Innovfest 2.0: “Spearhead clusters are vital links for Flemish innovation and competitiveness”


Six Flemish spearhead clusters gathered yesterday in Lamot in Mechelen for Innovfest 2.0. We were looking forward to the results of VUB professor Elvira Haezendonck's research into the importance and role of spearhead clusters in the innovative region of Flanders. Flemish Minister of Work, Economy, Innovation & Agriculture Jo Brouns confirmed his support for the spearhead cluster policy during his speech.

Elvira Haezendonck

The six Flemish spearhead clusters VIL, Flanders' Food, Flux50, Medvia, De Blauwe Cluster and Catalisti jointly organize Innovfest. For this second edition, we were looking forward to the results of VUB's research into the role and importance of spearhead clusters in Flanders. VUB professor Elvira Haezendonck explained the results. While a region like Flanders used to benefit from its excellent location, this plays much less of a role today. “In today's global economy, cluster advantages are replacing the location advantages of the past,” says Elvira Haezendonck. She identified fourteen roles that spearhead clusters fulfill and they are already doing that very well, she added.

Elvira Haezendonck (VUB)
Jurgen Ingels
Plenaire sessie van Innofest 2.0
Inge Arents & Jo Brouns

Engine of the Flemish economy

Strong clusters are attractive economic entities for companies to connect with. The spearhead clusters play a crucial role in forming those connections, according to Haezendonck. “They are vital links for innovation in Flanders.” Flemish Minister of Work, Economy, Innovation & Agriculture Jo Brouns wholeheartedly agreed with this and expressed his support for the further development of the spearhead clusters. “Clusters are the engine of the Flemish economy,” said the minister.

Beer coaster innovation

Keynote speaker and serial entrepreneur Jürgen Ingels always has a real bar installed in his companies. That gathering-at-the-cafe-beer mats-full-with-wild-ideas theme often came back in his keynote. In staccato he delivered his 7 lessons for entrepreneurs and innovators to the packed audience. It was fast food for the brain. With an entertaining comparison, Ingels illustrated that you can constantly stimulate yourself not to be satisfied too quickly, every extra effort pays off because [1.00]356 = 1.00 and [1.01] 356 = 37.78.

Breakout sessions

Those who wanted to learn in depth could attend one of the breakout sessions around three themes 'Sustainability', 'Human capital' and 'Energy', each organized by two clusters together. Catalisti, together with Flanders' Food, organized the session on Sustainability with first a presentation by Professor Pieter Billen (UA), followed by two cases from companies. Emmanuel Raskin spoke about the innovations at Citribel. Geert van Ballaer (Borealis) explained the just completed Truce project, which was set up in collaboration with Catalisti.

Tine Schaerlaekens (Catalisti)
Professor Pieter Billen (UA)

Bringing entropy to zero

Professor Billen asked the question “Is circularity sustainable?” The answer was “Yes, but…”. The size of the circular cycle is important: the larger the cycle, the more energy is absorbed. Professor Billen would emphasize several times how great the need is for affordable (and stable supply of) energy to make progress with the circular economy. “Otherwise we will make it impossible for our industry,” Billen knew. Together with his colleagues, Professor Billen is conducting research into ways to make decisions more quickly in this domain. That is why he is looking for alternatives to LCAs, which are time-consuming and cumbersome. He proposes to quantify the entropy and energy of a process and thus gain a quicker grasp of its positive impact and efficiency. Last but not least, he advocated collaboration and derisking, because they lead to more effective R&D roadmaps.

From beetroot to handbag

Emmanuel Raskin spoke passionately about the innovations of Citribel, known as a producer of citric acid. Raskin indicated that innovation is the only way for Citribel to survive against the competition from Chinese manufacturers who are flooding our market with cheaper citric acid. Through fermentation processes with sugar and fungi, Citribel has specialized in the production of mycelium. The company has already discovered fantastic applications, such as mycelium increases the resistance of scampi, salmon and mammals. Work is also being done to produce vegan textiles based on mycelium, which are very similar to leather. In the long term, all animal and fossil products could be replaced in this way. “So we now make sjacochen from sugar,” laughed Raskin.

Geert Van Ballaer (Borealis)
Emmanuel Raskin (Citribel)

Design for recycling

Geert Van Ballaer from Borealis explained the Truce project, which was developed together with 6 other partners and with the support of Catalisti and Flanders' FOOD in full lockdown. Covid caused a loss of 9 months, Van Ballaer admitted. However, the results are impressive. During the project, packaging material was developed for Puratos pasta. The materials thus became 100% recyclable based on PE mono-material packaging. It did not stop at a concept because production was also tested in a pilot setup, with success. A very nice side result is that Ghent University developed a process to quickly test the recyclability of products, which proved to be of great use during the TRUCE project.

Recyclable packaging for food and food residual products from which new materials are made: there are many links between the chemical and food clusters, something that also inspired the speakers to further dialogue during the panel discussion led by the general manager of Catalisti Tine Schaerlaekens. The audience also responded enthusiastically with a whole host of questions for the three speakers.