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Digital Wallonia: A new strategy to boost the region's online economy
Wallonia is at a crossroads in its digital development. It has some excellent companies that have taken innovative digital products and services to international markets. But this hasn’t been enough to transform the region’s traditional economy into a digital economy, with all the benefits this would bring.
André Blavier, who is in charge of communication at Wallonia’s Digital Agency (AdN), sees a parallel in Belgium’s national football team. “The Red Devils are strong at the moment, but no player on the national team plays for a Belgian club, so we don’t have clubs that are able to play at the European level,” he says. “What we want is for our companies to play at least on the European level, because if you can play at the European level you can play on the world level.”
So the challenge is to create a strong digital economy at home that will push more Walloon companies up into the European league. This is the aim of the Digital Wallonia strategy, adopted by the regional government in December last year and backed with a budget of €503 million over four years.
The task is not to be underestimated. Wallonia is a small market, in which demand for digital products and services is still limited. “Both public services and the classic economic sectors are not mature enough, and so they don’t ask the digital sector for big or intensive digital projects,” Blavier explains.
This in turn gives digital companies little incentive to innovate. “It’s a vicious circle: there is a lack of demand, and so this has a direct impact on the offer from the digital sector.”
At the same time, many digital companies appear satisfied with the modest business they can do on home ground. “We know that if you want to be a leader in the digital sector you have to have international ambition, and too many digital companies in Wallonia are happy with their small markets.”
The key to breaking this vicious circle is to target specific areas where Wallonia is strong, such as e-health, the internet of things, and augmented reality. “These are sub-sectors where we know that we have good companies, with good knowledge and good skills.”
The Digital Wallonia strategy is broader than this, however. Actions are grouped under five major headings:
• The digital sector, with goals such as helping digital companies grow and develop international business
• Doing business digitally, which will encourage other companies to go digital
• A smart and connected territory, which addresses deficiencies in broadband, wireless and other networks
• Digital skills and education, in schools and beyond
• Converting public services to digital
“It’s only the beginning of the strategy, but we hope to go quickly,” says Blavier. “We will have initiatives in the long term, but also quick wins, so we can say that it’s running, it’s a success and we can see the results.”
This is one of the major roles of the Digital Wallonia platform, which is already online and will benefit from a collaborative governance involving the major actors and federations of the region’s digital ecosystem.
The focus on smart cities is already well advanced, for example. “There is a working group involving all the big cities in Wallonia that will create a smart region strategy in place of having a separate strategy for each city.” Other sectors, such as health and construction, will get a similar targeted approach.
Progress is also being made with a programme encouraging the retail sector in Wallonia to adopt e-commerce, and the public sector will be encouraged to open its data and services.
Another early project will be the creation of the Digital Wallonia Hub, which will network researchers in the region’s universities and research institutes, ensuring that they work on issues that are strategic priorities for the digital economy. It will also create a brand for digital research in the region, with the aim of raising its profile across Europe.
The most advanced initiative is the Wallonia Innovation and Growth fund, which was launched in February. Worth €50 million, the fund will invest in digital start-ups at the very beginning of their lives, allowing entrepreneurs to refine their ideas to the point where they can approach new investors, and again when they have some private investment but need a boost to go further.
“When you’re a digital start-up you have to go quickly,” Blavier explains, “and the classic mechanisms for finance and support are not well adapted to this task.”
Two companies have already been supported during the fund’s pilot stage. One is Listminut, a sharing economy website that helps people find neighbours willing to help with tasks such as assembling furniture, looking after pets or gardening. The other is Neveo, which has ideas for keeping senior citizens connected with their families.
The internet of things, one of the hottest digital sectors at present, will benefit from many of the actions in the strategy, but it’s one of the hardest to pin down. The initial idea that everyday objects can be made to communicate across digital networks has expanded so quickly that it now covers a vast range of applications.
“The internet of things is a car, it’s a device, it’s a wearable,” Blavier say, “so it’s very difficult to see that as a unique technology. We see more opportunities for targeting specific uses of the internet of things, so the internet of things for smart cities, for e-health, for mobility and so on.”
The internet of things
Walloon companies working with the internet of things have their own priorities, of course. For Frédéric Jourdain, co-founder of Thingsplay, the most important goal is to improve the infrastructure that allows it to function. Some kinds of network have yet to be fully deployed across Wallonia and Brussels, or are in the hands of just one operator, limiting choice.
“We can see that things are improving, but we are late,” he says. “I see my competitors in France and Germany already testing their products in large proof-of-concept trials, on various types of network, which is not possible in Wallonia.”
He also worries that insufficient resources will be available to address all the strategy’s priorities. But the consultation and networking involved in drawing it up has already produced benefits. “Everyone knows who is who, and the relationships created in preparing the plan have produced a real digital ecosystem in Wallonia.”
Loïc Bar, chief executive of Opinum, thinks the strategy is pressing the right buttons. His company has already benefited from the kind of support that will come through the Wallonia Innovation and Growth fund, and he is positive about the research initiative.
“We already get some subsidies for research and development,” he says, “and we want to foster collaborations with universities and research centres in Wallonia, to make sure that we stay ahead of the competition.”
But he also thinks the big opportunities lie in a particular approach to the internet of things. “The challenge is not really in creating billions of devices or ensuring that the connectivity is there, but what you do with the data generated by these devices,” he concludes. “And I think that’s where we need to support companies, making sure we have the engineers and the skills to make sense of the huge amount of data we’re going to generate though the internet of things.”
Thingsplay opens up the internet of things
Thingsplay is involved in the nuts and bolts of the internet of things, providing a service that allows companies to collect, move and store data extremely quickly. The kind of data is irrelevant, but it could be from sensors, from machines or industrial installations.
Its product has three components: an electronic board that gathers data and can move it to any kind of network; a data management backbone that allows information to be moved very quickly; and a database for storage.
The innovation here is not in the technology, but in knowing how existing systems can be combined to meet a need. “This is industrial technology that is well known but which we bring together to provide a good, low-cost solution,” says co-founder Frédéric Jourdain.
The business model is also innovative, with companies paying only for what they use, when they use it, rather than buying an off-the-shelf system that may be over-specified for the task. “We are much more flexible and agile in providing an adapted solution.”
One customer is Stûv, a Walloon company that sells stoves burning compressed wood pellets. Thingsplay’s system connects with sensors in each stove, collecting data on their performance and allowing users to control the device remotely. This data also allows Stûv to see when stoves need a maintenance check.
Another client is Veolia, where Thingsplay’s system is used on data from the company’s water treatment systems. “We gather all the data and provide it to the customer’s desktop business intelligence system.”
Based in Namur, the company employs five people, with plans to grow to seven or eight by the end of the year. A funding round in December brought in €450,000 from public and private investors, to support further growth and international expansion.
“Now we are addressing the French market. After that we will go to Germany and the Netherlands, then all over Europe,” says Jourdain. The longer term is harder to predict. “The internet of things market develops very quickly, and perhaps in three or four years we will be integrated into a major company. That could be IBM, Microsoft, Google... Why not?”
Opinum makes buildings smarter
Opinum was inspired by Loïc Bar’s desire to use his skills as a data analyst to benefit the planet. “I was always interested in the environmental sector, and in talking with another entrepreneur I figured out there was a need for a platform that would help energy-efficiency experts and building owners take better care over what their buildings consume.”
The energy consumed by buildings accounts for around 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, so making them more energy-efficient will both reduce emissions and save building operators money. But in order to achieve this you need detailed information about how and when energy is being consumed. “This is something utility bills cannot tell you,” Bar says.
The internet of things approach adopted by Opinum allows the building itself to say more about how it’s using energy and water, thanks to sensors installed for the purpose or already in place. “We help to collect this data, often across multiple buildings, then we provide the analytical tools to make sense of the data,” Bar explains.
“People can then use this information to take action to decrease energy consumption in the building, and our tools will then tell them how much they saved.”
Customers pay a licence fee to use the platform, called opiSense. At the moment Opinum is focusing on business and public-sector clients, such as Microsoft in Belgium and municipalities such as Herve and Louvain-la-Neuve. “The business model and the cost of this system is not yet right for single households, but that will come in the future.”
In October last year the company raised €1.1 million from public and private investors to support further growth. The next step is to scale up. “We have 10 customers and we need to prove that the model works for 100 customers,” Bar says. “The second thing is to prove that we can be international.” Projects are already under way in France and Luxembourg, with other countries to come.
Opinum currently has 10 full-time employees in Liège and Braine-l’Alleud, but plans to move its headquarters to Charleroi in the near future.
This article first appeared in WAB magazine