A young Belgian company that installs biogas facilities on farms is growing fast. Here’s how BNP Paribas Fortis is helping its development.
Biolectric is the epitome of the sustainable do-economy: it manufactures and sells anaerobic digesters, which are installed on farms so as to produce ‘green’ energy based on the biogas released from the farm’s own manure. The green heat and power generated from cow dung make the farm an energy-positive business. No less important is the fact that this approach reduces emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas methane by up to 70%. The average Biolectric reduces greenhouse gas emission by an equivalent of 2.000 kilometers driven in an modern car.
The company, which started up in 2011 in the East Flanders municipality of Temse as a typical scale-up, nowadays sells anaerobic digesters to farmers all over Europe.
Biolectric is a fast-growing company. In 2019, in order enable further growth, the bank provided the firm with a series of credit facilities, mostly in the form of a ‘sustainable impact loan’.
Tom De Winter is Biolectric’s contact at BNP Paribas Fortis. He tells us: “The bank has been working with Biolectric since the very beginning, but the relationship has become much closer since 2017. In order to obtain a better grasp of their technology, I’ve visited the firm several times with expert from our Sustainable Business Competence Centre. It’s very important to be able to understand and evaluate the firm’s technical proposition. When Biolectric founder Philippe Jans and industrial investment company Ackermans & van Haaren (AvH) came to talk to us last year about the imminent onboarding of the company by AvH, and the subsequent creation of a new low-threshold business segment, namely the construction of a facility with its own anaerobic digesters so as to be able to sell electricity to farmers in Belgium, the Netherlands and France, we knew straight away that we ought to go along with them on the project.”
“We weren’t the only bank in the running, but the client had clearly chosen us. The coordinated approach of BNP Paribas Fortis and our clear policy of backing sustainable solutions played a big part in that decision,” explains Tom De Winter.
As a pioneer, Biolectric has independently developed compact anaerobic digesters, known as ‘pocket digesters’, specifically designed to turn cattle dung into electricity and heat. Today there are over 200 of the company’s installations operating all over the world. This technology provides Biolectric farmers with a very nice economical as well as ecological return on their investment.
In 2019 Ackermans & van Haaren, which is also a BNP Paribas Fortis client, acquired a 60% stake in the company from Taste Invest, with founder Philippe Jans retaining the remaining 40%. AvH brings its professional management experience to Biolectric, thus strongly boosting the firm’s growth potential.
Crowdsourcing: the basics
Are you undecided about the various ways of increasing your offering? Has R&D encountered a technical problem? Perhaps your clients know more.
The concept of crowdsourcing is simple: you call for the contribution of your customers and/or the general public. An approach which is gaining popularity worldwide even though it is not actually new. As far back as 1714 crowdsourcing by the British government led to the invention of the chronometer and therefore a reliable method of calculating longitudinal position at sea.
Three hundred years later the basic principles remain the same: in crowdsourcing you work with a network of individuals and communities within and largely outside the company. They make a contribution in the form of ideas, time, expertise or financial support. This enables new solutions to be accessed and makes realisation of joint projects and optimisation of tasks possible while keeping down costs.
This system is based on exchange, transparency and communication. It also works for all sectors and at all management levels. You should be able to engage a community of designers for your product development for example and choose the best proposal together with the public. Then you will bring it onto the market, possibly even financed via crowdfunding.
The crowd is ready for this
This is certainly no science fiction, as proven by the growing success of the system. It is also the ideal time to get involved with crowdsourcing:
- communicating with the crowd is easier than ever before thanks to technological development, the social media boom and the development of online communities;
- the crowd is straining at the leash: a joint survey by several European universities showed that 54% of Europeans would like to support projects by companies and private individuals creatively and/or financially;
- co-creation, or developing a project together, is hot. The crowd can join in with a project for a whole host of reasons: the necessity for a creative outlet, commercial motives, dedication to society or just for a sense of honour or fun;
- the economy urgently needs sources of financing and innovative projects in order to achieve new growth and to increase competitiveness.
It will definitely take some getting used to as such a system radically changes the way in which a company gathers information, carries out research, produces and even finances projects. At the same time relationships with clients or users change as they evolve into potential colleagues, financiers and ambassadors.
But this does not have to be a threat. On the contrary, crowdsourcing provides you with a unique opportunity to relinquish your traditional methods. You can now look externally for ideas, get feedback from the crowd on ideas developed internally or even combine both approaches. The possibilities are endless.
The dos & don’ts of crowdsourcing
A good crowdsourcing project creates a win-win situation where the initiator and the crowd feel that they are achieving something together. How do you approach that?
In crowdsourcing the 'crowd' component is at least as important as the 'sourcing' component. In order to be successful you must build up this community and win it over. This is where the challenge lies: the crowd is not an anonymous, homogeneous mass but a collection of individuals and sub-groups. You need to seek out and mobilise each one separately. 5 tips for a powerful crowd dynamic:
Take care of the presentation of your project
Your project must appeal. Present it with photos, short films or a clear presentation – vague sketches or a half-baked concept are inadequate. Keep your explanation as simple as possible. After all not every potential funder is a specialist or an engineer.
Also, don't forget to keep your target amount as realistic as possible. Above all do not create the impression that the campaign is an excuse for personal enrichment or that you will channel the money off into other, existing projects. If you work with rewards, ensure that they are original and attractive, divided up into transparent and attainable blocks of financing.
Build your crowd
Look for the suitable crowd and get these people right behind your project. Approach them via all possible channels and assign them various roles: creative or technical input, critical analysis, ambassadorial, ... When doing so keep the threshold as low as possible, within your company as well. It is recommended that you bring as many of your people as possible into contact with the crowd in order to ensure healthy cross-pollination.
Live your project
A project without animation has little chance of success. So be motivated and keep motivating others. Respond to queries, take comments into consideration and intervene where necessary. Remember that participants cannot be squeezed to produce viable ideas. They too must go through a creative process in which they can gradually shape their input. So ensure that they continue to be involved. For this purpose it is necessary to approach each sub-group differently: encourage, win over (again), congratulate, permanently challenge, ...
Keep your campaign exciting
Keep communicating, even if some of the messages may be negative. The greater the involvement you demonstrate, the greater the loyalty of the funders and the greater their willingness to accept delays or problems.
A good dosage is important here. Ensure that news is provided at regular intervals to keep the crowd involved so the attention on your campaign does not fade away.
Your project, your rules
The principle: you decide where you want to go with your campaign while being open to suggestions from the crowd. So you lead the crowd to the desired end product rather than the other way round. Otherwise the outcome may be rather different to what you had hoped. A few examples of how not to do it are the recent – and hastily cancelled – campaigns which resulted in the product name iSnack 2.0’, a chocolate bar filled with mince, or a washing-up liquid with a scent of roast chicken...
Crowdfunding: financing with extras
Are you looking to finance a new project which has some risk attached to it? Present your plans to the crowd and discover how quickly small acorns can become mighty oaks.
Crowdfunding or participative financing involves looking for a (large) number of potential moneylenders. These may be professional investors or co-entrepreneurs or equally your clients or the general public. They will finance your project or company on a quid pro quo basis.
This specific form of crowdsourcing is centuries old. Just think about the construction of the Sagrada Família (Gaudi cathedral) in Barcelona or the plinth for the Statue of Liberty in New York. The way in which it happens is rather different today: via online payment or online platforms, often with lots of publicity on social media. The emergence of social media is undoubtedly one of the reasons for the increasing popularity of crowdfunding, together with the search for alternative sources of financing as a result of the crisis.
Much more than just a source of financing
While crowdfunding focused on cultural or humanitarian initiatives for a long time, its emphasis has recently shifted to commercial projects and even the financing of start-ups and small and medium sized companies. The advantages are clear:
- companies can meet the cost of – mainly innovative – projects which are less suitable for (complete) financing via a bank loan, business angels or a private equity partner. This may be because they have considerable risk attached or demonstrate too little concrete potential for growth, the required amount is too low or the company does not want to have an external party join in with the company capital.
- Financing is just one part of the story; creating sufficient 'buzz' and a community around your project will make you much more visible. Simultaneously, you carry out market research. Is there a call for your product or service? Is the design suitable? And are you bringing it onto the market in the right way? Thanks to this interaction you can also make adjustments to the product during the design phase, thereby reducing the risk of an unsuccessful launch.
- By taking the input of the crowd into consideration you will create a much closer bond with your target market, with clients developing into co-designers, fans and ambassadors.
Challenges and risks associated with crowdfunding
Although crowdfunding provides almost inexhaustible possibilities, it also involves a number of challenges and risks. An overview.
1. For the company
You open the company up to the public. This is of huge benefit in terms of marketing and strategy but it also means that everyone has access to the complete financial situation. You must therefore be prepared to be completely open and sometimes share sensitive information.
This new business model turns all traditional models on their heads. The greatest challenge is learning to deal with this and finding a good balance in the area of
- control: how do you divide authority between the company and the crowd? There is no golden rule but research conducted by the University of Toronto suggests that the ideal system has 80% of the project firmly in place with the crowd having a say in the remaining 20% (e.g. choice of colours, technologies, points of sale etc.);
- transparency: to what extent do you wish to share your knowledge, technology and research and development results with others – including potential competitors? How will you protect your copyright and intellectual property in such a case?
A significant risk is of course the fact that you may not achieve the desired funding and the campaign fizzles out. However, this is an advantage in a sense. The campaign helps you assess whether there is a demand for your intended product or service on the market. If this does not appear to be the case, you will at least find out in time and be able to avoid the much higher loss of a failed product launch, both financially and in terms of reputation. You can use the feedback received to instigate changes and make a new attempt later on.
If you add up all the fees and the marketing, time and energy involved in a crowdfunding campaign, the cost of this form of financing can be extremely high. With reward-based funding there are definitely a few flies in the ointment. You must declare the funds collected as taxable income. In addition, a pledge is regarded as a sales transaction which is therefore subject to VAT for companies. Take these factors into account when setting your prices. Otherwise the tax office may bring you an unpleasant surprise...
2. For the investor
For a moneylender the challenge primarily involves finding good projects. There is no shortage of attractive initiatives. Quite the opposite in fact. With reward-based campaigns it can sometimes even be difficult to resist the temptation. But what will your investment yield?
Putting money into a project always remains a bit of a gamble, even if you have analysed it thoroughly and you believe in it. Success is never certain and unforeseen problems may occur at any time. With lending or equity-based formulas your complete investment could then be lost.
The chance of this happening is smaller for the reward-based model, as is the amount invested. There is always the possibility, however, that the initiator will not meet his commitments, will only partially meet them or severely delay meeting them. In very rare cases fraud may be involved with the collectors (and your contribution) disappearing into thin air.
A clear picture
Do you want an objective opinion before joining a Belgian crowdfunding project?
If the project has a prospectus obligation, you can look at it with the FSMA approved prospectus. Among other things this contains further information about the initiator and the legal form of your investment (share, loan etc.). An approval or licence from the FSMA or the National Bank of Belgium does not however mean that these bodies automatically deem the project suitable for investment – it is up to you to weigh up the risks.
You can also use the FSMA website to check whether the internet platform and/or the initiator are under special supervision by the FSMA or the National Bank of Belgium.