Does Belgium have enough to attract tech talent? – High tech

A change in the copyright regime and an overly rigid stock option system have been rocking the tech entrepreneur ecosystem for several weeks now. All this would undermine the attractiveness of our country. In the middle of a talent war, that would be embarrassing. But are these really Belgium’s only attractions?

The Belgian tech ecosystem has been in crisis for a few weeks now. After the big debate over the copyright mechanism that many start-ups regularly use to favorably pay their developers, it’s the issue of stock options that has animated discussions between the tech chief. The subject was put on the table after the departure of Collibra, a Belgian specialist in data management valued at more than 5 billion euros. The Brussels expansion actually heralded a change in structure to be overseen by a Dutch holding company. According to Felix Van de Maele, CEO of Collibra, it is the Belgian stock option regime that has the problem: too complex, not flexible enough. One observation many startup bosses choked on: Collibra’s exit would be a wake-up call. Belgium may not be attractive enough anymore. The fiscal context, the proliferation of vacancies in technology, the low number of star start-ups… In the midst of the talent war and at a time when employees can work for any foreign company remotely, there would be cause for concern. Especially since our country continues to be poorly positioned in international studies related to the technology sector. As proof, the official European ranking DESI (Digital Economy and Society Index) in which Belgium occupies the 16th place in 2022, four levels below the previous year. As for the ranking of countries favorable to start-ups, carried out by Startup Blink in 2022, our country occupies the 13th place in Europe. No hyperfolichon. The new deal that the ecosystem may face is therefore intriguing.

The Belgian tech ecosystem has been in crisis for a few weeks now. After the big debate over the copyright mechanism that many start-ups regularly use to favorably pay their developers, it’s the issue of stock options that has animated discussions between the tech chief. The subject was put on the table after the departure of Collibra, a Belgian specialist in data management valued at more than 5 billion euros. The Brussels expansion actually heralded a change in structure to be overseen by a Dutch holding company. According to Felix Van de Maele, CEO of Collibra, it is the Belgian stock option regime that has the problem: too complex, not flexible enough. One observation many startup bosses choked on: Collibra’s exit would be a wake-up call. Belgium may not be attractive enough anymore. The fiscal context, the proliferation of vacancies in technology, the low number of star start-ups… In the midst of the talent war and at a time when employees can work for any foreign company remotely, there would be cause for concern. Especially since our country continues to be poorly positioned in international studies related to the technology sector. As proof, the official European ranking DESI (Digital Economy and Society Index) in which Belgium occupies the 16th place in 2022, four levels below the previous year. As for the ranking of countries favorable to start-ups, carried out by Startup Blink in 2022, our country occupies the 13th place in Europe. No hyperfolichon. The new deal that the ecosystem may face is therefore intriguing. The first recent earthquake in the Belgian technological microcosm? The issue of copyright, whose regime changes can hit digital companies hard. As part of the major tax reform carried out by the Minister of Finance, Vincent Van Peteghem, computer programmers may be excluded from this advantageous copyright regime (one-off fee of 15%). In writing these lines, the imprecision persisted, of course, even on this subject. But companies in the sector were quick to mobilize. An online petition against this exclusion already has more than 5,226 signatures, including big names in the sector. In fact, many start-ups use royalties to pay their developers, who are considered “authors” in the sense of creating original code. A change in structure could therefore be costly. “Most promoters would lose between 200 and 600 euros net per month due to the increase in direct taxes”, says the creator of the petition. On his LinkedIn account in early November, Fabien Pinckaers, the head of Odoo, shared his view on the impact that the disappearance of the copyright regime would have: “One of the mechanisms to smooth out the rough edges of a Belgian system that is one of the income related to intellectual property is the most taxing on employment. Our promoters declare that 25% of their time is spent on intellectual property, so their net income goes from 2,131 euros per month to 2,469 euros for the same business cost”. The second shock came after the “exit” of Collibra from the Belgian market. Or, more precisely, a change in structure allowing it to depend on a Dutch holding company and therefore benefit from another stock option system. In Belgium, that would be too heavy, too complicated. Result? “Few Belgian companies are very generous with their capital employed, notes Quentin Nickmans, co-founder of startup studio eFounders. Because it’s too complicated to implement.” And the beneficiary must either pay (favorable) taxes at the time of granting the stock options, before being able to exercise his right and without knowing how much the company will be worth, or be taxed more heavily. “The Belgian legal framework does not favor stock options, confirms Cédric Donck, founder of Virtuology, a group of start-ups active in digital marketing. In Great Britain or the US, the system is much more flexible and allows employees to interest much better. In Belgium, this remains complicated, mainly due to the administrative burden related to managing these stock options.” And Thibaud Elzière, co-founder of eFounders, continues: “It is certainly not the stock option system alone that makes people create boxes, but it is a necessary condition for an ecosystem to create. It is not enough, but it is necessary”. In fact, these two “technical” points are not the only criteria that allow assessing the attractiveness of our country for the development of technological start-ups. “Obviously, our attractiveness is not limited to some fiscal measures, confirms Laurent Hublet, CEO of the digital campus BeCentral. Belgium has enough to develop a much better positioning than many other European countries. There are other criteria. We must still put forward and have a global strategy? First criterion, according to Laurent Hublet: our geographical position, in the heart of the continent and close to centers such as Paris, Amsterdam or London. And the attractiveness of our capital. Thibaud Elzière testifies to this: “Brussels offers a quality of life amazing, real estate is much more affordable than other major European capitals, which can also be reached quickly by train. Furthermore, culturally, the city is crazy compared to other European cities of a similar size”. at the origin of more than thirty technology companies, including several European unicorns. His studio was founded in Brussels, from where this Frenchman develops start-ups all over the world. In addition, the proximity of European authorities would allow Belgium to position itself on strong themes. “Technology has become an important political and regulatory issue today, continues Laurent Hublet. Questions of European sovereignty vis-à-vis the American and Chinese digital giants are crucial.” However, on that basis, everything is decided in Brussels. The evolution of artificial intelligence (AI) also requires asking real questions. Its algorithms will allow you to take certain decisions in the name of human beings. Can we leave all the latitude to AI? How to frame this new sector at a supranational level? Already in 2018, businessman Laurent Alexandre, a wise observer of these issues, insisted in our columns: “Brussels would be interested in set up a large think tank specializing in issues of ethics and regulation of artificial intelligence. A project likely to attract leading specialists in the field.” And AI is not the only topic that requires strong expertise from European authorities: cybersecurity, digital sovereignty, privacy, digital citizenship… Other assets are also presented to justify Belgium’s attractiveness. As “the presence of many universities with technological qualities within a limited perimeter, underlines Laurent Hublet. KU Leuven is very strong in semiconductors and cryptography, the University of Ghent is at the top in the area of ​​software, with a solid start-up mafia born in Ghent. We can also mention names like Hugues Bersini (ULB), expert in artificial intelligence, or Jean-Jacques Quisquater (UCLouvain), expert in cryptography. So what is Belgium missing? “Good marketing, immediately reacts the CEO of BeCentral. Unlike our country, some states have opted for an offensive and proactive strategy to position themselves in digital.” And to take Portugal as an example. Local authorities created AICEP, a public body dedicated to the development of a competitive business environment. She wrote a specific pitch about technology. Its brochure Why Portugal has something to inspire: 26 pages that highlight the country’s references, the foreign technology stars that have settled there, local investments, statistics on the Porto and Lisbon ecosystem. But also the country’s many “competitive advantages”: presence of local and foreign IT talent and talent development programs, existing financial incentives (financial support in R&D, tax exemptions for jobs created, favorable tax regime for expatriates, etc.) . A document that does not in itself change Portugal’s attractiveness, but testifies to a coherent and common message from the authorities to attract technological talent and make the country a new digital hub… Thibaud Elzière of eFounders shares this need to play the marketing card from the country . For the businessman of French origin, “the image of Brussels, the city I know best, is calamitous for the French. However, the more people want to come to Belgium, the more things will happen there. things, including at a business level” Until now, each Region has played its marketing card, like Wallonia with Wallonia Digital. Certainly, with good Belgian visibility, but also with a rather limited international reach. And Laurent Hublet continues: “If the ecosystem has developed well, unfortunately we still see a disconnect between the business and political worlds. joint effort between business people and public decision makers. We must now really manage to build something that unites us and displays a Belgian identity.” Including in technology.

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