Why The Big Score can be labelled the three-star restaurant of startup events
From 15/11 to 17/11 you can visit The Big Score in Ghent, aiming to connect tech start-ups and scale-ups with companies and investors.
From 15 November to 17 November, you can once again attend the international start-up and scale-up event that connects numerous companies, top investors and venture capital funds with these young and fast-growing companies. At MeetDistrict, these talents will be able to initiate numerous conversations in order to secure possible investment deals. This year, they’ve selected no less than 90 scale-ups. We spoke to Bruno Vandegehuchte, who has been the driving force behind the event for years, together with Startups.be|Scale-Ups.eu.
Spoiler alert: be sure to scroll through to the end, because we get to hand out exclusive tickets for the final day of the event! Anyone with a relevant profile to work within a SaaS-start-up can visit for free on that last day at our invitation.
Hello Bruno, thanks for taking the time in this undoubtedly busy period leading up to The Big Score. First and foremost, we were wondering how the concept for The Big Score actually came about. How did you get the idea to organise this?
This dates from about 7 years ago, when I was platform director at Gent BC. That organisation, which is no longer active, was meant to profile and boost the knowledge economy. I had launched a call within the Ghentian ‘tech’ start-up scene in 2015, specifically asking what I could do for them. The companies within the start-up network were still very low profile back then. I actually paid a visit to some of these scale-ups, like Showpad and Teamleader, Startups.be and tech-investors like Frank Maene, Jurgen Ingels, Alain De Taeye and Wim De Waele. Bear in mind, back then, they were small companies. Everyone agreed that we – despite the excellent teams – didn’t get enough attention from the essential European venture capital funds. They considered Belgium – and thus Ghent – a mere fly-over zone. They wanted to show just how interesting the SaaS and tech companies are here, show them that they’re well worth their time, and physically invite them over. But now I’m referring to a time when these unicorns hadn’t been born yet, nor the 2 acceleration programmes or 3 private tech-funds.
Luckily, I could fall back on a good network and had experience within the event sector, so it became my ambition to bring those European top investors over here. That’s how Level Up ! was born, back in 2015, in collaboration with Startups.be|Scale-Ups.eu, the City of Ghent, the University of Ghent, imec, Volta, Fortino and Cresco. It was a one-day programme with 50 young start-ups from Ghent. Experts had advised against it beforehand because they were afraid that I wouldn’t make any profit and that no funds from London or Paris would come to Ghent. They all said we were crazy (laughs). That’s our typical modesty for you! I’d targeted 30 to 40 investors and in the end, there were 150 in the room from whole over Europe! This is to the credit of all partners and individuals involved, as well as the founders of major Ghentian tech scale ups such as Teamleader, In the Pocket, and Showpad, who supported Level Up! without having any agenda of their own.
The striking thing is that Level Up! was in fact the first Saas-focused VC event in Belgium, and we’ve built a whole community around it. The Level Up! sessions, organised for and by the Ghent start-up community, also contributed to this. During those sessions, we all came together on a Thursday evening every 2 months and exchanged ideas. A meaningful concept that would certainly catch on in Ghent!
We’ll keep that in mind, Bruno! The concept of The Big score is definitely catching on. What sort of growth do you foresee? Will you launch an international version?
Complemented by some top international partners, we could get more name recognition internationally and welcome better-known guests. With bigger players, we would have bigger budgets and bigger networks. Apart from that, we can certainly foster the healthy ambition to become the biggest VC event in the Benelux within 5 years, within the SaaS niche. We’ve already got a good reputation, say the three-star restaurant of start-up events, but we can certainly build on that. Our guests also appreciate our smaller scale. Compared to foreign events, we 'only' attract 500 people, but we really only welcome the top guests. And we owe this to the screening we carry out in advance of start-ups, scale-ups, and VCs. All pitches are reviewed, all companies are analysed and people are given a proverbial phone book with info on all 90 top-of-the-class start-ups present. Sliced cake for investors and prospects. I wonder who else is offering that (laughs).
The Level Up! sessions, organised for and by the Ghent start-up community, also contributed. During those sessions, we all came together on a Thursday evening every 2 months and exchanged ideas. A meaningful concept that would certainly catch on in Ghent!
Not only have you grown, of course, but our start-ups have also grown. They’re top of the class, year after year, in raising venture capital. This year, 280 million euros have already been raised. No Belgian city boasts these figures. What, in your opinion, makes Ghent so unique in this?
That’s a combination of a lot of things, and it certainly didn’t happen overnight. The classic answer, of course, is that it’s thanks to our colleges and university. They don’t just offer a population of 84,000 students, but also rock-solid engineering courses, computer science courses, UX, and so on.
In addition, Ghent was one of the first cities to have a start-up scene. Just think of Netlog's VPs and senior managers, who all founded their own companies at the time. They were pioneers, ‘giving birth’, as it were, to some 40 companies, like Showpad, for instance.
Moreover, it’s a tolerant, progressive city where everyone is accessible. People from within the same areas of interest still call each other, meet up and discuss a business idea between pot and pint.
Finally, it’s a city where the first accelerators and incubators could be found. Think of imec.istart (formerly iminds), for example. Those environments have already proven to be very fruitful. This has helped to anchor a lot of fledgling start-ups in Ghent. Think of PieSync, now taken over by tech giant Hubspot, and the crazy success story of Deliverect, grown out of Posios.
There has also been a huge evolution in the Belgian/European investment landscape in recent years. Can you briefly frame these, and how do you see this evolving further?
In recent years, there are two issues playing a part here. On the one hand, a lot of returns from start-ups in recent years are obviously not the same as they were promised to VCs or funds at the time. On the other hand, those big, structural partners - such as pension funds and big investors - are themselves under pressure in times of recession and inflation.
This creates a lot of pressure from both sides on those funds. On the one hand, they have to invest their venture capital in high-risk start-ups; on the other hand, they experience great reluctance from their own structural investors who, because of Corona and the current crisis, see that the start-ups are not yielding sufficient returns or that the funds’ return promises are not being met. This means investment managers are more conservative and less likely to invest in high-risk top-tech teams.
Before the crisis, start-ups didn't necessarily have to make a profit or show exponential growth figures to be considered. If you had an excellent product, with the right fit for the market segment, and if the first contracts were signed and the click with the team was good, a lot of investors were inclined to go for it.
Now, it takes more to convince them. They scrutinise the number of customer contracts signed, the profit projections, and the accounting figures. As a result, they may be more likely to choose teams that don't have the best tech product, but that can present solid numbers and bet on a stable market segment. The numbers now appear to play a more important role, multiples are lower and term sheets are negotiated over longer periods of time. That’s just my 2 cents, but I’m not a VC, of course (laughs).
On top of that, the valuations of start-ups have dropped. Some four years ago, European companies were valued at 7 to 10 times their 'real' value, according to so-called multiples of EBITDA. In the US, sometimes as much as 20 to 30 times. Now, those multiples have plummeted to 3 to 5 times as much. Safe to say, the investment climate is no longer as generous as it was, but the good teams with the right products continue to raise money more easily than 10 years ago. Fortunately!
Ghent was one of the first cities to have a start-up scene. Just think of Netlog's VPs and senior managers, who all founded their own companies at the time. They were pioneers, ‘giving birth’, as it were, to some 40 companies.
Going back to the programme of The Big Score for a moment, which session are you personally looking forward to very much, for example?
Thanks to Deloitte and P&G, there are some very interesting climate-tech scale-ups coming to the event. This is, of course, a hot topic these days. Some of them are 'unmasking' companies that are doing what is known as 'greenwashing'. With that concept, we refer to companies stating that they are that much per cent ecological, when in fact that simply isn’t true. Those companies create a façade for the consumer. There are some very interesting scale-ups among them that puncture those myths. For instance, they investigate the entire supplier line of all the different components, revealing the fact that the producer isn’t being entirely honest in the figures he’s portraying in marketing campaigns. Scale-up Nyala Blue comes to my mind, for example. Using blockchain, they allow consumers to track products and impact, offering verified transparency.
In terms of logistics and transport, there are also some clever companies among the line-up. This sector has been neglected, in a way, for a long time now. It’s thanks to European regulation that they are now experiencing growth, as large companies are now obliged to buy certain technology to do CO₂ reporting and reduction. Examples are Qargo and D CRBN. Five years ago, start-ups and scale-ups were shouting from the side-lines, stating that the big companies would need them sooner rather than later. They’ve been proved right (laughs). Clearly, the theme this year is really 'the road to zero carbon'.
The third day looks slightly different this year. Why did you choose a different approach and what can start-ups expect?
We were often told – and rightly so – that, as a Belgian start-up, you already had to be in very good shape to be nominated among those 50 scale-ups. And only the nominated companies were able to attend on day 1 and 2. This left a lot of people out in the cold.
Last year, we got the idea of serving them with 'corporate challenges', where we invited 40 multinationals to present a challenge to those start-ups. But then it turned out that those multinationals presented such a niche problem that only 30 per cent of those companies knew how to tackle it. These issues were incredibly interesting for those companies, but less so for the companies that couldn’t.
Now, we are selecting 40 incredibly promising teams from all over Belgium and again welcoming interesting investors and companies looking for tech-related solutions. Among the nominees are also some very young teams, which investors can meet for the first time. We’ve got partnerships with student.be, VLAIO, Vlerick Business School and Capitant, among others, to welcome students and young talent. Anyone with a relevant profile who wants to work within a Saas-start-up can visit for free on that last day – by invitation only - and they can have conversations with all these top teams. Conversations can be scheduled quite easily via Conversation Starter. What is more, they can end their day with a pint at the Winter Circus. Then they’ll have had a great day, I reckon (laughs).