With more financial resources, better coordination of national policies, improved data sharing and a common framework of legal and ethical rules, Europe now wants to ensure it can make up for its slow progress on artificial intelligence.
On 10 April, 24 EU countries (excluding Cyprus, Romania, Croatia and Greece) and Norway agreed to adopt a "European approach" to artificial intelligence – a technology highly likely to revolutionise various facets of our societies. The objective is clear: to give Europe the tools it needs to rival the technological giants of Asia and America. And with good reason, because European investment in AI lags behind the US and also China, which has announced a new plan to invest EUR 18 billion of public money by the year 2020.
Aware that fighting alone would leave them at a disadvantage, the signatories have clearly understood that they must leave aside their disagreements, pool their financial resources, coordinate national policies and devise a common framework. Although no sum of money has yet been put forward, the European Commission has also said it will ask member states and the private sector to invest a total of EUR 20 billion in research by 2020, alongside up to EUR 1.5 billion it intends to contribute itself. For its part, France has already announced that it will inject EUR 1.5 billion of public money into research on AI during the next four years. In addition to amending national legislation and increasing the funding available for AI, EU ministers have also pledged to create a number of pan-European research centres.
The tremendous potential of AI
The concept of artificial intelligence originated in the 1950s, when the British mathematician Alan Turing wondered whether a machine was capable of "thinking". However, it was during the first decade of this century that the technology began to take off. AI entails implementing a certain number of techniques that aim to give machines the ability to imitate, and even surpass, a form of actual intelligence. Since the first supercomputers capable of beating humans at chess using deep learning algorithms, technology has continued to advance in ways that demonstrate that robots can overtake humans. And although the tidal wave predicted has perhaps not quite materialised yet, the potential of AI does seem extraordinary and likely to disrupt numerous sectors, from health and aviation to logistics, the armed forces and banks.
Ethical rules as a comparative advantage
Artificial intelligence is also the source of a wide range of fears. Top of the list is job losses on a vast scale. But at the same time, others are predicting the opposite. The McKinsey Global Institute, for example, contends that automation and AI will help create 200,000 jobs in Belgium by 2030. The other major concern is the risk of robots that are not only ultra-intelligent, but also possess cognitive abilities that enable them to evade the control of their creators. This dilemma, which touches on legal, philosophical and ethical questions, is also driving the EU to adopt a position. Its stated objective is to move towards a framework of legal and ethical rules that guarantees to keep humans at the heart of developments, deployments and decision-making in relation to AI, as well as prevent the creation and use of harmful AI applications. And such ethical standards will be viewed as a potential competitive advantage for European Union companies.
New mobility: the benefits of technology
Is technology the key to moving towards more sustainable business travel? Here’s what Philippe Kahn, Mobility Solutions Expert, thinks.
Now more than ever, businesses need to rethink mobility so that it forms part of the sustainable transition that needs to take place in our societies. Since 1 July 2023, the regulation meaning that company vehicles with combustion engines will no longer be longer tax-deductible by 2026 has started to have an impact. At the same time, Belgium’s Federal Mobility Budget and its recent developments are making this (r)evolution much more concrete and practical. And one thing is for sure: technology – and especially apps – have a key role to play. Philippe Kahn, Mobility Solutions Expert at Arval BNP Paribas Group, explains why.
1 July 2023: a key date
“In the few weeks that have passed since the pivotal date of 1 July 2023, we have already seen a change in the needs expressed by our corporate customers,” says Kahn. "Some of them had already taken practical steps towards sustainable transition. But nowadays, more and more of them also have to address the specific questions and concerns of their employees. How will I be able to use an electric car when I live in a city and have no charging stations available? Do I want to search for a reliable place to charge every day? And am I ready to fundamentally rethink how I get around? Providing a satisfactory answer to these questions is inevitably a priority for employers. As well as the end-to-end management of company electric vehicles – including the question of charging them – more and more companies are starting to rethink their overall mobility policy, analysing all existing alternatives, particularly multimodal solutions. And that’s great news, because it’s essential for their future. So I think the demand for such solutions is only going to grow. Technology, and apps in particular, are key tools for a smooth transition".
Anticipating change to serve companies better
Whereas this issue is only just emerging for many companies, it has been a priority for Arval BNP Paribas Fortis and Philippe Kahn for years. "For more than five years now, we have been anticipating the changes that are now taking place, ensuring that our vision of mobility and expertise go far beyond leasing. We now have an entire department that deals with these matters exclusively. This enables us to meet and even anticipate the needs of companies that have no experience of these issues, and who sometimes feel a little lost when it comes to this revolution in travel.”
A simpler, smoother experience thanks to technology
But why and how is technology playing an important role in this transition to more sustainable business travel? "It’s making the experience of new mobility easier and smoother for its users. And that's where the latest developments in the market are heading," says Kahn. "In fact, that's also what our new Mobility Arval App now offers our corporate customers. It makes it easier for employers to manage the mobility budget established by the federal authorities. This budget, its three pillars and recent developments are crucial factors when a company is rethinking its mobility. But at the same time, it involves some regulatory complexity. That’s why, five years ago, we started developing a whole range of technological tools to help companies deal with these matters. For example, we make it simple for our customers to manage the combination of an electric car and bicycle within this mobility budget. In this spirit of innovation, and aiming to improve the user experience, our app integrates all facets of new business mobility, which are all accessible from a smartphone. Use of public transport, shared mobility, taxis, and even parking – even though this is not one of the pillars of the mobility budget – everything is in one place. The app also makes it easier to manage transactions: low-value mobility transactions, such as buying a bus ticket, are automatically captured and validated, so manual checks are no longer needed. Similarly, there is no longer any need to advance money to employees or reimburse them for anything, and no need for them to keep and present tickets or any other proof of purchase. In short, our app translates the entire mobility budget, which can be pretty complex, into a user-friendly tool where all the important components are taken into account: car, bicycle, scooter, multimodal solutions, public transport, shared mobility, etc."
Technology as a strategy accelerator
Arval Belgium’s innovations perfectly illustrate why technology is an important accelerator when implementing new mobility strategies. And it goes without saying that what exists today will evolve very quickly, leading to an ever-richer user experience. As Philippe Kahn says, "there are a lot of innovative tools out there already. But one of the challenges, linked to the complexity of the situation in Belgium, is to bring together all the players involved under the same umbrella, so that the result of this collaborative work can be found in a single 'magic' app. The solutions that exist today in Belgium are often local in scope. This is a limitation that doesn’t exist in the Netherlands, for example, thanks to their OV card. Belgium’s urban planning realities are also a challenge: outside the major urban centres, it’s less easy to set up mobility hubs in which all modes of travel are accessible."
One thing is certain: for companies, the transition to new forms of mobility is well underway. And the new Arval Belgium app is a valuable tool for those companies. “This technological innovation now makes it possible to mitigate the regulatory complexity for employers, and to make multimodal transport a very fluid experience for employees,” concludes Kahn.
Arval Belgium SA, Ikaroslaan 99, 1930 Zaventem – Registered with the Brussels trade register – Belgian VAT number 0436.781.102. Company with an ancillary insurance brokage business, registered with the Belgian Financial Services and Markets Authority (FSMA) under number 047238 A. Subject to acceptance of your request.
Arval Belgium SA is a subsidiary of BNP Paribas Fortis S.A.
Building a sustainable chemical industry together
As a bank, we promote sustainable entrepreneurship and innovation. Together with BlueChem, the first incubator for sustainable chemistry in Europe, we are taking some important steps in the chemical industry.
In December 2021, BNP Paribas Fortis extended its exclusive partnership with BlueChem for a further three years. A logical step after the successful cooperation over the past years.
BlueChem is the first independent incubator in Europe to focus specifically on innovation and entrepreneurship in sustainable chemistry. It provides legal, administrative and financial support to promising Belgian and international start-ups and ambitious growth companies. BlueChem recently invested in a brand-new building on the Blue Gate site, the new climate-neutral business park in Antwerp. The incubator provides start-ups, SMEs, large companies, research centres and knowledge institutions with fully-equipped and freely-configurable labs, individual offices and flexible workplaces. Tenants include a company that splits CO2 molecules into useful chemicals, a company that develops protein sources for meat substitutes, and a company that extracts chemicals from polluted industrial waste water.
Didier Beauvois, Head of BNP Paribas Fortis Corporate Banking: “We are very proud to be a partner of BlueChem, which, like our bank, feels very strongly about sustainable development and open innovation, which is why we chose to immediately extend our partnership with BlueChem by a further three years. Our aim with these kinds of initiatives is to help companies and industries meet the conditions set out in the European Green Deal, the European Commission’s initiative to make the European Union climate neutral by 2050.”
As a leading bank in Belgium, we believe in taking our responsibility and contributing to the sustainable development of our society, now and in the future. A promise we can continue to deliver thanks to our partnership with BlueChem.
Our primary role within this unique partnership is to share our expertise. The bank has a centre of expertise, the Sustainable Business Competence Centre, which closely monitors innovative, sustainable developments, using this knowledge to support companies in their sustainability transition. We also have a wealth of experience, through our Innovation Hubs, in fine-tuning business plans for start-ups that want to evolve into scale-ups. Making our network available is a second crucial role. We connect with potential clients and investors and identify synergies between start-ups and large companies. Contacts that also offer added value for our Corporate Banking clients.
Barbara Veranneman, Chairman BlueChem NV and Director International Affairs essenscia: “BlueChem partly owes its success to strong strategic partnerships, such as with BNP Paribas Fortis, among others. Our sustainable chemistry incubator is thus able to provide the right facilities in the right place, in addition to specialised, custom services. This access to high-level expertise is definitely an asset, offering start-ups and scale-ups optimal support so they can focus on their core business: bringing sustainable innovations to market."
Why the chemical industry?
The chemical industry is a major contributor to our country’s economy. Antwerp is home to Europe’s largest and the world’s second-largest integrated chemical cluster. We can have a major impact by providing optimal support to start-ups and scale-ups throughout Flanders in terms of innovation and sustainability.
We don't always realise that developments in the chemicals industry impact every aspect of our daily lives: virtually every technological product contains plastics, smartphones are jam-packed with chemical elements, the biodegradable packaging of the products on supermarket shelves, research into new batteries, recycling that involves a great deal of development, etc.
A good example is Triple Helix, an innovative growth company that was one of the first to move to BlueChem and which received support from the bank from the outset. The company is preparing the construction of its ‘SurePure’ recycling plant for polyurethane foam and PET shells, which will be converted into new raw materials, for new applications. Polyurethane is used in mattresses, car seats, insulation panels, etc. But this is just the first step. True to the motto ‘Molecules as a service’, Triple Helix is already planning similar initiatives with glass, stone and wood . Considering waste as a resource creates a huge growth market.
Steven Peleman, Managing Partner Triple Helix Group: “What makes BNP Paribas Fortis such a valuable partner is that it can bring the right parties to the table, essentially becoming a lever on the pathway to a more sustainable industry. It’s not just the financial aspect. The bank also looks for strategic partners, helps us to strengthen our credibility, and brings in potential investors. A bank that looks beyond purely financial considerations can create tremendous added value for us.”
Sustainability and innovation in the chemical Industry
Innovation in chemistry is the key to overcoming our planet's sustainability challenges. The chemicals industry develops crucial innovations and products to successfully address climate change, even though it is not traditionally considered a 'greener’ industry. There are several opportunities: better recycling techniques to extract sustainable metals from waste, biodegradable plastics, the replacement of certain substances in existing materials, or the greening of a chemical production process. Moreover, innovation is not an easy feat in the chemical industry. It takes a lot of time, guts and money to scale up from a lab setting to industrial-scale production.
European Green deal
All these efforts to increase sustainability are part of an EU-wide initiative. The European Green Deal is a set of policy initiatives by the European Commission to make the European Union climate neutral by 2050. It proposes to achieve this by drastically reducing CO2 emissions and by immediately absorbing or offsetting any remaining carbon emissions in Europe by 2050, for example by planting forests or with new technology. This would make Europe the first climate-neutral continent in the world. An ambition that we, as a bank, are more than happy to lend our support! And what about you as a company?
Would you like to know more about how we promote sustainability and open innovation or do you require support for your transition to a more sustainable business model? Discuss this with your relationship manager or the experts of our Sustainable Business Competence Centre.
Robovision: “Within five years artificial intelligence will have become omnipresent”
Robovision has emerged as the best-known AI player in the Benelux countries. However, this young firm has an even more extensive vision. “Healthcare, agriculture, the environment… within five years artificial intelligence will have become omnipresent,” foresees CEO Jonathan Berte. BNP Paribas Fortis is an important partner in their growth.
Jonathan Berte, who trained as a civil engineer, smiles as he thinks back to the pioneering years at Robovision. “In fact, when I was a kid I had a really analytical mindset. In the scouts and at school I used to keep note of absolutely everything. It was really important for me to collect information. I was a kind of ‘infoholic’. But just gathering information gets you nowhere. That also goes for information that’s just stored on hard disks. The added value comes from using that information efficiently.”
How exactly do you do that at Robovision?
“Technology is evolving at lightning speed. These days just about everybody has a smartphone in their trouser pocket. Apart from anything else, these devices create a great deal of information, so we need to keep up on the algorithmic front and artificial intelligence helps us with that. That’s how we can provide governments, institutions and companies large and small with a platform for automated decision-making on the basis of visual data. In addition we constantly ask ourselves how we can democratise artificial intelligence. So in a way we’re like the Airbnb of artificial intelligence.”
What might that visual data be for example?
“In May, in collaboration with the University of Antwerp and security firm Securitas, we set up a smart camera in a shopping street in order to measure to what extent people were complying with social distancing requirements. This is important information for the decision makers in this country. Of course we don’t have to look through the images ourselves. We get them analysed using a specific type of artificial intelligence – self-teaching algorithms or what are known as neural networks. They’re designed somewhat along the lines of our own brains, though not nearly as complex.”
Which brings us to the fashionable expression ‘deep learning’. Are machines eventually going to make themselves smarter than us humans?
“Oh, that’s already underway at this very moment – in radiology, among other fields, plus also in games. Remember the legendary Go match between South Korean grandmaster Lee Sedol and a computer, which was beautifully represented in the 2017 documentary film AlphaGo? We’re also focusing on deep learning, because neural networks are very efficient at dealing with visual data. However, it will be some time yet before AI can equal a human being in intuition for instance.”
You’ve now evolved from a startup to a scaleup. Where do you want to be in five years’ time?
“The society of tomorrow will be one in which everything will be properly measured and dealt with. For instance, we’re also working in the field of horticulture, where AI can be applied in quality control – to spot fruit with an abnormal shape or colour, say. Lots of agricultural and horticultural businesses have got into difficulties over the last few months because pickers from Eastern Europe weren’t able to enter this country. Those businesses will very probably be investing in AI and automation over the next few years. In these kinds of fields, the coronavirus has taken us to a digital society almost overnight.”
What sort of partners do you need in order to succeed in your aims?
“During our growth from startup to scaleup, BNP Paribas Fortis has always been an important partner. You have really taken a lot of trouble to understand our story. Of course you do need to grasp our plans from a banking standpoint in order to be able to assess the risks. But quite apart from that, I have the feeling that you’re particularly good when it comes to supporting the whole tech and startup scene.”
Scale-up concludes mega contract in the midst of the coronavirus crisis
The Antwerp-based scale-up IPEE transforms ordinary toilets into innovative products. BNP Paribas Fortis is more than just the financial partner. IPEE have already come into contact with the right people via the bank’s network several times.
“The traditional urinal has no brain. The infrared eye simply detects that someone is standing in front of the urinal. The result? A lot of wasted water and misery”, says Bart Geraets, who founded IPEE in 2012 together with Jan Schoeters.
The scale-up devised new measuring technology that makes it possible to detect through the ceramic of a urinal when someone is urinating or when the urinal is blocked. With this innovative technology, the scale-up designed urinals that use half as much water and toilets that can be operated without touching them.
“IPEE is an atypical scale-up that innovates in a sector where little has changed in the past few decades”, says Conchita Vercauteren, relationship manager at the BNP Paribas Fortis Innovation Hub.
Jan Schoeters: “At first we mainly focused on durability. But we soon felt that with non-residential applications, the potential water saving is subordinate to the operational aspect. We had to be able to offer added value for each stakeholder in the purchasing process.”
We opted for sleek designs to appeal to architects and end users. The simple installation attracts fitters and maintenance people see the advantages of the sleek design - that is easy to clean - and toilets that do not overflow.
Until 2015, Schoeters and Geraets, along with Victor Claes, an expert in measuring methods and originator of the IPEE technology, put their energy into product development and market research. The financing came mainly from money that they collected in their network of friends, fools and family.
They had to go elsewhere to obtain the funds for production and marketing. Geraets: “We had a product, but it wasn’t ready to sell. To take that step, we needed investors.”
Looking for new investors was a challenge. Schoeters: “We aren’t software developers and we don’t work in a sexy sector. So we miss out with a large target group of investors.”
The young scale-up attracted the attention of Ronald Kerckhaert, who had sold his successful company, Sax Sanitair, at the end of 2015. “He pushed us to think big, more than we dared ourselves. And he never headed for an exit. His express goal was to put our product on the world market”, says Schoeters.
IPEE has achieved impressive growth since then. The product range was expanded and new sectors were broached: educational institutes, office buildings and hospitals. The technology is now used by Kinepolis, Texaco, Schiphol and Changi Airport (Singapore).
“We very soon turned to Asia, because new technology is embraced more quickly there”, Geraets explains. The IPEE technology is distributed in Singapore - where the scale-up has its own sales office - China, Thailand and Vietnam, among other places. About half the turnover comes from abroad, although the coronavirus crisis will leave its mark this year.
“My biggest headache is achieving healthy growth”, says Bart Geraets. One advantage for IPEE is that in coronavirus times, hygiene stands high on the agenda. The scale-up's touchless toilet facilities meet that demand.
At the same time, the shortage of water and the need to use water sparingly is very topical. Geraets: “We notice that in these strange times we are gaining an even bigger foothold. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis we concluded a contract with the world’s biggest manufacture of toilet facilities. Now it’s a matter of further professionalising our business, the personnel policy and the marketing.”
The company’s main bank is an important partner here. Schoeters: “It is more than just a financial organisation. We have already come into contact with the right people via the bank’s network several times. Our bank feels more like a supporter that is also putting its weight behind our story.”
- Artificial intelligence: strength in (European) union!
- New mobility: the benefits of technology
- Building a sustainable chemical industry together
- Robovision: “Within five years artificial intelligence will have become omnipresent”
- Scale-up concludes mega contract in the midst of the coronavirus crisis