At the largest cybersecurity fair in the world: ‘Every Flemish start-up wants to gain a foothold in the US’

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May 10, 2024
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Together with the Flemish export agency FIT, the Limburg IT group Cegeka and KU Leuven, a delegation of 65 entrepreneurs from our country visited RSA, the largest cybersecurity fair in the world, in the United States this week. De Tijd moved to San Francisco. ‘Our home market is too small. You have to be here.’

‘Please don’t leave early. The bar is still open for a while, take advantage of it!’ The location – a typical American steakhouse in the heart of San Francisco – and the menu – the obligatory hamburger – contrast somewhat with the design of a reception for the Belgian cybersecurity sector. But the Stella Artois pints that are being promoted bring the chauvinism back into balance.

The networking moment, organized by the export and investment agency Flanders Investment and Trade (FIT), takes place on the sidelines of the RSA Conference. With more than 500 participating companies and more than 40,000 visitors, the fair is considered the high mass for the global cybersecurity sector.


Full screen display
The RSA fair in San Francisco attracted around 40,000 visitors this week.

Surrounded by big names, such as the maker of network equipment Cisco, the consultant Deloitte and the American intelligence service NSA, FIT has a bright yellow stand – cost: a few tens of thousands of euros per square meter – in one of the two gigantic exhibition halls. Eight Flemish companies and organizations (see box) were given the opportunity to talk to potential customers, partner companies and other interested parties at a preferential rate. “We had to create a waiting list because there were more candidates than places,” says Wim Sohier, technology attaché at FIT.

Flemish companies and organizations at the RSA cybersecurity fair

  • Cegeka: Limburg IT group that incorporated its American sector colleague CTG earlier this year.
  • Aikido: Ghent cyber specialist who helps developers write more secure software.
  • SmartEye: Antwerp start-up for the security of home automation systems.
  • Toreon: Antwerp consultant active in the guidance and training of protection officers.
  • Intigriti: ethical hacking platform that detects weaknesses in digital systems.
  • Acen: cybersecurity subsidiary of the Kontich technology group Cronos.
  • L-SEC: network of European security experts.
  • European Council of ISACs: organization that promotes data exchange regarding cybersecurity in various sectors.

‘We are standing here a few meters from our biggest competitor (British Synk, ed.) for barely 4,000 euros. If we had had to pay full price for our own stand, we probably wouldn’t have done it,” says co-founder Roeland Delrue. ‘All the start-ups here are trying to gain a foothold in the United States. It’s nice that we can hitch our wagon to FIT.’


It happens maybe twice a year that the entire Belgian cybersecurity scene is together. You can talk to each other in peace here in San Francisco.

Dries Plasman

Manager Ceeyu

However, critics raise the question of whether there is any point in attending a rather expensive trade fair 8,800 kilometers from home. Professor Wouter Joosen (KU Leuven) is convinced of this: ‘In terms of knowledge, Flanders can count itself among the European top three, together with Germany and Switzerland. KU Leuven alone is known worldwide because it has 15 professors working on cybersecurity,” says Joosen, who heads Distrinet.

In 2020, that research group managed to break open a Tesla Model X via a Bluetooth connection. Joosen’s colleagues previously discovered vulnerabilities in certain Intel chips. ‘If you want to convert our Flemish expertise into more business, you will encounter one not insignificant handicap: our home market is too small. From that perspective, it is a no-brainer to be here,” says Joosen.

Pioneer

Two years ago, the technology federation Agoria mapped the cybersecurity sector in our country for the first time. With 441 companies – of which 233 in Flanders – and 6,405 full-time equivalents, the Belgian industry had an annual turnover of 1.58 billion dollars in 2022. For comparison: the total turnover of the German and Swiss colleagues amounts to 7.29 billion and just under 1 billion euros respectively, according to the research agency Statista.

Now that more and more companies – such as the Goed healthcare store chain and the Duvel Moortgat brewery – are faced with cyber attacks, online security is higher on the agenda. Personnel is a stumbling block. At 16 percent, the vacancy rate in cybersecurity is much higher than in the regular IT sector (9.1%), making moving abroad quickly a must. Nevertheless, Agoria assumes that the Belgian sector will have grown by a fifth by the end of 2025.

Cegeka launches coaching on cyber security for companies

At the end of April, our country converted the European NIS2 directive into Belgian law. As a result, thousands of Belgian companies risk sanctions if they do not sufficiently protect themselves against cyber attacks in the coming years. “Many entrepreneurs really struggle with that,” says Fabrice Wynants of Cegeka. ‘That is why we are launching coaching projects together with the Flemish government that should boost the cyber maturity of companies.

This concerns improvement processes, in which experts from the Limburg IT group advise companies and draw up an action plan. The Flemish Innovation and Entrepreneurship Agency offers financial compensation, which can amount to 50 percent of the cost price. ‘For a basic trajectory, an SME must spend 10,800 euros (without VAT, ed.) count, of which she has to pay 5,400 euros herself.’

Fabrice Wynants, director of global cybersecurity at the Limburg IT service provider Cegeka, agrees. ‘Cybersecurity is the fastest growing branch in our group, with a growth of 56 percent in one year. I don’t see that trend reversing anytime soon, because our country is a pioneer. With Intigriti we have a top player in ethical hacking. The legislature is also on board. We are the second country in Europe to adopt the NIS2 directive (see box) has converted.’

Party

‘Sir, come grab some coffee!’ The cybersecurity craze is not limited to the stock market alone. Everywhere in San Francisco you see the blue RSA badges, which give visitors free drinks or candy on every street corner. When the fair closes its doors, networking continues in bars and restaurants. ‘One of our salespeople tried to register for a Synk party. He received an error message because the domain name Aikido is blocked. Then you know they’re watching you,” Delrue grins.

‘You can discuss whether you should be at the fair itself or not. But you have to walk around San Francisco this week,” says Dries Plasman, while eating a hamburger on Belgian Night. He is a manager at Ceeyu, a Mechelen start-up that helps La Lorraine and De Watergroep, among others, to detect vulnerabilities in their networks. ‘It happens maybe twice a year that the entire Belgian cybersecurity scene is together. You can talk to each other here in peace. By forging good ties with each other, we may be able to set foot alongside leading countries such as Israel and the US. Tous ensemble, that feeling.’

The article is in Dutch

Tags: largest cybersecurity fair world Flemish startup gain foothold

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