As a founder of a start-up or scale-up you are dealing with a lot of things at the same time. Building a larger network and expanding your knowledge often has to make way for running your business effectively. That's why Startups.be | Scale-Ups.eu is hosting The Big Squeeze for the third year in a row, a virtual event where everyone learns from each other through expert classes and one-on-one chats. Invaluable, says Wouter Foulon, founder of Comate and one of the speakers at The Big Squeeze. "You always learn something."
With approx. fifty employees on the payroll and clients all over Europe, Comate is a rapidly growing scale-up. The Leuven engineering and design firm develops high-tech products for various markets, including the health sector and industry. "Our customers are pioneers," says Foulon. "They are people who dare to think differently, question things. That could be a surgeon, but also the business manager of a multinational company or a student entrepreneur."
So Comate's clients come from different backgrounds, but have one thing in common: "They all have an innovative idea, something that can turn existing markets on their heads. These ideas are usually still vague when they come to us, but that's okay. Our engineers and designers do the further inventing."
A tool that allows the surgeon to better place an orthopedic implant, an intelligent steamer that helps you prepare healthier meals, or still: a snowplow that autonomously clears meters of snow in cold areas. The products they come up with at Comate make life easier. But that doesn't mean their development is peanuts.
That's the message Foulon will focus on in his Expert Class during The Big Squeeze. "Hardware is hard," he explains with a strong one-liner. "Beware, hardware start-ups are the most beautiful companies out there," he laughs. "But it's a hard industry. There are a number of elements in the R&D process of hardware companies that many start-ups don't think about.
In recent years I've realized how interesting such an event actually is.
Raising money, for example. If you develop hardware, you will need more money than a software company. After all, you need to invest in machines, parts and different kinds of expertise. Where do you look for investors? What do you do if you have to recall a product? Or if a component is not delivered because the corona virus put a spanner in the works?"
Hans Danneels of the Antwerp-based healthtech company Byteflies listens attentively to Foulon's reflections, because he recognizes them all too well. He will be happy to follow the expert class of the man behind Comate on May 11. With Byteflies, Danneels focuses on remote monitoring for the healthcare sector. The company develops portable devices that are linked to software and enable doctors to monitor patients remotely. This is useful for people with epilepsy, heart problems or COVID-19, who otherwise often have to spend long periods of time in hospital. "We've been around since 2015 and have grown significantly in those six years, but that doesn't mean we can't learn from others," says Danneels.
According to the entrepreneur, it would only be naive and stubborn to think that they know it all by now. "Because we've been around for several years and are doing well? No, you can always learn something. Especially from your peers. Like Byteflies, Comate works in the health sector. So I like to hear how Wouter and his team deal with the challenges in hardware or health."
Foulon agrees that the stories of others are the best source of inspiration. "When I started Comate eleven years ago, I was pretty much against everything networking," he admits. "I heard testimonials from other entrepreneurs and thought 'yeah yeah, it'll be all right'. But when you're standing with your bones in the mud yourself, you quickly think 'damn, it's not so easy after all'," laughs the Comate business owner. "In recent years I've realized how interesting such an event actually is. I followed the previous edition of The Big Squeeze as a participant and learned something from it anyway. I was not only inspired by the ups and downs of speakers and other participants, but was also able to expand my network."
Aren't participants shooting themselves in the foot to talk so openly with - mostly - competitors about their struggles or tips and tricks? "Not at all," says Danneels. "Being able to take steps together that benefit the market is more important than playing each other's competitor. So yes, we talk about difficulties and warn each other about possible pitfalls. That's how everyone gets ahead. That's the beauty of an event like The Big Squeeze: everyone helps each other move forward. Even if you only make one contact or remember one tip, that's all there is to it. A different perspective sometimes makes a world of difference."
No matter how hard the medical sector is or how tough the hardware job: Danneels and Foulon would love nothing more than to do what they are doing now. "It's enormously enjoyable and motivating to play an active role in improving healthcare, to help make a difference. And beware, I'm obviously not doing it alone. The whole Byteflies team - there are 27 of us now - is helping to make that impact."
"True," Foulon picks up. "Also with us, of course, it's a team effort. For every successful product that rolls off the belt, a serious pat on the back goes to everyone at Comate. So we love doing our job, it's our passion. We can do such beautiful things with hardware, make such an impact on a person's life. That is fantastic. If during my expert class I can inspire even one person to persevere, so that they can in turn make an impact on the world, then my mission is accomplished."
If during my expert class I can inspire even one person to persevere, so that they in turn can make an impact on the world, then my mission is accomplished.