Leuven: a jewel of innovation in the heart of Europe

The heart of European innovation is not London, Berlin or Paris. It is a small city in Flanders: Leuven. This is the conclusion reached by the annual ranking prepared by Reuters of the most innovative universities in Europe, a list which identifies and classifies the best institutes—those truly capable of influencing the global economy.

Leuven: a jewel of innovation in the heart of Europe

For the second consecutive year, KU Leuven was awarded first place thanks to its scientific publications and registered patents.

Founded by Pope Martin V nearly 600 years ago, today this university is better known for technology than for theology. In 2015, it spent more than 454 million euros on research and its patent portfolio currently contains 584 families of active patents, each of which represents an invention protected in multiple countries.

And it was the Leuven ecosystem that the Ambrosetti Club Innotech Community decided to get to know first-hand. The University (KU Leuven), the Teaching Hospital (UZ Leuven) and IMEC (Interuniversity Micro-Electronics Center) are the three jewels that make Leuven a “knowledge economy”-based region where everything is extremely interconnected.

Employing more than 9,000 people and with an annual turnover of 959 million euros, the Teaching Hospital is considered an example of international excellence in the development of new therapeutic and diagnostic techniques. Its pride and joy is the Human Genetics Department that performs cutting-edge research thanks to its technological infrastructure which can support both clinical and basic research.

Another source of pride is KU Leuven R&D (LRD), the Leuven technology transfer center founded 44 years ago.  In 2016 it signed 3,000 contracts with industrial partners and generated 7 spin-offs, for a total turnover of 265 million euros.

“Our base remains high quality research combined with a prudent financing model and excellent advisory services. This creates the best opportunities. History has shown that economic success is often associated with academic success.
LRD is thriving because research at KU Leuven is thriving.”

Koen Debackere – General Manager, KU Leuven and Chairman, KU Leuven R&D

Among LRD’s most significant initiatives is the CD3 – Center for Drug and Discoverywhich has a two-fold identity: as an investment fund and as a platform for technology transfer with the goal of promoting the discovery and development of innovative drugs for a range of types of diseases.

The CD3 was created in 2006 on the initiative of LRD and the European Investment Fund (EIF) with initial capital of 8 million euros. In just 10 years, it has now launched its own fund (the third) of 60 million euros to expand its field of application. In recent years, the CD3 and its partners have developed more than 20 research projects for the treatment of a number of diseases, including HIV, Alzheimer’s and immune deficiency. Many of these projects have already been licensed-out to major pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies (such as Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Novartis) for the development of the final drug.

The university relies on important international and regional partnerships with other universities, research centers, companies and governments, such as its partnership with IMEC, the largest research center into nanoelectronics and digital technologies in the world.   The innovations that emerge from there find their application in many sectors, including life sciences, urban planning and energy production.

It is no coincidence that IMEC is a trusted partner of many international companies (Samsung, Panasonic, STMicroelectronics and Intel, to name only a few), as well as start-ups because of its ability to bring together within a creative and stimulating environment the best minds from around the world. The center employs 3,500 people of 75 different nationalities, with a turnover in 2016 of 500 million euros.

The power of technology should not be underestimated;
technology has the power to improve lives.
That is why we push the boundaries of technology forward.

The Leuven MindGate, how the ecosystem of this city is known, has the clear goal of positioning the region in the vanguard on a global level in terms of health, high-tech and creativity. All this to help companies, but not only. The interconnection among various sectors has created a unique ecosystem that is perfect for entrepreneurs, investors and young talent. In short, an excellent place to study, work and live. It is no surprise that 90.1% of those living in Leuven say they are “happy”.

Companies such as CommScope, Materialise, TiGenix and Siemens are just a few of the most important players providing impetus to “MindGate”. Taken together, these companies comprise a network of about 140 companies and spin-offs and 300 high-tech firms that have chosen to work in this region.

Materialise, founded in Leuven in 1990 as a spin-off of the university, is, today, the leader in additive manufacturing and 3D printing. It is active in a vast range of sectors including healthcare, automotive, aerospace and design.

TiGenix, founded in 2000, also as a spin-off of the Universities of Leuven and Ghent, is a cutting-edge biomedical company in the field of regenerative medicine for the selection and propagation of human cells. It is involved in the development of innovative local therapies for damaged joints and osteoarthritis. In March 2016, its portfolio of cell treatments was recognized as the most advanced in Europe.

Competing with such a well-greased machine is not easy. Interaction on a range of levels, support from the surrounding environment (i.e., local government), heterogeneous nature of the people drawn to this system and an in-grained entrepreneurial culture are the special characteristics which, according to Martin Hinoul (Senior Advisor, KU Leuven R&D) are the reasons behind the region’s high performance.

We will certainly use this as a source of inspiration. But we will not just “cut and paste” because: 1) it is impossible by definition; and 2) success is the result of creating something that is your own. This was something Koen Debackere (General Manager, KU Leuven and Chairman, KU Leuven R&D) repeated several times during our visit … so we believe him.

“Create your own phenomenon!
In order to have success, you must be different.”

Koen Debackere – General Manager, KU Leuven and Chairman, KU Leuven R&D

Participants included:

  • Marc Decramer, Chief Executive Officer, Academic Hospital, KU Leuven
  • Koen Debackere, General Manager, KU Leuven and Chairman, KU Leuven R&D
  • Martin Hinoul, Senior Advisor, KU Leuven R&D
  • Mark Vanautgaerden, Head of Patient-Related Software Development, UZ Leuven
  • Leen Van Rentergem, Head of Facilities for Education, Research, Communication and Collaboration, UZ Leuven
  • Ingrid Barcena, High Performance Computing Expert, Facilities for Research, UZ Leuven
  • Frank Luyten, Director of the Skeletal Biology and Engineering Research Center, KU Leuven and Founder, TiGenix
  • Patrick Chaltin, Innovation Manager CD3, KU Leuven
  • Gert Matthijs, Full Professor of Human Genetics and Head of Laboratory for Molecular Diagnosis, KU Leuven
  • Michel Dumontier, Distinguished Professor of Data Science, Maastricht University
  • Wim Desmet, Professor of Production Engineering, Machine Design and Automation, KU Leuven
  • Karel Van Acker, Professor of Sustainable Metals Processing and Recycling, KU Leuven
  • Johan Merlevede, Director, Leuven MindGate
  • Jo De Boeck, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, IMEC.

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