In 2021, four VITO spin-offs were founded. A record. In addition, one spin-off was sold, also a first.

“We can truly say that in 2021, we shifted up a gear in our spin-off programme”, says Bart Swaelens, head of Tech Transfer & Venture Development at VITO. “It was an exceptionally good year with four spin-offs that have spread their wings. We also scored a scoop with the first ever sale of a VITO spin-off.”

Five unique stories

Swaelens refers to the launch of the spin-offs MONA (innovative eye diagnostics), Enperas (digital sustainability assessments for the construction sector), A-membranes (innovative industrial membranes) and Hyve (green hydrogen production), and to the sale of the spin-off LCV (laser cladding and 3D printing with metals) to the Swedish company SKF. While the five spin-offs were all created or 'incubated' within VITO, each one is a unique story.

“The start-up of both MONA and Enperas, for example, required a substantial capital injection”, says Swaelens. The capital came from external financiers, including business angels (venture capitalists) and family offices (managers of large family fortunes). These financiers receive shares in exchange. VITO also owns shares in both spin-offs.

VITO does not own any shares in A-membranes, which was established in cooperation with the UAntwerpen and an external entrepreneur. Instead, there is a licence agreement with the spin-off. Hyve is more of a consortium than a real spin-off. It is a collaboration between large industrial companies (Bekaert, John Cockerill, Colruyt Group and Deme) who join forces with knowledge institutions VITO and imec, to enable the cost-efficient and sustainable production of hydrogen on a gigawatt scale. In addition, VITO and imec are working together to substantially increase the efficiency of electrolysis technology. The ambition of the six parties is to play a pioneering role in the roll-out of a hydrogen economy and the transition to a carbon-neutral industry.

LCV is a pure VITO spin-off. The development of the laser cladding technique started more than ten years ago at VITO. The spin-off was launched in 2015. For the past six years, VITO was the main shareholder, together with the Limburg Reconversion Company LRM and the Belgian investment fund AAAF. LCV was acquired in early 2022 by SKF, a Swedish company specialised in the development, design and production of bearings, seals and lubrication systems.

Mix of external entrepreneurship and VITO expertise

What also binds the newly launched spin-offs, or at least three of the four, is that they are managed by external entrepreneurs who were specially recruited by VITO. Swaelens: “For these CEOs, we are primarily looking for people with extensive business experience or a strong entrepreneurial profile, and with an affinity with the sector in which the spin-off is active.”

Olivier Ménage, CEO of MONA, is a perfect example. The Frenchman had 25 years of experience in the medical technology sector when he took on the management of MONA in spring 2020. This also means that Ménage worked under the VITO umbrella until the spin-off was launched at the end of 2021.

While the CEOs of the latest VITO spin-offs are mainly very business-minded, they are flanked by technically very skilled (and often young) people who know the technology behind their spin-off from A to Z and have often co-developed it. Stef Rommes, former software engineer at VITO and now head of R&D at MONA, is such a person.

“It is important that the spin-offs are led by teams with a good balance between VITO expertise and external entrepreneurship. This also reflects the strengths of the new companies, namely technology and IP from VITO, external entrepreneurship and capital raised from external financiers. With that, you form a very strong foundation”, Swaelens says.

Since it was launched in 2015, VITO's spin-off programme has evolved. Where spin-offs used to be created exclusively within VITO, they are now more often established in collaboration with other knowledge institutions. A few partners with whom VITO has already exercised 'co-parenting' over spin-offs are KU Leuven, UAntwerpen and imec. In those collaborations, the IP is usually shared by the partners. Swaelens: “It makes the process a bit more complex, but as a result you get stronger spin-offs. After all, you can't do everything on your own. And especially the spin-offs launched in 2021 all involve different disciplines and rely on both fundamental and applied research.”

Even more to come

In the immediate future, several VITO spin-offs will spread their wings as well, including another in the medical diagnostics sector. “We are still looking for an external health entrepreneur to lead this spin-off”, says Bruno Reyntjens, Commercial Director at VITO. At the same time, the spin-off pipeline on the import side is fed with fresh innovative ideas and opportunities that have the potential to be valorised.

To detect these, VITO has been running the internal AYOUBI programme (accelerate your business idea) for several years. “Within VITO, we actively look for subjects that may be suitable for transfer to a spin-off”, Swaelens continues. “For example, we organise boot camps where employees can present and further develop their ideas. We look at the market potential right from the start.”

“Feedback and guidance in the earliest phase is very important in this detection process”, Reyntjens says. “We try to help our colleagues with the foundations of their preliminary business plan, and we help them close the gaps in their ambitions.”