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How Flanders’ chemical industry sets off a chain reaction of success

Flanders’ chemical industry has the ideal building blocks for your company’s commercial, innovative and sustainable success – and they all involve well-deserved superlatives. But you shouldn’t just take our word for it: read on to feel the chemistry for yourself and discover how your business can benefit from it.

Quick facts about Flanders’ chemical industry

In Flanders, we don’t just feel the chemistry, we’ve also got plenty of tangible facts to prove that the region is brewing with chemical business activity:

  • Flanders is home to Europe’s largest and the world’s second-largest integrated petrochemical cluster, part of the Port of Antwerp-Bruges.
  • Belgium and Flanders rank as the world’s number 1 for chemicals and plastics sales per capita with an annual turnover of EUR 73.8 billion – over two thirds of which is generated in Flanders. 
  • The chemical industry provides 65,159 direct jobs and 150,000 indirect jobs in Belgium, making it one of the country’s biggest employers.  

(Source: essenscia, 2021 key figures)

Flanders and foreign firms: a strong chemical bond

Did you know that 8 of the world’s top 10 chemical companies operate production sites in Flanders, according to the sector federation essenscia? What’s more, all of the world’s top 10 biopharma companies have key activities in the region. It should therefore come as no surprise that huge amounts have been channeled by foreign firms into Flanders-based activities. To give you an idea, over EUR 13 billion in foreign direct investment was recorded in Flanders’ chemical industry between 2010 and 2020 (source: essenscia, 2021 key figures). 

Major investments from the past years include large-scale projects initiated by Borealis (Austria), BASF (Germany), Covestro (Germany), Evonik (Germany), INEOS (UK), Kaneka (Japan), Nippon Shokubai (Japan) and more.

Reach out to Flanders’ Welcome Team for the Chemical Sector

If you’re looking to set up or expand your chemical business in Europe, you can count on the tailored assistance of Flanders’ Welcome Team for the Chemical Sector. Consisting of experts from Flanders Investment & Trade, essenscia, Catalisti, VITO and PMV, the team can help you:

  • internationalize your business;
  • investigate whether Flanders is the perfect match;
  • determine the best business approach in the region;
  • find the right spot in Flanders’ business ecosystem.

Reach out to the Welcome Team via isabel.debeenhouwer@fitagency.be.

First-class logistics and infrastructure for chemical players

In addition to being strategically located in the center of Western Europe, Flanders is situated at the heart of the Antwerp-Rotterdam-Rhine-Ruhr Area (ARRRA), Europe’s strongest industrial mega-cluster. What’s more, the region is centrally located within the Western European pipeline network.

Pipelines in Flanders

Antwerp: Europe’s leading and the world’s 2nd-largest petrochemical cluster

Second only to Houston, the Port of Antwerp-Bruges (Flanders) is known the world over for its petrochemical cluster in the Antwerp area. In addition to extensive and readily available petrochemical storage capacity, Antwerp’s cluster boasts a high level of integration and diversity across the chemical value chain – from raw materials, feedstocks and chemical building blocks to commodities, intermediates and final products. Opportunities for synergies in energy, process integration and logistics reign supreme, offering world-class cost effectiveness.

The numbers tell the rest of the tale, as the Antwerp port area houses:

  • 500 chemical firms on over 2,500 ha of industrial land;
  • refineries;
  • 3 steam crackers;
  • production and storage sites of more than 300 different chemicals.

Furthermore, the Zeebrugge area of the Port of Antwerp-Bruges acts as one of the main entry points for the supply of LNG in Northwestern Europe.

A strategic industry in Flanders

‘Sustainable Resources, Materials & Chemistry’ has been identified as one of five key value chains of Flanders Accelerates, the official internationalization strategy for Flanders’ economy. As such, the chemical industry is backed by a strategic partnership between sector federation essenscia and government agency Flanders Investment & Trade (FIT).

The goal is to strengthen and expand the international position of Flanders’ chemical sector through promotion, growth support for start-ups and SMEs, knowledge exchange and more.

Catalisti: developing the formula for sustainable chemistry

The chemical industry has a vital role to play in tackling climate challenges, realizing a circular economy and creating a carbon-smart society. That’s why Catalisti, Flanders’ spearhead cluster for chemistry and plastics, seeks to drive innovation and multidisciplinary partnerships in these high-impact domains with the goal of tackling a massive host of projects focused on sustainability. Your company can join the chemical innovation frenzy, too!

Furthermore, Catalisti is in the driver’s seat of Moonshot, an industrial innovation program that unites citizens, governments and industries in working toward a clear mission: to transform Flanders into a CO2-neutral society by 2050. How? Through the development of marketable innovative and sustainable technologies. To this aim, the government of Flanders invests a total of EUR 400 million spread across various Moonshot projects.

Federations for the chemical win

The fact that chemistry is one Flanders’ flagship industries is also reflected in the presence of numerous federations that represent the interests of companies active in (petro)chemicals, polymers, plastics, specialty chemicals and related business fields such as cleantech.

The most prominent ones include:

  • essenscia vlaanderen – multisector organization and network of 450+ chemical and life sciences companies in Flanders. 
  • DETIC – the association for producers and distributers of soaps, cosmetics, (laundry) detergents, cleaning and maintenance products, hygienic and toilet articles, household coatings, paints, and adhesives.
  • Federplast  the association of producers of rubber and plastic products.
  • IVP  the federation of manufacturers and importers of paints and coatings, varnishes, printing inks and decorative coatings.

A close-knit ecosystem of R&D centers, research group incubators and head plants

Flanders’ chemical business and knowledge ecosystem generates numerous collaboration and innovation opportunities for your company. Some major local players and go-to organizations in the field include Catalisti, BlueChem, essenscia and VITO. But the list goes on and on – we’ve gathered the most prominent names below.

To optimally reap the rewards of this thriving ecosystem, various international industry leaders have set up their global or European head plants and R&D centers in Flanders – numerous of which develop sustainable chemical innovation and technology. Examples include the sites of AGFA, Eastman, ExxonMobil, INEOS, Procter & Gamble, Recticel, Solvay, Soudal and more.

VITO, accelerating the transition to sustainable chemistry

One of Flanders’ strategic research centers, VITO is an independent  and multidisciplinary research organization that specializes in the areas of cleantech and sustainable development. One of its main focus domains is sustainable chemistry, which has its own R&D unit within the organization.

In fact, VITO has a two-fold approach to help boost the chemical industry’s competitiveness as well as its transition towards greater sustainability, efficiency and reuse. Firstly, the research center concentrates on creating novel value chains based on renewable raw materials such as biomass and CO2. Secondly, it focuses on developing sustainable chemical processes. In doing so, VITO works closely with start-ups and established companies as well as policy makers and investment firms.

BlueChem, incubator for sustainable chemistry

Located in Antwerp, BlueChem assists growth companies in developing innovations for the future of chemistry. Not only does the incubator lead unique collaborations between the industry, the government and knowledge institutes, it also offers access to infrastructure such as offices and co-working space, meeting rooms and research labs. In addition to a range of services (including business development, IP, legal advice, HR management and financial guidance), BlueChem also offers financial support through the Kickstart Fund.

Research groups that mean serious business

Various university research groups in Flanders stand ready to help you turn science into a profitable innovative business. Below are just a few examples: 

  • The Integrated Sustainable Chemistry consortium (InSusChem) helps chemical experts improve how natural resources are used to meet the need for chemical products and services. Part of Antwerp University (UAntwerp), it sets up industry collaborations that focus on the development of better, energy-saving and resource-efficient technologies. Further adding to the consortium’s expertise is BlueApp, an open-innovation hub for the co-creation of smart solutions for sustainable chemistry. 
  • CleanChem is a Ghent University (UGent) technology transfer cluster for sustainable chemical production.
  • Associated with Hasselt University (UHasselt) and strategic research center imec, imo-imomec brings chemists, physicists and engineers together. The goal is to conduct multidisciplinary materials research focused on advanced material systems for a sustainable and healthy society.
  • Part of Ghent University (UGent), the Laboratory for Circular Process Engineering (LCPE) is dedicated to chemical engineering in the circular economy. Among other things, it focuses on developing cost-effective recycling and (re)use processes to valorize organic and plastic waste. 
  • Colloquially called ‘EcoChem’, UGent’s Laboratory of Analytical Chemistry and Applied Ecochemistry focuses on the fate of trace and toxic elements in agricultural and natural ecosystems as well as on the development of environmental tech and recycling of nutrients and tech-critical elements. 

Highly specialized and skilled chemical workforce

Together, Flanders’ universities offer over thirty educational tracks relevant to chemical production and innovation, endowing students in the region with the necessary skills and knowhow to offer world-class technical expertise and operational excellence to chemical companies.

In addition, Flanders is a frontrunner when it comes to dual learning, life-long learning and collaboration between the worlds of education and industry. This is all the more evident at dedicated training centers for the chemical, biotech and life sciences industries, such as ACTA, PlastIQ, ViTalent and the Training Lab Kunststoffen (Plastics).

Financing your chemical business in Flanders

When deciding to establish activities or headquarters in Flanders, your chemical company can reap the rewards of:

  • government subsidies and support for investments in R&D and innovation, strategic transformation, ecological efforts, growth and other domains.
  • tax incentives to fund a broad range of business activities.
  • fiscal options to help you cut labor costs.
  • financing opportunities through investment company PMV, the Moonshot program, the Capricorn Sustainable Chemistry Fund, the Innovation Circle and the Innovation Fund.

Tax incentives for research-intensive activities

Flanders offers access to several tax incentives that are particularly relevant to research-intensive sectors like the chemical industry. Examples include:

  • the innovation income deduction – up to 85% of a company’s net innovation income can be exempt from corporate tax.
  • the R&D investment deduction – 13.5% of the investment value (at once) or 20.5% of the annual depreciation (staggered).  
  • the R&D payroll tax exemption – 80% of the withholding tax on professional income for researchers and academic personnel.