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How imec (Flanders) became the prototype for R&D ecosystems

Does Europe have any magic left? That is the question posed in an in-depth article by fDi Intelligence, a service from the Financial Times. Showcasing why the answer is a definite yes, the article zooms in on the success story that is imec, Flanders’ strategic research center for digital and nanotech. Here’s why its journey serves as a telling example of how the government of Flanders supports the development of innovative ecosystems.

Humble yet ambitious beginnings

Back in 1984, imec was established as a non-profit spin-off of KU Leuven, Flanders’ oldest and Europe’s most innovative university. Initially backed by a EUR 62-million investment from Flanders’ regional government, it has since become one of the main independent nanotech and semiconductor research centers worldwide.

The story of imec began when 70 researchers from KU Leuven in Flanders set out to launch a microelectronics ‘superlab’ and propel a chip-based industrial revolution. We needed to invest in advanced equipment, which would have been difficult for the university to do on its own.

Luc Van den hove
CEO of imec

Government support from square one

The government of Flanders’ decision to support imec – and R&D and innovation in general – was part of a strategic choice at the time. So much so that “generous funding” and a “clear vision” from Flanders’ government are highlighted by fDi Intelligence as being “the catalyst” for imec’s foundation.

In the 1980s, a local ‘third industrial revolution’ policy in Flanders aimed to boost the region’s knowledge base and potential to innovate, with a particular focus on the renewal of local industrial ecosystems in new materials and microelectronics.

Joy Donné
CEO of Flanders Investment & Trade

Back then, public funding made up the vast majority of imec’s budget. But the choice to back the research center remains a no-brainer for the government of Flanders. Today, regional government support accounts for around 15% of imec’s budget.

An ecosystem of public, private and academic excellence

Another factor contributing to imec’s success is the central role it plays at the heart of a multidisciplinary ecosystem – an approach for fostering growth and innovation actively promoted by the government of Flanders. Add to that imec’s close ties to the vast talent pool at KU Leuven and other universities in the region, and it quickly becomes clear why the research center continues to thrive in Flanders.

Imec is the prototype of European brilliance: global-class talent planted its seeds in Leuven, creating a platform for academics, industry players and local policymakers to join forces and innovate. Locations across Europe have repeatedly tweaked this ‘triple helix’ approach, setting the foundation for some of the continent’s most consequential, albeit often unsung, stories of economic development success.

fDi Intelligence

At the same time, imec’s business and financing model enables the research center to remain a neutral provider of R&D services in the semiconductor industry, a geopolitically relevant sector that is otherwise intensely competitive.

While imec maintains close working relationships with local universities and professors, its independent hierarchical management structure is crucial to its success. If you want to cater for broad framework contracts with global leaders such as Intel, Samsung, Philips or ASML, you need a top-down organization with a clear direction.

Paul Van Dun
Head of the technology transfer office at KU Leuven

More info

Reported by
fDi Intelligence website
21 March 2023

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