Female founders raising the volume in Ghent's tech scene

For International Women's Day, we spoke with Liesbeth Ceelen and Kim De Nolf, female leaders in Ghent's tech industry.

In celebration of International Women's Day, we spotlight women making waves in the Ghent tech industry. The aim is not to meet quotas nor ensure that men hold the door open (literally and figuratively) but to showcase strong role models in Ghent.

This year, we spoke with Liesbeth Ceelen, CEO of BioLizard, and Kim De Nolf, CEO of QustomDot. Both of them came to Ghent for their studies and, like many others, decided to stay. We also asked them about their experiences as women in industries (mainly Biotech, Healthtech and Digital Tech) where men still hold most leadership positions.

We meet at MeetDistrict, right next to the field. It’s a striking analogy: just as the soccer players step onto the grass field each time, these women enter the "Tech arena" every time. However, as Kim points out, “What we do is really not that special," says Kim. "Why would our achievements differ so much from what men do?"

Both women have already established an impressive track record. Liesbeth earned her education and PhD from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Ghent University. This institute has been at the top of the Shanghai Index for six years. She ventured into the business world, eventually finding her niche in the start-up and scale-up environment. Through her network, she first met Wim Van Criekinge, one of the founders of BioLizard. Over time, she gradually assumed the role of CEO of the company.

Kim obtained a Master's degree in Chemistry and later decided to pursue a doctorate in nanochemistry, focusing on quantum dots. When she and the two co-founders realised that the research group had developed significant intellectual property, they half-jokingly suggested they could start a company. And that’s precisely what happened.

  • What we do is really not that special. Why would our achievements differ so much from what men do?

    Kim De Nolf

The dynamic growth of both companies

QustomDot is a company that specialises in producing inks for quantum dots, which are nanomaterials used in various applications. These particles absorb light and emit it at different wavelengths. The company was established four years ago as a spin-off from Ghent University. "In the beginning, we had to convince our professor to establish a spin-off," says Kim. "After a valorisation project, fortunately, there was a real market for it, and then we were off." In 4 years, they went from 3 to 18 employees, showing strong growth.

"Most of our employees work in R&D. We mainly use red and green quantum particles because combining blue light with red and green produces white light. This way, we can create all the colours needed. The technology of screens is expanding rapidly and includes various devices such as TVs, smartphones, smartwatch screens, and the latest AppleVision Pro. With the introduction of quantum dot ink, we can significantly reduce the energy these screens consume. Furthermore, the manufacturing process using our materials is much simpler."

It's primarily the producers of LED technology who come knocking. "The companies that make LED lights, in turn, supply to the panel makers who create the panel for the display. These panels are then integrated into different devices and can be used for leisure applications and medical imaging. Having a good quality screen is crucial in medical imaging."

BioLizard specialises in bioinformatics, AI, and software engineering for biotech, pharmaceutical, and diagnostic companies. "You get a huge amount of data," says Liesbeth, "during drug discovery, where you're searching for the right molecules for the development of new drugs (in the earliest phase) and also in the preclinical phase. Unfortunately, this data hasn't always been fully utilised. However, more and more companies have adopted a more data-driven strategy, which is logical because data can help you identify why things go wrong. Using data, you can optimise your process and make adjustments in the lab. Our slogan, 'getting actionable insights,' is based on acquiring insights that can be applied. The more you start from data, the better your process will be to develop a drug, ultimately leading to greater effectiveness."

BioLizard currently has offices in Ghent, Amsterdam, Boston, and Lausanne, employing approximately 50 people. "With our specialised biological knowledge, we can provide valuable insights. We can distinguish between useful and irrelevant data. We utilise AI to work with complex or extensive data sets. This combination helps us accurately capture and interpret data, making it easier for people to understand. Efficient data management is crucial in achieving this.”

  • You don't necessarily need to be highly confident, but you should exude strength, as it's mostly about perception. Nowadays, there is a greater appreciation for women, and I've noticed this even with our male investors.

    Liesbeth Ceelen

Navigating the path from research to founder of a company

But how do you go from conducting research to launching your own business? "I must admit that it's not a straightforward path," says Kim. "There aren't any specific tools provided during your education. Although there is now an elective course in 'Entrepreneurship' offered by the Chemistry department, the possibility of starting your own business is not discussed enough with the students. These days, the focus is more on industrialisation, and research must have a practical application. However, I strongly believe in the importance of basic research at universities because it is that fundamental research we will rely on in 20 years."

"It is true that transitioning from scientific research to commercialisation requires significant effort. Initially, we underestimated this process, but we eventually realised that it takes time to develop a first product. As academic researchers, we started with the technology and had to find an application. However, entrepreneurs often identify a problem in the industry and develop a solution. We had to search for a market and convince many individuals. Thankfully, we received excellent support from our investors."

"However, there is also a great advantage in becoming an entrepreneur as a scientist. It helps you to develop skills in forming a hypothesis and testing it. Through the testing process, you can obtain results that can be analysed. Based on the analysis, you can adjust the hypothesis if necessary. Entrepreneurship is nothing but an experiment. This is especially true in the initial stage where you must determine the product-market fit.”

  • Entre­pren­eur­ship is nothing but an experiment. This is especially true in the initial stage where you must determine the product-market fit.

    Kim De Nolf

Empowering girls in STEM and entrepreneurship

Speaking of advantages and disadvantages, can we still consider gender to be a major stumbling block? "I've learned that it mainly depends on how you present yourself," says Liesbeth. "You don't necessarily need to be highly confident, but you should exude strength, as it's mostly about perception. Nowadays, there is a greater appreciation for women, and I've noticed this even with our male investors. It's not as bad as it used to be."

"You do see that many people specifically comment on that," says Kim. "That it's quite amazing that you do what you do, being a woman (laughs). I believe a concept like International Women's Day is still relevant. We must pave the way for the following generations of girls and women. It becomes more ' normal ' when more women are involved in technical companies. Unfortunately, young girls still do not have enough exposure to technical professions or STEM fields. As a result, they cannot fully discover their potential passion. This is why I deliver an annual guest lecture on entrepreneurship in the Master of Chemistry program. I also visit 'Dream Days' at secondary schools because I believe it's essential to showcase the possibilities of certain studies."

Liesbeth entirely agrees with this. "Recently, there was a new edition of 'Da's Geniaal!' , where three generations of women are brought together to inspire each other. We're a partner of that initiative, and on that day, we also promoted STEM to young girls around 14 years of age. There were also girls from different backgrounds, and I was quite surprised to hear from some girls the image of a career they thought was available to them. My message that day was to show that women can achieve great things. You can balance a successful career with a family by choosing and finding a good balance. It’s not always easy, and it might mean sacrificing free time and sleep, but it has benefits for your children as well. It teaches them to be more independent. Every disadvantage has its advantages, so it's definitely possible. However, you also need to be given the right opportunities, I think."

  • We are often too modest about the amazing things we do. Let's make more noise and assert that we are the Biotech Valley!

    Liesbeth Ceelen

Speaking up for a better future

Nearly two years ago, Liesbeth made the choice to pursue an MBA at Vlerick Business School and also had the opportunity to participate in the 'Scaling Up Your Venture' program at Haas Business School in Silicon Valley. "I learned a lot when I was there," she says. "But I also heard how much noise they make, how they were boasting about their strength in biotech. I often had to think that the points they raised in Silicon Valley are already present in Ghent, and we actually have nothing to be inferior about. I believe that in Ghent, Belgium, and Europe, more generally, we should invest more in biotech and innovation because the U.S. has clearly built a significant lead in this area. When I returned, I told the team we should be more daring. We are often too modest about the amazing things we do. Let's make more noise and assert that we are the Biotech Valley!"

Kim also wants to make some noise because some things could still improve. "Entrepreneurs should be willing to fail because it's only through failure that you learn. Women may need to hear this a little more than men because we tend to be a bit reserved. Additionally, seeing more women in the venture capital industry would be great. To be clear, I do not favour a quota for women within specific programs or companies. As a woman, I believe recognition should be based on individual achievement rather than a certain percentage that must be met. It's not brave to do our jobs as women but as individuals, regardless of gender."