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Jan Wauters, Science & Technology Counselor in New York: “I get to discover new developments from the front row”

Working as a Science & Technology Counselor for FIT is not just a job, it’s an adventure. We immediately got a taste of the S&T experience when planning a Microsoft Teams meeting with Jan Wauters, our representative in New York. Due to Isaias, a tropical storm that ravaged the East Coast, Jan faced power outages for over a week. Consequently, we had to postpone our interview, but it was worth the wait. Jan Wauters: “As an expat, you’ll never run out of interesting stories to tell, but that’s far from the only fascinating thing about this job.”  

Amid a pandemic, our Science & Technology Counselors experience first-hand how the scientific playing field is changing rapidly. Jan Wauters: “Numerous biopharmaceutical companies are joining the quest for a workable COVID-19 treatment. While it’s true that the medical world is constantly changing, we now see new business models emerge even faster: even competing companies are starting to work closely together. This undoubtedly has an impact on the local business environments in which we, as Science & Technology Counselors, must be able to find our way and move quickly. This is also true here in the US.”  

Although the US and Flanders have similar business cultures, there are some differences to take into account. “The Hollywood image of the ideal American businessperson doesn’t always match real life,” Jan admits. “In reality, things are often a bit more chaotic, but this can lead to the best business deals at the most unexpected moments. ‘Unprepare to prepare and prepare to be unprepared’ aptly sums up the American way of working.”  

First aid for differences in business culture 

Despite the similarities, entrepreneurs sometimes don’t fully grasp the American style of doing business. To provide the necessary support in this case, Jan plays an important role as a Science & Technology Counselor. Jan Wauters: “In far-away markets like China, entrepreneurs from Flanders automatically anticipate cultural differences, but they don’t expect any major dissimilarities in the US. However, these differences certainly exist. The American legal system, for example, differs from the system in Flanders. In the US, every aspect of a business deal needs to be written down in a contract. Otherwise, it’s not valid. This often leads to bulky contracts, whereas in Flanders, the law is the point of reference for everything that’s not explicitly stated in the contract.”  

“What also stands out is the difference in mentality,” Jan Wauters adds. “Just like people from Flanders, Americans like to talk about things calmly before they get down to business. But Belgium’s and Flanders’ political system – with governments at various levels – isn’t food for conversation in the US, since the American state system and bureaucracy are complex as well. And yet, American entrepreneurs will proudly present themselves as US citizens, while people from Flanders will apologize, so to speak, for their origins. There’s no need for that!”  

Matchmaker on a double mission  

So, what are the main types of questions to which Jan, as a Science & Technology Counselor, has to provide answers? “Questions about import regulations definitely claim the number one spot. In the medical sector, for example, you need to follow a strict approval procedure under the watchful eye of the Food & Drug Administration before equipment and medicines can be granted access to the market. As Science & Technology Counselors, we guide companies toward useful information channels and provide them with an overview of import restrictions and relevant approval authorities.” 

“Furthermore, we often receive questions about setting up an office abroad: ‘Which location is the best and what are the necessary steps?’ The first aspect is particularly important when spotting opportunities for companies from Flanders. A skillful Science & Technology Counselor has clear insights into the state of R&D in local markets. Take the American life sciences landscape, for instance. Like Flanders, the US strongly focuses on developing clusters in which private companies, academics and public research centers unite to innovate together. Such business intelligence is essential to help Flanders-based companies find their ideal base abroad: close to the customer, with access to talent and a smooth link to Flanders.”  

“On the other hand, we also bring innovative American companies and research institutions into contact with Flanders-based players and encourage them to invest or collaborate in Flanders. As Science & Technology Counselors, we work in a sector-specific way, but we always wear two hats, meaning that we support both FIT departments: Trade and Invest.”  

A skillful Science & Technology Counselor has clear insights into the state of R&D in local markets.” 

A rare bird that’s also a jack of all trades 

Working as a Science & Technology Counselor clearly is a fascinating expat job. However, it does require striking a balance between two important domains. “Science & Technology Counselors are economic representatives with knowledge of both business development and science and technology,” says Jan Wauters. “That’s quite a rare combination. Consequently, having a helicopter view of the innovation landscape in your specific knowledge domain and focus area is indispensable. You don’t have to be an expert in everything. But you do need to understand and be able to follow the world of technology closely. You also need to know what’s going on in your sector and be flexible. Whether the talk of the day is about promising COVID-19 immunotherapies or a new orthopedic device, a talented Science & Technology Counselors is a jack of all trades.”  

“Networking is also an important skill,” Jan Wauters adds. “Americans traditionally master this skill a little more than people from Flanders, but the tide is starting to turn. As a Science & Technology Counselor, you also need to dare to connect with people during networking events and gain their trust. That’s the foundation for every business relationship.”  

As a Science & Technology Counselor, you don’t have to be an expert in everything, but you do need to know what’s going on in your sector and be flexible.” 

Success stories put Flanders on the map  

Besides challenging, working as a Science & Technology Counselor is also very rewarding. Jan is especially happy with the kind reactions of entrepreneurs from Flanders who are gaining a foothold in the American biotech scene thanks to his support. Jan Wauters: “It also gives great satisfaction, for example, to highlight the added value of American pharma giants – such as Pfizer – for Flanders’ local business and R&D ecosystem. Pfizer recently chose its production site in Puurs, Flanders, as one of only four sites for the production of a COVID-19 candidate vaccine. The three other sites are all located in the US. This is partly the merit of Flanders’ innovation ecosystem, and it’s okay for us to be proud of that.”  

“I also have nothing but praise for companies like Hologic, the American medtech company that recently opened a new training center in Zaventem,” Jan Wauters adds. “The central location of Flanders undoubtedly played a role in this choice, but there’s more. Our region is a world-class center of clinical expertise. Just think of our excellent university hospitals. Besides, people from Flanders are known for their multilingualism and the region is home to all the necessary niche expertise you’ll need – all brought together in a compact and easily accessible network. These assets also convince an American tech firm like Hologic to consolidate its European activities in Flanders. Various biotech and life sciences companies have made a similar choice in the past, and Hologic definitely won’t be the last!”  

In short: Q&A Jan Wauters  
  • Complete this phrase: Tech makes Flanders tick, because … “Flanders knows how to achieve cross-pollination between different technological niche domains. Think of the crossover between digital technology and healthcare, for example.”  
  • Which Export Lion and Foreign Investment Trophy laureates inspire you the most? “Hologic, the American tech giant that chose to centralize and consolidate part of its European activities in Flanders.”  
  • What gives you the most satisfaction in your job as Science & Technology Counselor? “The continuous interaction with a rapidly changing scientific world.” 
  • Which qualities are crucial to excel in this role? “A solid helicopter view, strong networking and business development skills, and a great interest in your field of specialization.”  
  • What makes it a challenging job? “You’re constantly wearing two hats: on the one hand; you help Flanders-based tech companies achieve their international ambitions; on the other hand, you try to attract innovative players from abroad to Flanders.”  

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