A Pioneer in the Ecosystem
HE HAS BEEN AT IT FOR 16 YEARS AND KNOWS THE ECOSYSTEM BETTER THAN ANYONE. MEET THE MAN WHO TOOK TECHNOPORT, LUXEMBOURG'S MAIN INCUBATOR, TO THE NEXT LEVEL. HIS DOOR IS ALWAYS OPEN TO EAGER ENTREPRENEURS WHO WANT TO GET STARTED OR SCALE UP THEIR BUSINESSES. THESE DAYS YOU'LL ALSO FIND HIM RUNNING AROUND EUROPE IN AN EFFORT TO CONNECT LUXEMBOURG WITH OTHER MAJOR HUBS. WHO IS HE?
DIEGO DE BIASIO, WHY TECHNOPORT?
Do you mean “Why Technoport” as a brand or as a job?
For the brand it's quite simple: it's a combination of two French words: technologie for technology-oriented companies and port, as in harbor, where entrepreneurs can moor and then leave to expand into new and bigger markets. A harbor is usually an area protected from rough water by piers, jetties and structures, similar to what an incubator should be for these entrepreneurs. It is a place you can also return to – some serial entrepreneurs have done so in the past, which I guess shows that they appreciated the harbor.
Now for the job. I somehow fell into it. It was not really planned. I met Mr. Claude Wehenkel, former CEO of the Public Research Center Henri Tudor, for my master thesis. We agreed to a one-hour interview, which actually turned into a four-hour discussion. It was his secretary, Mrs. Daisy Thill, who stopped us. After my studies I applied for several jobs and got an offer from the Research Center, which originally had nothing to do with Technoport. That's when Mr. Wehenkel called me and asked if I would like to work part-time at the incubator for six months to see if I like it. I accepted, and six months later I switched to a fulltime position. He gave me this incredible opportunity to develop the incubator over the subsequent years. After the merge in 2012, I was fortunate to be able to continue the development. I think that without that interview during my master thesis I would probably be sitting somewhere else today! But don't ask me where.
WHEN WAS THAT?
My first working day was on October 28, 2001, over 16 years ago!
SO YOU SAW QUITE A LOT OF EVOLUTION IN THE ECOSYSTEM. HOW WAS IT BACK THEN?
Very different! The whole environment was way less dynamic. Technoport, founded in 1998, was the first incubator established. We still had everything to prove and had to show that such an organization could be beneficial to the whole innovation system, in the mid and long term. Back then we had less applications, very few resident entrepreneurs and far less interest in startups, innovation and incubators from all stakeholders.
TODAY, WE HEAR A LOT ABOUT LUXEMBOURG BEING, OR AIMING TO BECOME, A STARTUP NATION. WHAT'S YOUR OPINION ON THIS?
To become a startup nation you need an efficient national innovation system. You need more than good public research, corporates that are supporting innovation and startup development, entrepreneurs and business development support schemes. Today, more than ever, I think that the system is highly intertwined with other dimensions too. Every city, region or country wants to be the most attractive place for startups and innovation. So it is a matter of what the system has to offer compared to others. Foreign entrepreneurs look at many aspects of a location. We get more and more questions about the social environment, housing, mobility, the education system or the cost of living. In general, I think that Luxembourg has some great advantages to put forward, but the challenge for a small country is being able to continuously grasp and adapt the entire system.
YOU SAID THAT THE ECOSYSTEM HAS CHANGED A LOT. CAN YOU ELABORATE ON THAT?
For me, the pivotal year was 2012. In parallel to the creation of the new Technoport, initiatives like co-working spaces, corporate incubators and support programs were being established to invigorate the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Since then, year after year, there has been an increase in terms of startup offerings. Today in Luxembourg, you probably have over half-a-dozen incubators and over a dozen new support programs and players. This evolution is not only coming from the public sector but also from the private sector – service providers, consultants and corporates. There has clearly been a change in mindset that is now making its way into schools in the form of new innovative practices revolving around makerspaces, digital skills development and entrepreneurship.
HOW DID TECHNOPORT CONTRIBUTE AND ADAPT DURING THAT PERIOD?
From 2012 on, we saw a considerable increase in applications, projects, startups and activities. We had to innovate our support services to satisfy the entrepreneurial requests we were getting. These became more and more specific as the ecosystem quickly evolved.
We started to organize the first-ever hackathons in Luxembourg with Neopixl, a startup we were hosting at that time, and the Startup Weekend with individuals from the community. This heavily contributed to fostering the ecosystem. Today, we organize, in cooperation with other organizations, or host an average of five hackathons per year. These are public or internal corporate hackathons.
In January 2013, we decided to launch our digital manufacturing laboratory (Fablab) to support rapid prototyping. We expanded it in 2016 with additional fabrication tools. We developed new services like the Digital Experience Studio, which aims to validate innovative customer experiences and their related business opportunities. Both activities allowed us to build synergies in sectors related to digital content creation, like music, video games and digital animation.
Today, we are an internationally recognized organization thanks to our operating model, our capacity to innovate and support from a range of corporate partnerships. We are also a member of several European and international networks of incubators and innovation centers to keep us engaged with our peers.
LET'S TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE STARTUP JOURNEY. WHAT IS A STARTUP TO YOU?
You can find many definitions of a startup – just like you can find several definitions of an incubator. For us at Technoport, a startup usually has several common characteristics:
ENCOMPASSES A TECHNOLOGICAL DIMENSION
OFFERS SOMETHING NEW THAT IS NOT YET WIDELY ADOPTED BY THE TARGET MARKET
REQUIRES SUPPORT TO START, EITHER FINANCIAL OR IN TERMS OF BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT
NEEDS TO GO INTERNATIONAL FAST (ONE OF THE PARTICULARITIES OF BEING IN A SMALL COUNTRY)
AIMS TO SCALE QUICKLY
All of these characteristics could, of course, be challenged. I personally think that entrepreneurship is driven by passion. Some people might prefer to scale slowly or not beyond a certain size. We've seen that in the past and those companies were definitely no less interesting or innovative than others. Small can still be smart. What matters is that they create value for their clients.
WHAT ARE THE KEY INGREDIENTS FOR A STARTUP TO BECOME A SCALE-UP?
I believe that there are different ingredients: the team, the vision and the execution. Those with a good team and a bold vision were able to execute in a way that already took into account plans for scaling up. Of course, it is easier to scale if you tackle a problem that addresses a big market, alleviating a real pain rather than just being a “nice to have.” Entrepreneurs with bold visions usually want to have a major impact. But you also need a sound cash-flow - a crucial variable that is often forgotten.
HOW CAN YOU SUPPORT SCALE-UPS?
The main value we bring to scale-ups is through our corporate partnerships. There are different types of models.
In the industrial field, we have a close collaboration with Paul Wurth's incubator Incub that began two years ago. The company is a leading global player in the design and supply of technological solutions for the primary stage of integrated steelmaking. They have defined 10 pillars that guide how the group identifies, selects and collaborates with startups. These pillars include topics like industry 4.0, clean-energy technology and mining and resource management. They can offer great support in developing solutions or implementing proof-of-concepts, which could then be exported globally throughout the group.
The SATLAS program, run by SES, represents a more sector-specific collaboration. The aim here is to support applicants with innovative ideas in the field of satellite-based services, with or without prior experience in space technology. The goal is to develop, prototype, build up and/or improve their products and business applications in Europe, the Middle East and Sub-saharan West Africa. We partnered with SES Techcom Services to support these entrepreneurs for future growth and expansion.
Finally, we have launched a joint innovation center with Vodafone Procurement called Tomorrow Street to support the globalization of innovative startups with impressive track records. This program complements Technoport's focus by aiding more mature startups.
If incubators like ours join forces with large corporations, we can make the system more efficient and more appealing to entrepreneurs. It is important for us to understand what challenges these corporations face in order to propose the best match for both them and the startups.
WHAT ARE YOUR BEST MEMORIES FROM YOUR TIME WITH TECHNOPORT?
The best memories are certainly those related to the different journeys of the entrepreneurs behind our successful companies – to see how they have evolved over the years and how they were able to grow their companies despite many challenges. Knowing that we have contributed, even just a little, to their success is extremely rewarding.