Although originally, hackathons were restricted to the small community of developers and geeks, the phenomenon has gathered momentum to become a real catalyst for agile innovation for companies.
Over the last few years, hackathons - contraction of the words "hack" (from "hack away") and "marathon" - have become commonplace. In practical terms, hackathons bring together various talents (entrepreneurs, developers, web designers, graphic designers, etc.) around the development of an IT project. Arranged into teams, the participants have a limited amount of time (from a few hours to a few days) to develop a prototype, a piece of software or an app on a given theme. To stimulate competition, the event generally finishes with the presentation of the results to a jury of experts and the selection of the winners. Intensity, co-creation and inventiveness are the buzzwords.
Not only for start-ups
In Belgium, it is estimated that since 2011 nearly 150 hackathons have taken place, a third of which were in 2017. A boom that can notably be explained by the growing interest from companies of all sizes and from all sectors, and even public institutions. And on the grounds that these development surges represent an excellent way of instilling innovation and agility specific to start-up companies. Whether they are internal (for employees only) or public, these events give an opportunity for experimenting with other ways of tackling a problem, finding solutions and putting them into practice. All while strengthening collaboration and team spirit. But it's more than developing a new product, it's an opportunity to think outside the box, as well as to give a boost to the digital transformation process. For large corporations, it's also an excellent lever for detecting and integrating the talent of tomorrow. So it's not by chance that hackathons are diversifying and becoming more professional.
All sectors are jumping in!
By adopting this type of event, big companies are seeking to connect to the ecosystem of digital start-ups. All sectors are doing it and there are countless examples... Thus, the 3rd BNP Paribas International Hackathon, which took place in 2017 across 10 international towns and cities, invited participants to improve the efficiency of banking products and services. Another example: "Hack my ride", arranged by the STIB (Brussels Intermunicipal Transport Company) in 2017 and dedicated to public transport, whose objective was to develop digital apps by using data published by the public body's open data platform. In 2018, Hack Belgium will hold its second event, devoted to the social issues of tomorrow. On the programme: 1,500 hackathonians united around 12 big challenges linked to various facets of society: energy, circular economy, employment, media, finance, education, healthcare, etc.
Maintaining the dynamic
Although "hackathons" or other "start-up weekends" are very good at stimulating innovation for companies, the real issue is maintaining the dynamic. Indeed, although it is crucial to orientate the event towards a tangible output, this is rarely fully achieved at the end of the hackathon. The company should therefore seize the winning project - or even other ideas brought to light during the competition - in order to integrate it into an internal innovative process. In collaboration with the participating team, the objective is to pursue the development of the prototype, to support it and to make it succeed. By way of example, the BNP Paribas International Hackathon gave the prizewinners the chance to be involved in the bank's acceleration programme, in order to follow the development of the prototype presented during the hackathon, with the aim of creating a solution deployed within the company or with customers.
Scale-up concludes mega contract in the midst of the coronavirus crisis
The Antwerp-based scale-up IPEE transforms ordinary toilets into innovative products. BNP Paribas Fortis is more than just the financial partner. IPEE have already come into contact with the right people via the bank’s network several times.
“The traditional urinal has no brain. The infrared eye simply detects that someone is standing in front of the urinal. The result? A lot of wasted water and misery”, says Bart Geraets, who founded IPEE in 2012 together with Jan Schoeters.
The scale-up devised new measuring technology that makes it possible to detect through the ceramic of a urinal when someone is urinating or when the urinal is blocked. With this innovative technology, the scale-up designed urinals that use half as much water and toilets that can be operated without touching them.
“IPEE is an atypical scale-up that innovates in a sector where little has changed in the past few decades”, says Conchita Vercauteren, relationship manager at the BNP Paribas Fortis Innovation Hub.
Jan Schoeters: “At first we mainly focused on durability. But we soon felt that with non-residential applications, the potential water saving is subordinate to the operational aspect. We had to be able to offer added value for each stakeholder in the purchasing process.”
We opted for sleek designs to appeal to architects and end users. The simple installation attracts fitters and maintenance people see the advantages of the sleek design - that is easy to clean - and toilets that do not overflow.
Until 2015, Schoeters and Geraets, along with Victor Claes, an expert in measuring methods and originator of the IPEE technology, put their energy into product development and market research. The financing came mainly from money that they collected in their network of friends, fools and family.
They had to go elsewhere to obtain the funds for production and marketing. Geraets: “We had a product, but it wasn’t ready to sell. To take that step, we needed investors.”
Looking for new investors was a challenge. Schoeters: “We aren’t software developers and we don’t work in a sexy sector. So we miss out with a large target group of investors.”
The young scale-up attracted the attention of Ronald Kerckhaert, who had sold his successful company, Sax Sanitair, at the end of 2015. “He pushed us to think big, more than we dared ourselves. And he never headed for an exit. His express goal was to put our product on the world market”, says Schoeters.
IPEE has achieved impressive growth since then. The product range was expanded and new sectors were broached: educational institutes, office buildings and hospitals. The technology is now used by Kinepolis, Texaco, Schiphol and Changi Airport (Singapore).
“We very soon turned to Asia, because new technology is embraced more quickly there”, Geraets explains. The IPEE technology is distributed in Singapore - where the scale-up has its own sales office - China, Thailand and Vietnam, among other places. About half the turnover comes from abroad, although the coronavirus crisis will leave its mark this year.
“My biggest headache is achieving healthy growth”, says Bart Geraets. One advantage for IPEE is that in coronavirus times, hygiene stands high on the agenda. The scale-up's touchless toilet facilities meet that demand.
At the same time, the shortage of water and the need to use water sparingly is very topical. Geraets: “We notice that in these strange times we are gaining an even bigger foothold. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis we concluded a contract with the world’s biggest manufacture of toilet facilities. Now it’s a matter of further professionalising our business, the personnel policy and the marketing.”
The company’s main bank is an important partner here. Schoeters: “It is more than just a financial organisation. We have already come into contact with the right people via the bank’s network several times. Our bank feels more like a supporter that is also putting its weight behind our story.”
Not words, but actions: how can you realise your internationl project?
Gaining a foothold in a foreign country is no easy task, and some good advice alone will not suffice. Trade Development at BNP Paribas Fortis is the perfect partner to turn theory into practice!
Many companies want to try their luck outside our borders and gain a foothold in new markets. This is necessary not only to be able to continue to grow, but also to remain competitive. But if you don't know where to start, it's hard to put your money where your mouth is. How do you find the right market? How do you find prospects? How do you prepare the whole operation in all its aspects? What risks do you need to cover? And which partner can you trust? All important questions that can make or break your project. And this is how international ambitions are sometimes left on ice....
"We want to help companies achieve their international ambitions", says Rob van Veen, Head of Trade Development at BNP Paribas Fortis.
"We look at the local market into which the company wants to launch and make sure the underlying potential is sufficient." And so, the first step towards success is taken.
WHEN GOOD ADVICE IS NOT ENOUGH...
There's a deep gap between theory and practice that managers do not always dare to cross. It's essential to collect a lot of data and information, but this is certainly not enough. Talk must then be followed by action. Your growth project's first stone must be laid... preferably with the greatest possible chance of success and as few risks as possible. In such an adventure, (good) guidance is not a superfluous luxury. Even more reason to call on the support of Trade Development: a partner who can assist you with a wide range of solutions and help you establish a long-term strategic vision. In Belgium and beyond.
"In their project's first phase, companies often find a lot of information and support from the Belgian export promotion agencies", says Rob van Veen. "But they don't get all the practical answers they need to roll out their activities in a given country."
Given that growth prospects in Belgium are rather limited, companies must therefore look for international growth. But where? This is where the Trade Development team comes in. Your choice of target market is certainly crucial. A vague, poorly thought-out decision can have dramatic consequences: examples of failure abound – partly because companies don't understand the local 'culture'. Companies sometimes gravitate towards exotic markets because others have gone before them. But every international project is unique: does the market fit into your overall strategy? Are you aware of all the challenges that lie ahead (regulatory, commercial, etc.)?
"Let's take the example of a company that wants to set up in Brazil. Our first question is then: what activities have you already been carrying on in Europe? Might there be new, undiscovered opportunities there? For example, it's much easier for a company to set up in Poland than in Brazil, where taxes on imports are extremely high" , continues Rob van Veen.
HIGHLY NECESSARY 'LOCAL' CONTACT PERSONS
Your project has taken shape and you've determined your target market. The time has then come for Trade Development to roll out one of its greatest assets: access to a global network of competent and reliable partners.
"We introduce the client to local specialists who can support their project abroad from start to finish. One deals with the roll-out of activities, another specialises in legal and tax issues, and a third takes care of the administrative side of things. We prefer to work with small, local agencies, most of whom are long-term BNPPF network partners", says Rob van Veen.
These contact persons have a perfect knowledge of the national rules and customs and know how to adhere to that specific framework. The company therefore has the great advantage that it can benefit from such a skilled team: a win-win situation. "In addition, our permanent contact persons are evaluated by the client after each project. This way, we can guarantee the quality of our services!"
BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS: Save TIME AND gain EFFICIENCY
Are you looking for an effective distributor or a reliable representative? An ideal on-site supplier? Do you want to determine these contacts' actual potential or get to know possible new partners? Not easy for a company…
"Most of them are looking for a white knight. Our trade developers draw up realistic selection criteria in consultation with the client. They carry out a financial analysis of the commercial partners and check their technical baggage and their reputation", explains Rob van Veen.
First, a list of four or five serious and interested candidates is drawn up, and then the contact phase follows. "Our local contact introduces the candidates to the Belgian company to ensure that both parties are interested in a partnership. Once all these issues are clarified, the relationships can be rapidly explored in depth."
SUCCESS IN THE FIELD
Every target market has its problems and risks: from the language to cultural and commercial differences. Very specific problems that are often difficult to solve from Belgium, especially in the post-COVID-19 era. Hence the importance of being surrounded by specialists who know the country like the back of their hand. Need an example? "To be able to supply retailers in the UK, you often need to be able to invoice at a local level", explains Rob van Veen. "Our trade developer can then act and take care of the local invoicing and accounting on the company's behalf at a fixed and transparent rate for each transaction. This is a simple initial structure that does not require major investments but is very interesting professionally." The client can naturally then seek its own local partner. "That too is a task they can leave to our contact person, who has the necessary experience to do so." Need another example? Russia, where everything takes a huge amount of time... Trade Development's network of experts can also speed things up considerably here and solve problems more quickly.
Who is the key partner in your international growth?
Your bank! In particular, the network of experts at BNP Paribas Fortis' Trade Development department. The missing link between your foreign ambitions and your growth project's success.
Conquering foreign markets raises new expectations within companies. Needs that go way beyond a bank's 'traditional' services... We at BNP Paribas Fortis have understood that well, and that's precisely why we established the Trade Development department. This department advises clients and provides them with a full range of support in their international ambitions. "A bank can provide practical assistance to companies' expansion projects abroad: it can open accounts, provide guarantees, underwrite cash flows, and more", says Rob van Veen, Head of Trade Development at BNP Paribas Fortis. "But that's not all clients need: they also expect their bank to think about strategy and to help them approach the market in an intelligent and efficient manner. And that's exactly what we do." What does that mean? The service provides unique and highly essential support – especially now against the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis – for expansion beyond our national borders, reassuring business owners and connecting them to a global network of local experts or providing long-term follow-up.
KNOWN TERRAIN... EVEN ABROAD
A good example of this successful partnership between a company with international ambitions and the bank is the Besins Healthcare group, founded in 1885 by Abel Besins, and which has been expanding globally since the 1980s. Great ambitions, which the company fully embraces with BNP Paribas Fortis' sustainable support. "Once we've got new plans abroad, we first discuss them with our contact person at BNP Paribas Fortis", says Leslie Grunfeld, CEO of Besins Healthcare, which is currently active in over a hundred different markets, and has local branches in several of them. "Our treasurer will check whether the bank is present in the country in question or whether it has partnership links with local institutions." This approach means that the group never goes into a blind adventure, as it has a similar range of services throughout the world. "That's great! Especially when you consider that the local problems you have to solve can vary greatly from one country to another."
ACCESS TO A KNOWN AND RELIABLE NETWORK
One of the Trade Development team's biggest advantages is that it can provide companies with a real network of local specialists. Professionals for whom the target market holds no secrets. They know the reality of the country in question like the back of their hand and provide the company with support through all the local steps: from exploring business opportunities to bureaucratic formalities.
"Even in countries where BNP Paribas Fortis doesn't have branches, we were able to benefit from the bank's network, which made the establishment of local branches particularly smooth. We didn't have to start from scratch every time we went abroad: we had immediate access to a structured network and reliable banking partners. And that means huge time savings", Besins Healthcare's CEO emphasises.
THE HUMAN FACTOR
Personal contacts with preferred partners are of great importance in an international growth project. Not only to have reliable and proactive contacts, but also to gain access to useful information and to unlock new local opportunities. These 'local' contacts are usually long-term partners of the bank... a guarantee of reliability for the company that should not be underestimated. They are specialists with various skills and profiles – legal, business or administrative – who assist the company in question from start to finish. This includes assisting with setting up local establishments, starting up a new activity, recruiting staff (management, local contracts, etc.), setting up a new legal structure, seeking suitable suppliers and other partners (e.g. banks), responding to clients' needs (cash credit, leasing, fleet management, currency hedging, etc.) and offering them tailor-made solutions. And what happens when the company is 'launched'? Trade Development then remains on standby to continue the banking relationship and to closely monitor the client's evolution. For the long term!
A bank like BNP Paribas Fortis – through its Trade Development teams – is therefore the key partner for companies' international growth. And that goes way beyond simply offering financial services. It also provides:
- exploration of new markets and partners for the company. In this capacity, it can collaborate in determining the strategy at the source and opening the range of possible relationships on the ground as widely as possible;
- risk mitigation: the bank analyses and assists with the preparation of a realistic profile of the future partner (finances, real interest, reliability, reputation, etc.) and with reducing the margin of error;
- creation of ready-to-use solutions. In this regard, the bank is always available to listen to the client, anticipate their expectations and offer solutions adapted to their specific situation;
- acceleration of the foreign process to establish themselves in a market or gain a foothold there, thanks to local contacts with useful local knowledge and experience;
- facilitation of the whole process, making its extensive network available to rapidly put the company in question in contact with local partners, but also to manage or advance all kinds of situations;
- long-term support – Trade Development's experts closely monitor the company's international journey, on-site or remotely, and oversee the project's success.
Leverage 'your'network for your international growth
How do you launch yourself in foreign markets and increase your chances of success with as little risk and investment as possible? Thanks to a well-developed network that's worth its weight in gold...
International growth is essential for companies, not only for large groups but also for SMEs. A versatile strategic choice that makes every project a unique adventure... whether we're talking about 'normal' cooperation with partners abroad, about export or foreign establishments. But it's not that simple, as it's an equation with several variables. How do you keep all those variables under control? By seeking an answer to a whole series of questions, clearing up your doubts, analysing different parameters, exploring the terrain and forging partnerships. Consequently, you can use all the help you can get (and often specialised guidance, too). And you'll find that in a network. A well-developed, reliable and competent network. An ecosystem that helps you:
- cut distances and times;
- explore and confirm existing options;
- accelerate all processes;
- make everything a bit easier.
These are all tasks that only useful and reliable local contacts can guarantee you. However, building such a network beyond our national borders isn't so easy. It's therefore in your best interest to build on existing solutions that have already proved their worth.
PRESENCE OF 'PUBLIC' BODIES
Belgium is all too aware of the importance of good relational ties and therefore has an extensive diplomatic network: the Belgian chambers of commerce with representatives of the Federal Public Service Foreign Affairs and regional delegates linked to export support agencies (abroad). But the contacts alone are not enough... Companies can indeed find information and support during their project preparation, but not necessarily all the answers to realise their project and expand their activities in the country in question. So, a bank like BNP Paribas Fortis didn't just opt to set up its own 'ecosystem' for businesses, using the expertise of its Trade Development department, among others. This is a network of global experts who support the client from start to finish.
THE 'BILATERAL' CHAMBERS: ACROSS BORDERS
That's what the Belgian chambers of commerce abroad are called. Independent organisations that can be found (almost) anywhere in the world. Their mission? Share their experience and support Belgian companies with their establishment in 'their' country. They were set up on the initiative of local companies with a link to Belgium and have one common task: to strengthen our ties with a region or country. These 'bilateral' chambers of commerce are accredited, and this can count in terms of reliability. They also cooperate with the official network of representatives of Belgium abroad. But not only that... For some years now, BNP Paribas Fortis has been providing support – by joining – some ten such bilateral chambers: the Chinese, American, African, Indian and Arabian chambers of commerce, to name but a few. This is an additional benefit for the bank's customers, as it gives them access to a 'unique' forum of companies and prospects in a clearly defined market. And particularly useful for expanding your network and gaining as much useful information and experience as possible.
A UNIQUE MEETING AND SHARING PLACE
The bilateral chambers of commerce are extremely useful tools for companies seeking to gain an international foothold. They help make international expansion projects smoother and faster. But that isn't all they do. These independent organisations are also a meeting place for all companies involved in commercial exchanges between Belgium, China, the United States, Africa and India. All kinds of companies can be found here: large and small, Belgian and foreign, companies with a long history as well as newcomers. And not forgetting certain representatives of the public sector: staff from the Minister for Foreign Affairs' office, Flanders Investment & Trade, Hub.Brussels and AWEX (Walloon Export and Foreign Investment Agency). And of course, BNP Paribas Fortis!
This network therefore comprises all the important people and bodies you need to expand your commercial relations and boost your international growth. So, a bank also deserves a place in this ecosystem. As such, BNP Paribas Fortis has logically strengthened its position in this network by joining the boards of directors and various committees of the bilateral chambers and by actively participating in events and training courses. In this way, the people in charge of banking relationships also keep up to date with the latest developments and business practices in the countries concerned. Although the current situation doesn't exactly make things easier, the network's strength is often demonstrated by the events organised by the bilateral chambers with BNP Paribas Fortis' support. They are a unique opportunity to meet others, listen to carefully selected speakers and learn about topics that are important for your international expansion project.