Across Europe, the UK, Germany, and France and are widely regarded as the continent’s tech powerhouses.
But one of the more recent trends in Europe has shown that some of the biggest growth in the sector has been coming from smaller destinations, in particular, places like Belgium.
The country, like Sweden, has a tech industry disproportionate to its size. Despite having just 11 million citizens, it has 22 companies in Deloitte’s Fast 500 list for 2016.
The country has a long history of providing a suitable climate for financial institutions that stretches all the way back to the Industrial Revolution.
In the twentieth century, financial utility companies like SWIFT, Euroclear and MasterCard’s European headquarters all decided to call the country home. The European Commission is based in the Belgian capital along with the majority of the government and regulatory framework that keeps the continent ticking.
Companies including General Electric, IBM, Toyota, Microsoft, Monsanto, Pfizer and Levi Strauss & Co have set up European or regional offices in the country on account of its central location in Europe, its multi-lingual workforce and its proximity to Europe’s decision-making elite.
‘Startup Plan 2015’, a government-led initiative helped create a tax shelter for tech companies that shaved tax bills by anywhere from 30-45%. Other initiatives including The Belgian Startup Manifesto are ambitiously aiming to create 10,000 new startups and 100,000 jobs within the next five years.
With Brexit sending shockwaves across London’s fintech sector, Belgian finance minister Johan van Overtveldt has lead a series of talks designed to help UK fintech startups gain a footing in Europe via Belgium.
In 2015, Belgian fintech companies raised €150 million across 41 deals, which may not be on a par with the bigger tech centers. But last year, it sailed past that figure with close to 60 deals and just shy of €200 million in funding.
Driving the growth has been companies like CashForce, which provides smart cash flow and forecasting software to multinationals with their million euro Series A Funding round completed last year.
The bulk of deals in Belgium were focused on smaller funding rounds of less than €5m according to Tech.eu.
However, a number of VC firms including SmartFin Capital, PMV, GIMV, Volta Ventures and Capricorn Ventures have all been active in the ecosystem over the past 12 months, increasing the size and scale of the investments.
SmartFin Capital, which specializes in mid-later stage investment has been channeling larger sums into Belgium fintech companies. The company led a funding round last year that raised 10 million euros for UnifiedPost, a financial supply chain management solution.
Payments systems vendor Clear2Pay is arguably the biggest fintech player in Belgium’s burgeoning scene, having raised $127 million over its 16-year lifetime and is currently clearing $600 million in revenue.
Xpenditure, which offers more efficient expense reporting software raised close to $10 million in funding before being acquired by healthcare company Sodexo for an undisclosed figure last month.
Silverfin, a connected accounting platform raised $4.5 million last month through Index Ventures
Smaller success stories include Intix, a provider of financial messaging and data analytics completed a €1 million Series A round last year, alongside CashForce which also raised a million euros.
Areas of Expertise
Belgium is unusual among hubs in that three-quarters of the country’s startups are business-to-business focused, making it among the highest ratios on the continent.
In fintech, there appears to be a similar trend, with companies like Xpenditure offering services for businesses over consumers and Clear2Pay focusing on helping financial institutions improve internal payments processes.
A second growth area for Belgium fintech companies is Insuretech, lead by fintech company Qover. It provides digital insurance APIs to help companies build digital insurance products. It recently completed a Series A round of €5.5 million making it one of the larger players in this newly emerging sub-division of fintech.
Belgium’s domestic market is small, meaning startups have to increasingly look beyond their borders to gain traction and attract big investment.
It’s mergers and acquisition sector is tiny in comparison to other European countries, staying flat between 2015-16, according to Tech.eu.
Investment is also concentrated in early stage startups. In 2016, more than 60 percent of the country’s 56 funding rounds were for less than €5 million.
Banking giant ING launched a new fintech accelerator called fintech Village last year, aimed at making the bank and key players in the ecosystem such as Jerome Engel Haas, professor of entrepreneurship at Berkeley School of Business and Mike Reiner, head of Amazon Web Services VC arm, EMEA more available to startups when they need them.
B-Hive, the Belgian Fintech innovation platform has attracted millions in investment from the likes of AXA, BNP Paribas Fortis, ING, KBC, SWIFT, Mastercard and others. Its goal is to increase competitiveness of the Belgian financial services industry, attract foreign companies looking for a foothold in Europe and scale-up the ecosystem.
It appears to already have had some early success after Lloyd’s of London announced it was establishing a continental presence in Brussels. It has also provided a robust framework to allow federal investment from the government to trickle down to early-stage startups including SmartFin Ventures.
Expect to see more from the Belgium fintech sector.