Article

06.06.2018

Artificial intelligence: strength in (European) union!

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.

Massive investment

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.

Article

20.12.2021

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.”

Sustainable partnership

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.

Read the full press release here

Article

04.01.2021

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.” 

Article

07.12.2020

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.

Sleek design

“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.

New investors

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.

Growth path

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.

Supporter

“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.”

Article

01.05.2020

The conversation manager: essential and permanently online

Coordinating a company's social media strategy is a task in itself. Who will you use to handle this? And what about involved customers who suddenly get too involved?

Because of social media, the role of a traditional marketing manager is evolving more and more towards being a conversation manager: someone who facilitates consumer communication. This includes communication between customers themselves and communication between the customers and the company.

Some key tasks in the conversation manager's job description are:

  • Uniting and activating ‘branded fans’, as they will recommend the brand to friends and family.
  • Listening to what people are saying about your company and seeking their active contribution to your products and strategy.
  • Creating content worth distributing in order to encourage discussions.
  • Managing these discussions.
  • Ensuring your work is very customer-oriented and customer-friendly through customer care, i.e.by responding faster and providing more than what the customer is expecting.

Some companies are big enough to hire a full-time conversation manager. In other cases another employee will take on this role part-time. A third possibility is using a specialised company.
Caroline Hombroukx, conversation manager at content marketing company Head Office:

“No matter which option you go for, communication in social media must come across as personal. There is definitely a reason why large companies such as Telenet and Belgacom have created a fictitious person to deal with their customers; Charlotte and Eva respectively. The conversation manager also has to know the company and its social media strategy very well. It may therefore be an advantage if someone in the company itself takes on that role. That person is right at the source and so can distribute information, take a quick picture and post it online, etc.

This task is not for everyone. A conversation manager must have experience with social media, have fluent communication and writing style and must be empathetic, positive and solution-oriented in his or her dealings with customers. Prior training is not a luxury, because the employee must be very aware of the company's content strategy. The audience is varied and unpredictable. You have to decide time and time again whether certain content is or is not suitable for your target group. It is also not a nine-to-five job: the online world keeps on turning even at night or at the weekend."

The advantage of hiring a conversation manager from an external company is that in principle the expertise is present. In that case the challenge is to know the company to such an extent that the customer has the impression that he or she is talking to a real employee.

Getting angry is out of the question

Traditional marketing and advertising are a one-way street. If they do not work, they are a waste of money. However, they are not likely to result in angry comments. A company venturing out on Facebook, Twitter or other social media, can be sure to receive comments and reactions. Including negative ones. Caroline Hombroukx:

“On social media the consumer is suddenly right next to you banging the table. It is important to respond well to that. Getting angry yourself is out of the question. You need to respond by showing that you understand and you are taking the question or complaint seriously. Everyone following the discussion must see that the company is providing a quick answer and is trying to find a solution. If a mistake has been made, you can acknowledge this openly and honestly. You can also show the problem as something positive: as an opportunity to improve your brand, product or service. Of course you must find a suitable solution in the end. If the person sharing the complaint becomes too negative, you have to try and divert him or her to a private channel: a private message on Facebook, a direct message on Twitter, an e-mail or a phone call."

An enthusiastic, understanding response also works well if the consumer is sharing something positive about your brand, company or service. Thanking the consumer strengthens the bond between the company and the customer. Caroline Hombroukx:

"The dialogue with the target group is an opportunity to improve your product or operations through constructive criticism. Make customers feel involved. It creates a strong relationship. If you are publishing a magazine or starting a poster campaign for instance, you can let customers choose the best layout or title from three options posted on Facebook, for example. Everything that engages customers can only strengthen their commitment."

Social media dos and don'ts

  1. The consumer is always right (even when this isn't the case).
  2. Be open, honest and friendly.
  3. Use a personal style.
  4. Respond quickly to any questions or reactions.
  5. Stay positive and be understanding.
  6. Do all you can to engage your customers.
  7. Come up with a free gift every now and then.
  8. As a brand, try to avoid political topics.

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