Meet the startups in Brussels spearheading social change

6 min read
16 Oct 2020

he Belgian capital is not just about waffles, fries and foreign affairs. The lively metropolis is also home to a cohort of startups seeking to create a positive impact in their local community and beyond.

As the administrative heart of the European Union, Brussels is a hub for global affairs and commerce. But this isn’t all the city has to offer startups. 

The cosmopolitan city boasts a high quality of life, a thriving cultural scene, a number of startup events for budding founders – such as those arranged by Startup Grind and Startup Factory – and a rich array of accelerator and incubator programs generously funded by the state. 

“Brussels has become an ideal city to establish yourself due to its low cost of living, central European location, numerous spaces available at attractive rental rates and international aura,” says Jonathan Dehas, head of marketing at HubBrussels, a business support agency. 

As a city where policymakers rub shoulders with corporates, the Belgian capital holds great promise for startups in fields such as health, fintech, AI and IoT that are seeking to expand their businesses – especially now that Brexit is in full swing. 

There has also been a rise in social-impact ventures, as well as a number of initiatives to support them. GreenLab, for example, is an open innovation lab dedicated to supporting sustainable startups, while COOPCITY offers various support programs for social enterprises.

“Social entrepreneurship is attracting more and more entrepreneurs. Existing companies are also seeing a way to create a fairer economy that combines a social purpose and an economic project,” says Sabrina Nisen, the program coordinator of COOPCITY. 

As we launch Startup Guide Brussels, let’s explore a selection of social innovation startups based in the city.

CitizenLab: Connecting citizens with local government

Founded in 2015 by Wietse Van Ransbeeck and Aline Muylaert, CitizenLab is an e-democracy platform that helps citizens get involved with the decision-making processes of their local council. 

The startup’s online, cloud-based platform enables governments to organize participatory budgets, carry out surveys, organize votes online and, ultimately, garner ideas. It has also integrated natural-language-processing abilities to help administrators analyze citizen contributions and extract meaningful insights from them.

“In addition to empowering citizens and increasing trust levels, the platform gives governments a better understanding of what their citizens need, therefore providing them with valuable insights to make better decisions,” Wietse says. 

CitizenLab has already taken Europe by storm – it counts over a hundred cities and municipalities across the continent as customers and also has clients in Canada and Chile. According to Wietse, this demonstrates the growing demand of policymakers to “increase transparency and citizen empowerment in their municipality’s decision-making.”

Looking to the future, the founders aim to make five percent of every municipal population participate regularly in their local democracies.

Fyteko: Securing global food supplies

We’re facing a global climate emergency and a consequent rise in extreme weather conditions. 

Because of this, crops such as corn, rice, wheat and soybeans are becoming increasingly vulnerable to abiotic stress – caused by drought, flooding and low and high temperatures – that reduces their yield and consequently affects global food supplies. 

Fyteko was founded in 2014 with the aim of helping farmers mitigate climate change and increase food security worldwide.

The company has created two biostimulant products, Nurseed and Nurspray, that help crops tolerate and recover better from abiotic stress and thus withstand the effects of heatwaves and heavy rainfall, among other things. 

Fyteko was awarded the Most Innovative Startup of Brussels award by the Brussels Institute for Research and Innovation (InnoViris) and also received a hefty grant of €450,000 over three years to develop its first biostimulant. 

Having completed two roundtable investments since then, Fyteko is poised to develop further products that will increase agricultural yields and transform the lives of farmers.

Helpilepsy: Helping epilepsy patients understand and manage their condition

For patients and neurologists, epilepsy can be a confounding condition. 

That’s why, when the team at Helpilepsy decided to create a product to address epilepsy, they spoke directly with doctors, epilepsy patients and even pharmaceutical representatives to gain a thorough understanding of the nuances of the condition.

These conversations helped to create what the founders call a “digital medical assistant” that enables neurologists and their patients living with epilepsy to track, understand and manage their condition.

The premise of the app is simple: patients key in their data about seizures, side effects and medication dosage, which helps their medical professional better understand their illness. When the app is installed on a smartphone or smartwatch, data can be logged automatically via sensors. This helps to create a more detailed set of data, which neurologists can view through their own web dashboard and use to make more informed decisions.

So far, the results have been positive: Helpilepsy’s digital assistant has assisted in more than five hundred appointments, and 90 percent of its users have said that it’s been helpful. Having recently received medical-device certification, Helpilepsy is looking to expand into the examination of other neurological conditions, with the aim of making people’s daily lives easier. 

Simone a Soif! Developing tasty soft drinks without the nasties

The creator of Simone a Soif!’s healthy alternatives to sodas and juices stumbled upon the recipe almost by accident. In 2013, Agnès Bonfond was struggling to find healthy beverages for her daughter’s birthday party, so she decided to make her own.

When she served up a concoction at the event made out of water, juice and hydrolat (an ingredient also known as plant essential water), the drink was an unexpected hit. 

Realizing that there was a huge market for healthy and organic beverages without preservatives, chemicals or added sugar, Agnès teamed up with Alexandre Van Der Vaeren and Antoine de Menten to form a startup in 2016. The result? The cofounders had a product on the shelves that very same year. 

According to Antoine, the company’s head of communications and marketing, Simone a Soif! prides itself on being honest about its ingredients and is markedly different to other companies that use the labels “organic” or “natural” as a marketing stunt. “Every time you see a new drink coming out claiming to be natural, you’d check the ingredient list and see added concentrates, chemicals or sugar, whereas we try to be as transparent as possible,” he says.

Simone a Soif! also aims to stay as close to nature as possible by using fresh fruit ingredients and low-impact packaging. To avoid plastic waste and health issues associated with PET bottles, Simone a Soif! beverages are only available in glass bottles. 

Wooclap: Enhancing learning environments

As the fastest-growing industry in the world, technology has already changed our lives in many ways – including the way we learn.

That’s why, when the founders of Wooclap were contemplating how best to maintain engagement in an educational environment, they were struck by how underutilized mobile phones were as a learning tool.

Through Wooclap’s platform, teachers can integrate fun games – from quizzes, polls and other visual exercises – in real time to help students correct gaps in their knowledge and, ultimately, stay focused.

While studies have shown that a student’s attention span decreases after ten minutes, Wooclap enables educators to monitor their pupils’ concentration and keep them incentivized through an array of features on the platform, such as “competitive mode.” Over 100,000 professors across the globe have contributed to Wooclap’s range of interactive material to keep students seamlessly engaged with the work at hand. 

Moreover, Wooclap’s savvy decision to integrate into classic platforms that educators already use, like Microsoft Powerpoint, has enabled the company to transform smartphones from a distraction to a teaching tool.

For an inside look into Brussels’ startup scene, grab a copy of Startup Guide Brussels.