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Artificial intelligence (AI): action, support and collaboration in Flanders

The impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on our lives and our businesses continues to grow. As a frontrunner in digital society, Flanders takes a leading role in this dynamic and future-oriented sector. Dedicated, well-funded action plans, a powerful ecosystem and a range of grants and subsidies make Flanders the place to be for AI-related businesses. 

Quick facts about AI in Flanders

Every year, the government of Flanders invests EUR 32 million in the development, research, practical application, education and awareness surrounding artificial intelligence. Furthermore, Flanders has many assets in terms of AI innovation. To choose the right focus, the region’s AI action plan zooms in on three main elements:

  1. In-depth research: AI research programs with proven international (market) potential will be strengthened and extended. 
  2. Industry applications: through its spearhead clusters and the governmental support agency VLAIO, Flanders provides the framework for businesses to share knowledge, capitalize on the latest trends, and translate new developments into applications. 
  3. Education, awareness and ethics: a permanent AI training program and ‘thinktank’ serve as the vehicles for raising awareness and educating companies and institutions on the disruptive potential of AI. In this respect, Flanders’ universities (such as KU Leuven, UAntwerpen and UGent) rank among Europe’s top institutes when it comes to spin-off activities, according to a study on AI by Ernst & Young. 

Join Flanders’ forward-thinking AI ecosystem

By its very nature, AI is the result of a range of fields coming together. It’s no wonder, then, that ‘collaboration’ is the keyword when it comes to gaining a competitive edge in this highly dynamic domain. In Flanders, companies can rely on a strong ecosystem, consisting of key organizations, clusters and leading businesses to strengthen their positions.

Knowledge centers

  • Leuven.AI, the KU Leuven Institute for AI, works within the context of Flanders’ impulse program on AI, which is aimed at research, industrial implementation, ethics and training. It ensures smooth coordination and efficient cooperation between various of KU Leuven’s multidisciplinary research groups and labs that work on AI topics. 
  • The Knowledge Center Data & Society studies the legal, ethical and societal aspects of artificial intelligence and data-driven applications. It is a joint initiative of three of Flanders’ universities: UGent, KU Leuven and VUB. 

Key organizations

  • VLAIO, Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship, offers a range of tools for businesses looking to get started with AI: from training programs and consultancy to direct support with the implementation of AI technology in products or operations. 
  • Agoria, the sector federation for Belgium’s technology sector, paves the way for technologically inspired companies in Flanders by supporting the development and application of high-tech innovations like AI.
  • imec, Flanders’ strategic research center for nanotechnology and digital innovation, facilitates joint research in AI efforts for private-public collaborations.
  • DSP Valley, the regional business network for companies that create and apply digital technologies, offers support for businesses impacted by digitalization and AI by connecting solution providers and integrators.

Robovision: leveraging AI to fight COVID-19

During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, tech company Robovision from Ghent (Flanders) helped create a ‘superbrain’ to speed up patient testing. As one of the leading forces in artificial intelligence in Europe, Robovision was called upon by European radiologists to develop and train a machine-learning model to analyze CT scans. 

“Once the AI algorithm is fully trained, it will be able to independently analyze CT scans of new patients,” explains Jonathan Berte, founder and CEO of Robovision. In just three weeks – close to light speed in terms of technological developments – Robovision managed to create a viable AI model. To achieve this, the company could count on technical support from technology giants such as Microsoft, Google and Nvidia. (Source: website VRT NWS.) 

Innovation clusters

  • The Beacon: this Antwerp-based cluster seeks to apply innovative technologies related to IoT and AI with one goal in mind: making cities and societies smarter and creating a sustainable living environment.
  • MEDVIA: to expand digital innovation and AI to healthcare, MEDVIA connects start-ups, incubators and accelerators with industry heavyweights, universities, hospitals and research institutes. Because of its firm belief in collaboration, the cluster strongly encourages foreign firms and multinationals to join in as well.

Pioneering companies

Various local and international AI-related companies are already reaping the benefits of Flanders’ fertile R&D ecosystem. Think of the following examples: 

  • Icometrix, a tech company from Leuven (Flanders) is developing an AI tool for radiologists in collaboration with around ten hospitals in nearby cities. 
  • Bekaert uses robotic process automation to assist the procurement team in the annual renewal of supplier contracts across the globe.

TechWolf: where HR meets machine learning

TechWolf, a start-up from Ghent (Flanders), has developed an HR software platform that makes strategic workforce planning much more efficient. The key ingredients? Artificial intelligence and machine learning. So far, the company – founded by two students – has attracted EUR 1 million in investments from major HR companies and PMV. By leveraging the power of AI, TechWolf’s platform allows companies to map out their skillsets and fill in their vacancies more efficiently, while also offering training recommendations to individual employees. (Source: newspaper De Tijd.) 

Alpro: improving worker safety with AI

Alpro, a subsidiary of the French Danone Group, is a global frontrunner in plant-based food products. At its plant in Wevelgem (Flanders), soybeans are processed in a 50-meter high tower. Employees need to be on site 24/7 to oversee the process. During weekends and at night, they are often alone. To increase their safety, Alpro has partnered up with Flanders-based IT consultancy firm delaware to set up an AI-based fall detection system. The system gathers data from employees’ smartphones to detect falls. As soon as it does, a message is sent to the control center. (Source: website Delaware.ai.) 

Readying today’s and tomorrow’s AI talent

To strengthen its future competitiveness and prepare for tomorrow’s challenges, Flanders’ higher education system includes highly specific courses and training programs dedicated to AI. 

  • KU Leuven offers both a master and postgraduate program dedicated to AI. The postgrad program includes the following specializations: engineering and computer science, speech and language technology, and big data analytics. 
  • Furthermore, KU Leuven, UAntwerpen, UGent, UHasselt and VUB offer more than 25 education programs in which AI is heavily represented, including the Master of Science in Mathematical Engineering (KU Leuven), Master of Science in Marketing Analysis (UGent), Master of Science in Engineering Sciences (VUB) and the Master of Science in Computer Science (UAntwerpen). 
  • PXL University College of Applied Sciences and Arts (Hogeschool PXL) offers specializations in AI and robotics in its bachelor program in applied computer sciences.
  • Howest University College offers two AI-oriented bachelor programs: one focusing solely on AI, while the other combines AI, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). 

Overall, Flanders’ main areas of academic excellence in AI are:

  • machine learning; 
  • natural language processing and speech recognition;
  • swarm intelligence; 
  • behavioral intelligence;
  • vision and image processing;
  • knowledge representation and reasoning;
  • constraint processing; 
  • recommender systems;
  • big data, data science and deep learning;
  • data and text mining;
  • robotics;
  • human-robot interaction. 

Financing your AI business in Flanders

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

Request a free copy of our brochure to discover more about government support in Flanders. 

Tax incentives for research-intensive activities

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

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