The Ecosystem: Belgium’s self-reliant blockchain ecosystem

23 Apr 2024 | News

Supporting blockchain is a priority for the Belgian EU presidency, but at home the industry has developed on its own initiative

Mathieu Michel, state secretary for digitalisation, has championed blockchain as a priority for the Belgian EU presidency. Photo credits: European Union

Belgium has made blockchain one of the priorities of its EU presidency, in particular the relaunch of the European Blockchain Services Infrastructure as Europeum, for secure transnational public administration. Yet the nation’s domestic blockchain ecosystem owes more to private initiatives than political leadership, with companies and private interest groups setting the pace, while federal and regional governments run to catch up. 

As one case in point, in February 2023 the federal government launched Blockchain4Belgium, a national initiative intended to gather advice on how to boost blockchain innovation and application, particularly in the public sector. More than a year later, there have been no outputs and the initiative appears to be moribund. Requests to confirm that the initiative is still active received no response. 

In contrast to this late intervention, Belgium can boast several pioneering blockchain companies, such as SettleMint and T-Mining, which have established solid businesses and are now busy scaling up.  

Founded in Leuven in 2016, SettleMint provides the underlying technology to help companies and institutions take advantage of blockchain without having to develop their own systems. It won funding from the European Innovation Council (EIC) SME instrument (a forerunner of the present EIC Accelerator programme) in 2019 and was recently named among the first entrants to the EIC Scaling Club. 

T-Mining meanwhile applies blockchain to a specific sector. Founded in Antwerp, also in 2016, it has built a secure system for shipping container logistics. This is now used by 4,500 companies worldwide, including major shippers such as the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC).  

In particular, T-Mining’s system targets the risk of shipping containers being stolen, either for their contents or for use in trafficking drugs. Paper-based systems for releasing containers for collection were already prone to forgery, but the adoption of digital systems, which rely on pin codes, has only made this worse.  

“Organised crime can hack that system, and by using these pin codes they can claim any container, and use them to import tonnes of cocaine,” said Nico Wauters, co-founder and chief executive of the company. “So, we built a dedicated blockchain network for the rights to pick up containers.” 

A unique token, which cannot be duplicated, is created on the blockchain for each container. “Those tokens are then transferred in the ecosystem between shipping lines, shippers, freight forwarders, transport companies and their subcontractors,” W​a​uters said.  

In addition to being more secure than existing systems, blockchain also provides a tamper-proof audit trail in case a container’s history needs to be investigated. 

While T-Mining uses blockchain, W​a​uters does not see it as a blockchain company, and its links to the local ecosystem are informal. “We know the people from SettleMint and other companies, but we do not collaborate closely with them,” he said. Instead, the company focuses on integrators and software vendors who serve the international maritime industry.  

And if the Flemish or Belgian context has not been so important, being able to work with the Port of Antwerp has been valuable, both in piloting T-Mining’s system and in raising awareness of security concerns. “The port authorities have created an open and innovative environment, and they see innovation as an important way of differentiating themselves from other ports,” W​a​uters said.  

Behind the curve 

For Mario Schraepen, founder and chief executive of LinkedCar, the Belgian governments are not alone in being behind the curve on blockchain. “If you start-up in the Netherlands, in Germany, or here in Belgium, you face the same problems with regulation. It’s so new that people don’t understand what we are doing.”  

LinkedCar, founded in Hasselt in 2020, has developed a platform that helps drivers to collect and sell the data associated with their vehicles. That could be the car’s milage or other performance data, or data connected to their insurance policies or use of roadside assistance. In return for sharing their data, drivers will get tokens that can be used to pay for parking, or get discounts from insurers and other partners. 

The platform uses blockchain for financial operations, such as issuing tokens, and handling any data where authenticity and accuracy need to be guaranteed. Mileage data, for example, has to be trusted by both the driver and the buyer. For other kinds of data, blockchain is not appropriate, either because the data handling is too slow, or because it does not allow data to be deleted, a requirement for personal data that falls under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). 

LinkedCar is currently in a proof-of-concept phase, working with several car manufacturers, a leasing company and a major insurance company. It is expected to go live in September this year. 

Free the data 

The main challenge in developing the business has been convincing manufacturers to hand over vehicle data. Initially LinkedCar planned to get around this by using its own onboard data loggers, but then the EU Data Act came along. This ensures that the users of connected devices have the right to securely access, use and share the data they generate. Signed off by legislators last year, it comes into effect in 2025. 

“This will change everything, not just for us, but for the entire vehicle industry,” said Schraepen. ““For car manufacturers, this is bigger than GDPR.” 

GDPR requires organisations to reveal the data they hold on a person, which generally happens just once. “The EU Data Act says: you collect data from me, so give it to me in a continuous flow, all the time, until I say stop. And that is completely different.” 

It is also at the EU level that greater regulatory understanding is being fostered, for example through the EU blockchain sandbox. “This is not a development framework but a regulatory framework,” Schraepen said. “Regulators sit down with innovative companies, ask lots of questions and try to figure out how they can address the issues that come with these innovations. And that’s really good.” LinkedCar is among the companies that have applied to take part in the second cohort of the sandbox. 

While the Flemish government has not provided financial aid specifically for blockchain, it is helping in other ways, according to Schraepen, for example by backing the Solid standard for secure personal data exchange. 

While Solid is not itself a blockchain system, by freeing up personal data it will complement businesses such as LinkedCar that use blockchain to provide data-based products and services. “If you look at the decentralisation of data and things like digital wallets, then Flanders is doing a good thing by backing Solid,” Schraepen said. 

The Flemish government has put €14 million into SolidLab Flanders, a four-year programme to explore the practical implementation of the Solid technology. It has also set up Athumi, a public data utility that uses the Solid standard to support secure data exchange and data collaboration between consumers, businesses and public agencies.  

Wallonia is won over 

Development of the blockchain ecosystem in Wallonia, the French-speaking south of the country, has taken a slightly different path. In 2021, a group of blockchain companies came together to form WalChain, a network that aims to promote the blockchain community and the contribution it can make to the local economy.  

“We lobbied to explain why this technology is a train worth catching, and after a year and a half we had a programme of support approved by the regional government,” said Harold Kinet, chief executive of BE Blockchain, a consultancy and blockchain developer based in Namur. “So, we finally caught the train, maybe a bit late, thanks to a private initiative.” 

As well as helping other companies to use blockchain technology, BE Blockchain has launched a product of its own, called D-Share. “This is an escrow wallet that secures commercial agreements, locking funds into smart contracts and unlocking it when certain conditions are met,” Kinet said. 

The first goal of the programme, called DigitalWallonia4Trust, is to raise awareness of blockchain and explain its benefits to potential users, particularly among medium-sized companies who may be conservative on new technologies. For those who want to experiment further, WalChain will launch a testnet, a blockchain not connected to a live commercial system, which companies can use to understand how the technology works and to carry out proof-of-concept work. 

There is also funding support for proof-of-concept projects, in sectors that line up with Wallonia’s regional relaunch programme, such as supply chain, ehealth and media. Three projects have already been supported, with a call presently open to support a further 12. 

Rather than stimulate the formation of new start-ups, the initiative is designed to expand the market for those already bootstrapping or trying to scale up. “There is also an emphasis on interoperability and building complementarities between start-ups,” said Kinet. “The goal is to work together and galvanise the sector in Wallonia.” 

Aside from being slow off the mark to see the potential of blockchain, Wallonia has been a supportive environment in which to start a company. The public administration for start-ups has been streamlined recently and made more user-friendly, and there is solid support for early-stage companies. 

But with a small, technologically conservative domestic market, most Belgian blockchain companies need to be international. “If we want to scale, we will have to look outside Belgium, to find bigger customers and more opportunities,” Kinet said. For BE Blockchain that might mean the Middle East or Asia. “That’s where the capital is, and where blockchain has a bright future.” 

Still waiting for Europeum 

The Belgian presidency goal of relaunching the European Blockchain Services Infrastructure as Europeum has not, so far, achieved spectacular results. Only nine nations have signed up to the project: Belgium, Croatia, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia and Greece. 

At home there is mild interest in the Europeum project, but few of the Belgian blockchain companies see it as essential. “As a private company we always have to consider this kind of initiative as an option, but it’s not our main focus,” said Kinet. “In the end, it may not be suitable, so we need a plan A that is.” 

W​a​uters is positive about the effect it could have, for example through promoting digital identity wallets and creating standards for verifiable credentials. “If the EU can push through standards like these, it would help enormously with ​the ​adoption of systems like ours,” he said. In particular, he supports extending work on digital personal identity to company identity.  

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem… 

  • Sweden has formally joined the NATO Innovation Fund, opening the way for Swedish start-ups to apply to the fund for investment, alongside those from 23 other participating countries. The €1 billon venture fund will support deep-tech start-ups working on defence and security technologies, in particular those emerging from NATO’s Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic. The fund appointed an investment team in July 2023, with a view to announcing the first investments by the end of the year, but no funding decisions have yet been made public. 

  • Dutch start-up Aquabattery has secured €6 million in investment to support further development of a saltwater long-duration energy storage system. The money will be used to produce the company’s first standardised battery module, and support expansion of the team. A product launch is anticipated in 2026. The funding round was led by EIT InnoEnergy and supported by InnovationQuarter, Invest-NL, Init Power, and a group of business angels.  

  • NPHarvest, a 2016 spin-out from Aalto University, has raised €2.2 million to continue work on its nutrient catcher, technology that allows phosphorus and nitrogen to be recovered from waste water and recycled as fertilisers. The investment consists of a €1.3 million equity investment and a €900,000 grant from the Finnish Ministry of the Environment. The investment round was led by Nordic Foodtech VC. 

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