50-55% by 2030 and become a climate-neutral and climate-proof city by 2050. In so doing, the city of Antwerp is clearly stepping up its ambition to address climate challenges.

As part of these efforts, the city aims to heat as many buildings as possible in a sustainable way. Heat networks, such as the one in the new residential Nieuw Zuid district along the river, are crucial in this respect.

Another project is Blue Gate Antwerp, a newly-developed business park that is geared towards the circular economy. The water bound site, which is ideally located close to the city centre, is the first site of such size in Belgium to focus exclusively on this.

Sustainability is also an important driver of innovation for the Port of Antwerp and the energy transition plays a key role in this. The potential applications of hydrogen are being researched and developed. Production, storage, and distribution of hydrogen are possible in the port. For this reason Antwerp will host on 22-23 June 2022 the European Hydrogen Financing Summit, organised by Tech Tour.

As an international hub for trade and innovation, Antwerp also enjoys a longstanding tradition in design and creative services. From cutting-edge masters and cultural entrepreneurs in the 16th century, to avant-garde fashion designers and creative service providers nowadays, creativity is in the DNA of local people. With 1 in 10 business establishments being creative businesses in Antwerp, the city offers the ideal ecosystem for inventive companies to flourish and grow internationally.

Thanks to the presence of 28 hospital campuses and top research institutions like the renowned Institute of Tropical Medicine Antwerp and the University of Antwerp, health is a meaningful innovation cluster in Antwerp. The main focus of this cluster is on smart health and infectious diseases. In 2021, more than 50 Antwerp start-ups were engaged in the field of health. That’s an increase of more than 100% compared to 2015. In 2022, Vaccinopolis, a pre-clinical test centre for vaccines, will open its doors.

Main Players in the Local Ecosystem

The main knowledge and research institute in the region is the University of Antwerp. The University of Antwerp excels in three valorisation domains:

  • Sustainable chemistry and materials
  • Infectious diseases and environmental health
  • Metropolitanism, smart city, mobility, and logistics

The university works closely with the city’s industrial fabric for this. An open innovation hub is set up in each domain – such as The Beacon (digital) and BlueApp (sustainable chemistry) – bridging the gap between research and industry.

The valorisation office from the University of Antwerp provides support to entrepreneurial researchers for setting up their spin-off. They receive coaching and learn about all the aspects of entrepreneurship, such as financing, business planning, intellectual property, marketing in intensive training programmes.

Once the spin-off is launched, the researchers become part of the University of Antwerp’s vibrant spin-off community.

Digital Innovation

The area of digital innovation focuses on smart port & logistics and smart mobility.

SMART PORT & LOGISTICS

The port of Antwerp has become a hotspot for innovation in order to optimise its operations and provide an excellent environment for the maritime and logistical companies in the port area. Digitalisation remains a key focus.

The Port participates in NxtPort, a data platform for port and logistics companies, replacing the traditional and abundant paperwork in the port.

Examples for players in this ecosystem include: drones (Unifly) and smart shipping (Seafar).

SMART MOBILITY

Smart mobility is a key aspect of the City of Antwerp’s smart city policy. The ‘Smart Ways to Antwerp’ multi-modal platform helps people to find the best way to get to Antwerp. This platform combines data from more than a hundred mobility stakeholders, providing a solid base for innovative mobility solutions.

Examples of players in this ecosystem include: crowd monitoring (Crowdscan).

Sustainability

The area of sustainability encompasses sustainable chemistry, water and hydrogen-related technologies, as well as prevention and recovery of waste.

SUSTAINABLE CHEMISTRY

In BlueChem, an incubator in sustainable chemistry, new start-ups are laying the foundation for a more sustainable future. The focus is on CO2 capture, reuse, and storage technologies. In addition to BlueChem, the unique Blue Gate Antwerp industrial site is also home to BlueApp.

This pre-incubator has a fully-equipped lab environment and a demo hall, and it offers access to the knowledge and expertise of the University of Antwerp. After the early incubator and growth phase, companies can further develop their activities at Blue Gate Antwerp or in the NextGen District in the Port of Antwerp.

D-CRBN is one of the promising start-ups in BlueChem. It is breaking down CO2 into its original components to make new materials for the chemical industry.

Examples of other players in this ecosystem include: hydrogen refuelling (CMB Tech); sustainable proteins (Calidris Bio); clean water (Inopsys); residual heat in the industry (Qpinch).

WATER AND HYDROGEN-RELATED TECHNOLOGIES

The Port of Antwerp is aiming to be a climate-neutral port by 2050. That is why the port is making the transition to a circular economy and investing in energy transition.

As an energy hub, the port of Antwerp is the place where energy transition is taking shape, where renewable energy is being generated on a large scale. Alternative energy sources, such as hydrogen, are imported, stored, and converted into sustainable building blocks (raw materials and fuels) for the chemical industry.

The Port of Antwerp has ordered the construction of the world’s first hydrogen-powered tug. The internal combustion engines that drive this ‘Hydrotug’ run on a combination of hydrogen and diesel. In 2021, shipping company CMB built the world’s first multimodal Hydrogen Refuelling Station in Antwerp. What makes this station unique is its ability to produce its own green hydrogen which can be used to power cars, trucks, tube trailers, and ships.

PREVENTION AND RECOVERY OF WASTE

Antwerp has a rich and highly diversified ecosystem of specialised waste processing companies, ranging from mass processing, over-processing of organic/biological waste, ship waste, and hazardous/toxic waste, to metals.

In 2019, the Corporate Knights research division ranked the Antwerp company Umicore as the 14th most sustainable company in the world. Indaver, a Europe-wide waste management company, offers a wide range of treatment solutions to Belgian industrial and governmental customers. It has invested in a new factory for recycling polystyrene.

Examples of players in this ecosystem include: recycling of precious metals, such as kobalt & germanium (Umicore); (planned) recycling polyurethane plant (SurePure on NetGen District).

Health

The area of health includes Vaccinopolis, the BluHealth Innovation Center (BHIC), and the Institute for Tropical Medicine Antwerp (ITM).

VACCINOPOLIS

Vaccinopolis is a unique academic testing facility that will open in 2022. The facility will carry out tests regarding Controlled Human Infection Models. Vaccinopolis is part of the development of the Ecosystem for the Fight Against Pandemics.

BLUEHEALTH INNOVATION CENTER (BHIC)

In the HealthTech sector, local authorities, companies, research institutions, and care facilities join forces in the incubator BHIC to support and encourage digital transformation in healthcare. BHIC has grown and evolved out of an original Antwerp concept and is located in Dunden, a unique site in the city centre, at the heart of Antwerp’s start-up movement.

INSTITUTE FOR TROPICAL MEDICINE ANTWERP (ITM)

ITM promotes the advancement of science and health for all, through innovative research, advanced education, professional services, and capacity building of partner institutions in the South. ITM has unique expertise in HIV, tropical diseases, tuberculosis, infectious diseases, and inadequate healthcare.

Examples of players in this ecosystem include: telemonitoring (Byteflies); self-service control (Salvus Health); software for doctors (Bingli); software for doctors | urology (Minze); digital platform for psycho-social help (Health Endeavour)

Creative Services

The area of creative services involves creative agencies, fashion & jewellery design, and media & entertainment.

CREATIVE AGENCIES

Creative agencies thrive in Antwerp. This community of innovators helps other companies better design and rethink their products, processes, and services. It’s an invaluable source of innovation for the broader economy, in Antwerp and beyond.

FASHION & JEWELLERY DESIGN

From the famous ‘Antwerp Six’ in the 1980s, to cutting-edge fashion tech and jewellery designers nowadays, Antwerp is internationally praised for its avant-garde design scene. The city has continually promoted and produced talent and craftsmanship in fashion and jewellery.

Major names such as Wouters & Hendrickx, Anne Zellien, Rembrandt Jordan, Nico Taeymans, and Nadine Wijnants in the jewellery business, and Ann Demeulemeester, Stephan Schneider, and Bruno Pieters in fashion, have helped to cement Antwerp’s position as a city with a contemporary design scene.

MEDIA & ENTERTAINMENT

Antwerp is rising up as a media & entertainment hub in Europe. Thanks to the large number of companies and related investors in the city, and the opening of a dedicated area close to the Central Station (Mediasquare), Antwerp is the future city to watch in this field. Media group DPG Media recently got a 100 million euro loan from the European Investment Bank to speed up its digitalisation. DPG Media will invest 244 million euro in three years.

Examples of players in this ecosystem include:

  • diamond: diamond CAD (Diamcad), automated cutting machine (HB Antwerp)
  • retail: smart retail area, future of shopping (RetailDetail)
  • fashion: streetwear (Arte Antwerp), sustainable fashion (Cosh!)

The Go-to Accelerators, Incubators, and VCs in the Region

The key accelerators in the region of Antwerp include:

Digital Innovation: The Beacon

The Beacon is a community of more than 120 companies and research institutions that collaborate to develop innovative digital solutions for ports, cities, and industries. The community members spearhead cutting-edge developments in data, Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, wireless connectivity, and other digital applications.

The Beacon fosters collaboration within the community by providing 9,000 m² of meeting and working spaces, by organising bespoke matchmaking sessions and events, and by facilitating the start of joint innovation projects. The founding partners are the City of Antwerp, the University of Antwerp, Lantis, Imec, Agoria, and the Port of Antwerp.

  • Hubs: The Beacon, Dunden
  • Start-up incubators & accelerators: start it @kbc, imec.istart, Netwerk Ondernemen, The Birdhouse

Sustainability: Blue Gate Antwerp / BlueApp / BlueChem / NextGen District

  • Blue Gate Antwerp (hub): A climate-neutral business park reserved exclusively for innovative companies that are committed to linear growth through the use of circular operations.
  • BlueApp (hub / pre-incubator): This pre-incubator is an open innovation and training hub for potential entrepreneurs and innovators from knowledge institutions, as well as large and smaller industries. BlueApp focuses on sustainable chemistry, water technology, and new materials.
  • BlueChem (hub / incubator): This incubator is a unique partnership between industry, government, and knowledge institutions that helps growth companies to develop. The focus is on sustainable innovations for the chemistry of the future. BlueChem focuses also on valorisation of waste and side streams, new materials, and biochemistry.
  • NextGen District & Demo (hub): A multimodal site near the Churchill dock in the Port of Antwerp. It will be setting an example by giving the Circular Economy a pivotal role in its operations.

Health: Blue Health Innovation Center (BHIC)

  • Hubs: BlueHealth Innovation Center; Vaccinopolis
  • Knowledge and research institute: Institute for Tropical Medicine Antwerp
  • Accelerator: Medical Solutions Accelerator (powered by design services company Verhaert)
  • Health institutes: Hospital Network Antwerp: UZA; Hospital Network Antwerp: GZA/ZNA

Creative Services: ANTWERP. POWERED BY CREATIVES (APBC)

APBC is a community of creative professionals linking creative business in Antwerp, and it’s exemplary of its kind. Creative talent knows no boundaries, so crossovers between creatives from various sectors are important for Antwerp as a cultural hotbed.

No physical hubs, but these are worth mentioning:

  • Design and creativity: Antwerp. Powered by Creatives (APBC); Us by Night (design and creativity festival)
  • Diamond: Antwerp World Diamond Centre
  • Retail: RetailDetail | The Future of Shopping
  • Fashion: The Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp (fashion program) / MoMu Fashion Museum

The Role of the Region of Antwerp

The Region of Antwerp helps local entrepreneurs in their effort to bring positive change by offering:

ECONOMIC POTENTIAL

When it comes to economic growth potential, Antwerp claims an increasingly prominent place in international rankings. This demonstrates that Antwerp is a dynamic and investment-friendly city to foreign investors.

The City of Antwerp acts in constant synergy with the private sector and is actively involved in developing ecosystems and business clusters for innovation, health, technology, and industry. The city has invested in several innovation hubs: The Beacon, BlueChem, Blue Gate Antwerp, BlueHealth Innovation Center, and Antwerp. Powered by Creatives.

INVESTMENT SUPPORT FOR SETTING UP A BUSINESS IN ANTWERP

The City of Antwerp operates the Investdesk. The organisation helps companies with relocation, investment, permits, and any other problems that may arise, such as mobility issues. Investdesk develops an active acquisition policy. The Port of Antwerp has an investment desk as well. This helped Antwerp to score a second place in the FDI ranking from the Financial Times for Foreign direct investment Strategy.

SUBSIDIES

Each year, the City of Antwerp offers subsidies to companies with innovative projects in the domain of digital, sustainable, health, or creative innovation. The total amount of subsidies varies every year – from €500,000 to €1,000,000.

How Could a Tech Tour Event Support the Ecosystem?

The Hydrogen Financing Summit will form a hydrogen hotspot in Antwerp, attracting ambitious projects and investors from all over Europe. It will strengthen the major position the City of Antwerp and its port have in the European hydrogen value chain.