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An innovative ecosystem

Main accomplishments

  • Fantastic years for KU Leuven in economic terms
  • A university further grown into a powerful motor for innovation 
  • LRD as a member of TenU, the group of the ten best performing Technology Transfer Offices (TTOs) worldwide
  • The most innovative European university, in the European Capital of Innovation
  • Our large network of alumni linked by the new KU Leuven Connect
  • Further expansion of our patronage activities, thereby further increasing our strength
© KU Leuven

The most innovative university in Europe

From an economic point of view, our university has had fantastic years since 2017. Our income from the four cash flows together amounted to no less than 1,192,854,791 euros in 2020. In 2017, that number was only 976,936,857 euros. That is a growth of 22.1 percent in four years. Apart from the integration effect from 2013 to 2014, we have never before seen such progress.

Is that the merit of a rector? It is the result of what we do together. The second (including BOF and FWO), third (government contributions for applied scientific research, including IOF and European programs) and fourth funding streams (including contract research with the private sector, scientific services, valorisation) each saw considerable growth with respectively 39.2, 40.5 and 25 percent.

This shows that the amplification we see is the work of many research teams, but also of those who support and guide them. The increase in the second and third funding streams is partly the result of clever and powerful negotiating, including the financial increases for BOF (+35 million euros), IOF (+20 million) and FWO (+40 million). The relationship of trust between the rector, general management and Leuven R&D is also a determining factor here. Many resources have been added, resources that largely feed the many research units, departments and divisions.

The first funding stream increased by “only” 13.1 percent. These are our actual operating resources and, by not honouring a few clicks (i.e. the increase in resources following an increase in student numbers) and a substandard indexation, they risk falling behind the other streams. The growth in operating resources in recent years has mainly benefited the faculties and departments. Just think of the strong impetus for additional AAP and ATP in the faculties for the implementation of the strategic plan. Or the growth paths for the ZAP, which enabled us to attract a number of extra professors in key areas within each of the three science groups.

Undoubtedly, more difficult years are ahead. All the signs suggest that the economic consequences of COVID-19 will affect all social actors. This could put pressure on our income streams. KU Leuven also has its hospital, which proved invaluable during the pandemic, but for which government funding has not been adjusted accordingly. For all these reasons, the scope for additional expenditure may be limited in the coming years. Experienced administrators with a sense of reality and well-defined priorities will be needed to steer that large KU Leuven fleet through more turbulent waters.

Motor for innovation

For the fourth year in a row, KU Leuven tops the list of most innovative universities in Europe as compiled by Reuters. It is a wonderful recognition of the strong position of our university in the world of innovation and valorisation. In the field of technology transfer, we are an internationally leading university and this has only been reinforced in recent years. Our Technology Transfer Office (TTO) KU Leuven Research & Development (LRD) constitutes the driving force here, together with the many researchers active in the LRD divisions.

Last year, LRD was invited to become a member of TenU. We thus join the small circle of the leading university TTOs, along with the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Edinburgh and Manchester, Imperial College, University College London, Columbia University, MIT and Stanford University. It is an extraordinary recognition. Above all, it is an incredible opportunity to improve and further increase our impact through international cooperation.

For many researchers at our university and its hospitals, LRD is a house of trust. Many know LRD as a facilitator in concluding service agreements. For others, LRD is an indispensable aid in complex cases of collaboration with the private sector, the development of spin-offs, questions related to intellectual property or the approach to licensing. LRD has become even more accessible, also for the humanities.

In recent years, we once again saw various promising spin-offs with a special social value being launched. Think of applications of artificial intelligence, climate-friendly technology or the fight against mental stress. LRD is also a crucial link for our participation in European programmes such as Horizon 2020 and, in the future, Horizon Europe.

Our university has also actively participated in European public-private consortia such as the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI-2). Many additional research resources came through this channel and an extensive network was also built up with companies, other research institutions and governments. Participation in these research consortia provides an injection of accumulated knowledge and experience in the entire Flemish research and development system.

Our contribution to welfare and wellbeing

Several years ago, the annual gross added value of KU Leuven (excluding its hospitals) was estimated at approximately 7.4 billion euros. If you compare this with our operational funding of around 450 million euros, the magnitude of the multiplier effect is clear for all to see. Does the Flemish government realize that what is sometimes described as “operating resources” is essentially a limited investment with a huge payback effect? Flanders, Belgium and Europe earn this back in the form of economic growth and an increase in welfare and wellbeing.

In addition, the contribution we make in, for and with Leuven is exceptional. The Leuven ecosystem is one of the most impressive in continental Europe. A city of barely 100,000 inhabitants, with a comprehensive university and one of the best university hospitals in Europe, with leading knowledge institutions such as imec and VIB, and a thriving world of spin-offs and start-ups.

Ever since 2006, KU Leuven has been investing in the development of science parks, equipped with infrastructure for knowledge-intensive companies. Over the past four years, at the Arenberg science park, we have succeeded in fully utilizing the available space in the Innovation & Incubation Center (I&I), Interleuven and the Bio-Incubator Leuven. We have developed a new master plan (June 2020). A new Bio-incubator has been built and plans for another one are already in place. We are also preparing a second I&I center. The completion of the building that houses Flanders Make, Sirris and KU Leuven (Mechatronica I) is also in the books.

We have made great strides in this area in recent years. So much is possible if everyone is on the same page. For example, in collaboration with the City of Leuven and the NMBS, a joint venture has been set up to open up a new site, Leuven Noord (24 hectares located between Leuven Station and the E314), as an additional science park. The Mindgate of Leuven thus becomes even larger.

It is not surprising that in 2020 the City of Leuven was named the European Capital of Innovation by the European Commission. The most innovative university in the most innovative city: a beautiful couple that together ensure a vibrant ecosystem in a prosperous region. And yes, that comes with new challenges, because a high quality of life also comes with high real estate prices. That is one of the reasons why the mayor and the rector enter into a dialogue with the mayors from the surrounding municipalities in order to expand the residential options.

KU Leuven in many different places

Important steps have also been taken in the other regions where our university is active. I discuss the example of West Flanders and Limburg here.

In the West Flanders region, we are a founding partner of the Hangar K incubator in Kortrijk and we also interact strongly with the newly established Bruges Incubator. We actively participate in the investment programs for infrastructure that have been defined within TUA West and that mainly focus on the fields of mechanical engineering and mechatronics, new materials, blue energy and food and care. Partly with the support of POM West-Vlaanderen, the Circular Materials Centre and the Lipidlab were established on Campus Kulak Kortrijk, as well as the Movement Lab (Bewegingslabo) and The Ultimate Machine & The Ultimate Factory on our Campus Bruges. We are also participating, together with our partner Vives University of Applied Sciences, in the newly established Flanders Make building in Kortrijk.

The West Flemish campuses are also bridgeheads for the entire KU Leuven to the economic and social fabric of that region. Through West Flanders, in interaction with our campuses in Ghent, a strong emphasis has been put on bilateral contracts. In the context of the prospective advanced master’s programmes in artificial intelligence (AI in Business & Industry) and mechatronics (Smart Operations & Maintenance), a network of local business partners has been set up. They do not only help shape the advanced master’s programmes, but also sign up for more structural research collaboration.

KU Leuven is also active in Limburg. For example, we are the driving force behind EnergyVille, one of the leading European innovation hubs in the field of renewable energy and intelligent energy systems. EnergyVille is a collaboration between KU Leuven, VITO, imec and UHasselt. It develops the knowledge and technologies necessary to support the transition to an energy-efficient, decarbonised and sustainable urban environment. EnergyVille shows what is possible through collaboration. It is the complementarity of the partners that makes it possible to integrate the entire value chain of the energy system into research. This ranges from materials and components, to entire energy systems, business models and strategies. Energyville, with its approx. 400 researchers, is located in the industry-oriented ecosystem of Thor Park, the science park in Genk. KU Leuven also participates in Thor Park.

In addition, KU Leuven invests through, among others, LRD and the Gemma Frisius Fund in various Limburg companies and startups with a strong innovative character at an international level. Often these are spin-offs from the university. The academic courses of our Faculty of Arts have their place at C-mine, the Genk hotspot for artistic talent.

Entrepreneurship

The ecosystem approach and our enormous impact on the economy and society create many opportunities for our students. Conversely, it is precisely those students who, once they reach the status of alumnus or alumna, seek their place in that ecosystem: in our hospitals, in the knowledge institutions, spin-offs and start-ups or, why not, by setting up their own company.

We are sometimes amazed by the radically innovative ideas that students and (young) researchers have, ideas that often arise from education or research at our university. However, the step to setting up your own company is not self-evident. To facilitate all this, KU Leuven KICK was recently launched, a successor to the successful LCIE (Leuven Community for Innovation driven Entrepreneurship), a network that aims to promote and encourage entrepreneurship among students, researchers and teachers.

KICK helps students convert their innovative ideas into successful business models, in close collaboration with the Student Career Centre of KU Leuven. The Product Innovation Project (PIP) is an example of a successful initiative where students in an interdisciplinary team work together for a full academic year to find a solution to a project provided by a project sponsor. There is also the KICK Academy, which is a brainchild of mine. The KICK Academy bundles various educational programmes that students can follow to teach them the necessary entrepreneurial skills.

300.000 alumni and patrons at home and abroad

KU Leuven has more than 300,000 alumni. We cherish this broad group of ambassadors from our university. They play an important role in their school, company, diplomatic post, government department, hospital, NGO or international organization. More than a tenth of them are active internationally, on a mission or because they have returned to their home countries. They are our antennas in society, here and elsewhere, and exponents of what KU Leuven stands for. We want to strengthen our relationship with them through a renewed Fundraising and Alumni Relations Department.

As early as November 2017, we established a new Alumni Policy Council, consisting of an equal delegation of directors of the alumni associations and of university policy makers. In this advisory board, now smoothly functioning, representatives of the rich landscape of faculty alumni circles, regional and thematic centres and international chapters, together with deans, shape a supported alumni operation. This council has developed a strategic plan for alumni policy and has already largely realized it under the impetus of the Alumni Office. Here are some examples.

In a renewed framework of agreements of the university and the faculties with the alumni associations, clarity has been created about their mutual relationship. For the first time, the faculty circles and sub-associations were recognized as partners of KU Leuven, with a shared responsibility for alumni activities. This network of alumni has been connected since 2020 by our brand new KU Leuven Connect platform. Organized in faculty groups and circles, regional cores and international chapters, alumni find each other with a few mouse clicks. At a glance you can see the range of activities, events and information for a specific target group. In addition, a new electronic newsletter keeps graduates informed about the ins and outs of our university. And since the beginning of 2021, all alumni can make free use of our KU Leuven Libraries.

The Fundraising and Alumni Relations Department is the central body for patronage and sponsoring. It is responsible for supporting education and research, preserving the centuries-old heritage and strengthening internationalization. Year after year, we can count on a significant number of donations, bequests, funds and chairs. That also remained the case in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. The wave of solidarity that has reached us in recent times is unlike anything seen before. For example, thanks to the broad KU Leuven network, the COVID-19 fund raised 2.7 million euros in record time in order to orchestrate a rapid response from clinical research.

The donor network at KU Leuven currently consists of no fewer than 9,940 donors, including 2,495 alumni and a number of major donors, who made a total of 20,612,073 euros in gifts available in 2020. This enabled 224 funds and 116 chairs to invest in impressive science and promising innovations.

Gratitude

Since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has held a firm grip on our society, with major social and economic consequences. More than ever, scientists, entrepreneurs, governments and citizens are looking for solutions for a liveable future.

KU Leuven will also have to take its full responsibility here. Thanks to our rich tradition of innovation-oriented entrepreneurship, embedded in and combined with excellent research and education, our institution is fully prepared for this. I want to ensure that it can continue to fulfil this important role in the future.

I would like to thank all those involved in research and education who were looking for innovative solutions in collaboration and for the benefit of the Flemish and broader ecosystem, in particular our staff members of LRD, DOC, Fundraising and Alumni Relations Department, our IOF managers, and our staff of communication and external relationships that are all so important to nourishing this unique ecosystem.