Belgian technology companies made their way to the Brazos Valley as part of the first major international mission to the region since just before the pandemic.
Starting in 2009, missions led by the Walloon Export & Investment Agency (AWEX) have been coming to the community to explore opportunities for U.S. investments through the Brazos Valley. The 2022 trip, held March 9-10, was the first in-person mission to the area since the fall of 2019. Adapting to the health crisis of 2020, a virtual mission was held that fall to connect Belgian companies to Brazos Valley business, higher education and community leaders.
With the chance to achieve those meetings face-to-face again, representatives from 17 Belgian businesses and entities made the trip to Texas for two days in Brazos County to be followed by a visit to Austin to take part in the South by Southwest festival.
AWEX Director of Technical Partnerships and Networks of Innovation Philippe Lachappelle was the driving force in connecting the business ecosystems of Wallonia and the Brazos Valley more than a decade ago.
“Since then, more than 300 companies have come through the Brazos Valley,” he explained to local media following a welcome reception. “Some have established shops here, and many others are coming. We have two companies with us this week who intend to establish themselves in the community.”
Meetings with local businesses and researchers were made specific to each company’s products and goals to give them the best insight into the advantages afforded to each by doing business in the Brazos Valley. The Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) assisted in connecting the companies into The Texas A&M University System’s vast resources and opportunities.
“The goal that we have for this mission and beyond is that this is not one visit that you have,” Sauraub Biswas, TEES’s executive director for commercialization and entrepreneurship, told the group. “We will keep building on this, so this is the first meeting of many more to come.”
For many delegates, it was their first chance to visit Texas and the hub of the Texas Triangle mega-region.
Lisam Systems is perhaps the prime example of a Belgian company achieving success locally with investments and job creation, all starting from a mission introduction. The company provides Environmental, Health and Safety compliance management software solutions and services.
As explained by Founder/CEO Michel Hemberg, in 2010, Lisam America was formed in partnership with the Texas A&M University System. Andrew Nelson, who would later be elected the mayor of the City of Bryan, was hired as Lisam America’s CEO. He currently is one of nine employees in the Brazos Valley.
Today, of Lisam’s 1,600 clients worldwide, Hemberg said 200 are connected to the Bryan-based offices of Lisam America and are generating millions of dollars in yearly license fees. Plus, the company has turned part of its focus toward data hosting with the recent acquisition of a cloud services company. Lisam is working with the FIBERTOWN Data Center in Bryan as current and potential clients increasingly ask for hosting options.
“The main criteria to settle the business in the community here was the connection between AWEX and Texas A&M, to have the support from someone in Belgium and knowing someone here in the community helping us solve any issue we had,” Hemberg said. “From a risk management point of view, it was the safest place to settle down because of those connections.”
Hemberg touted Texas’s business-friendly environment and the Brazos Valley as a safe, welcoming place. He said wanted to be a part of the mission this year to offer that perspective to first-time visitors to the community.
“A special grand bonjour,” was delivered by Mayor Nelson to the delegates at the opening of the mission. “We’re so excited to be hosting you here in Aggieland, the Brazos Valley. We have two cities, Bryan and College Station. We say, ‘two cities, one community.’ On behalf of everyone here, if there’s anything we can do to help you while you are here, we want to help you.”
Paul Maes was one of the first-timers. The CEO of Aquilon Pharmaceuticals, which he began leading in 2016, is looking at opportunities to bring the company’s respiratory inhaled solutions and treatments to North America. Prior to COVID-19, hundreds of thousands of people around the world died each year due to respiratory illnesses, but since the pandemic began, Aquilon has begun work to help treat that pressing health issue along with influenza, asthma and others.
Maes is working with a U.S. bank to raise capital and has met with law firms about intellectual property. Employee retention and cost of living are among the factors he is considering when it comes to where Aquilon will do its work on this continent, and he says Texas stands strong on those fronts. Unfortunately, the virus his company is working to address delayed a trip to the Brazos Valley, but he was happy to finally make it.
“Philippe has been trying to get me here for three years now,” Maes said. “I know of some successes abroad thanks to AWEX. One of my brother’s companies has had success in Southeast Asia thanks to AWEX. The people I can find with Philippe have the same passion as those who my brother found. They have an energy which is needed to create something.”
“That’s what we are telling them is that they will have a partner,” Lachapelle said. “The Brazos Valley has been an extraordinary partner for us over the years and we cannot thank them enough. It’s not only the university. It’s the Brazos Valley. It’s the Economic Development Corporation who understands.”
The tech companies on the mission varied greatly in focus, from data processing software to phage therapy to turrets for armored vehicles. The goal on the Brazos Valley’s side was the same for all.
“It is a sincere pleasure to have the delegation here for the 2022 Texas Technology Mission," said BVEDC President/CEO Matt Prochaska. "In addition to the abundant business opportunities for the community, the delegation has had the opportunity to build strong relationships, experience our amazing quality of life, and see the depth of our talent and workforce. This mission has showcased the strong partnership between Belgium, our cities, our county, the Texas A&M University System and our private sector. The BVEDC is honored to play a role.”