At the helm of lux future lab, Head Olivier Selis talks strategy, partnerships & operating like a startup
In 2014, an opening popped up on BGL BNP Paribas’s internal job board: lux future lab — the bank’s new startup-centric CSR initiative — was seeking a manager.
Olivier Selis, then working as a financial analyst, jumped at the opportunity. With more than 10 years at the bank, a marketing degree, a diverse financial background and entrepreneurial experience, he secured the position.
Fascinated by developments in Luxembourg and inspired after launching his own sports club, Olivier first caught the entrepreneurial bug years before joining the lab. Since then, he has witnessed the Grand Duchy — Europe’s little engine that could — fervently embrace the startup cause.
lux future lab’s new Head commentates from the front line, sharing his plans for the lab and thoughts on the ecosystem.
What were your first impressions of the lab & the startup scene?
When I first joined the lab I thought I understood the ecosystem pretty well, but here I had the chance to discover it from the inside. It was a totally new environment for me. We had direct, daily contact with entrepreneurs and startups.
“Since we’re an autonomous private initiative, we can stay flexible and operate like a startup.”
What surprised me about that early-stage, yet active, ecosystem was how easy it was to jump in, be a part of it and meet so many open-minded people.
I was the first permanent employee hired by Karin Schintgen, the former Head of the lab, but earning the position was just the beginning. We had one year to prove the viability of lux future lab or risk being closed for good.
What did that first year look like?
At the beginning we had eight to 10 startups and our priority was acquiring more members and developing our offering.
We asked each of the startups what we could do for them until we had a clear understanding of the many different services they needed: fiduciary, marketing, recruitment, etc.. From there we developed our early service offering and established consulting partnerships. Today we have 20 private partners and 30 startups.
When I arrived the group had just started investing massively in innovation. We were able to build relationships across the entire network with the different acceleration and incubation programs that were being set up. We also had access to innovation poles: group-wide teams of bankers and experts dedicated to startups.
What makes lux future lab unique?
The lab is a private but not-for-profit initiative. I think this is what makes it special, and it’s role is well understood within the ecosystem. We can work with private and public initiatives with no profit in mind. There isn’t another private initiative like the lab in Luxembourg today.
“Startups don’t come here to find clients…they come here when they want to go global.”
With BNP Paribas we’re part of a huge group that is present in all cities where a startup would want to go.
“Since we’re an autonomous private initiative, we can stay flexible and operate like a startup. We have support from the bank, but run autonomously. It’s a very lean approach for an incubator.
How would you describe Luxembourg’s ecosystem?
Luxembourg’s ecosystem is unique due to its size. Startups don’t come here to find clients. They can, but they come here when they want to go global. That’s why the lab’s startups are so diverse: 32 startups and 16 nationalities.
We cannot compete with London in terms of size, but Luxembourg is becoming a respected hub for the quality of its projects and attracts key people — like Nasir Zubairi of the LHoFT and Martin Guérin of Nyuko. Our success rate is high. We just need a few unicorns to show the world how valuable we are, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see these unicorns turn up soon.
Recruitment is probably one of Luxembourg’s main weaknesses, especially in IT. We have the lowest unemployment rate in Europe and a restrictive real-estate market. It’s difficult to find a balance between growth and supporting new talent.
How can we improve?
I think Luxembourg should invest massively in education and IT skill development. There are already some programs, but we need more. That’s why we started the summer school. We need to change education. I’ve started coding with my son and he’s 10 years old. I’m giving him basic access so he can have a better understanding of his options.
“We want to stay diverse and international.”
We also need fiscal incentives for private investors who choose to invest in startups, such as tax deductions. Belgium has this — a startup tax shelter. It would be a great catalyst.
What is lux future lab’s niche in the ecosystem?
We don’t want to focus solely on fintech. It’s important to support other areas too. Digital transformation affects all sectors, so these startups will directly or indirectly impact banking anyway.
We want to stay diverse and international. The ecosystem is growing every day with new incubators, accelerator programs and initiatives, like the House of Startups. We don’t have the resources to help very early-stage projects, although we would eventually like to develop these solutions with partners.
For now we serve startups from all sectors that have an MVP or are just starting to go to market and want to attract initial clients and develop the business.
As the new lab Head, what will be your strategy?
I think it will be a soft transition. All of the success factors are here and everything is working pretty well, so I don’t want to completely transform something that’s not broken. However, there are some areas we can develop.
First is funding. I’d like to focus more energy on funding because it’s still an issue for startups, even with different initiatives out there like Fit 4 Start and the Digital Tech Fund. We’ll continue building upon our current partnerships, for example with the European Business Angel’s Network (EBAN).
I’d also like to see us work more closely with the bank, the bankers specifically. With our support and an understanding of the lab, these bankers can be our link to clients who are interested in investing in startups. This request is not one sided: clients want it too! It’s important to them to see that we’re involved in the ecosystem. We already held a BNP Paribas Business Angels Day that received positive feedback, so we’ll do that again.
“We’ve established ourselves as an incubator. Now I would like to see us become more active on the acceleration side.”
Consequently, increased access to funding opportunities presents the need for complementary education: pitching practice, fundraising workshops and valuation support.
In terms of human resources, we have some ideas in the pipeline for how to help startups by utilizing the talent we already have within the group. More on that soon.
Any plans to alter existing programs?
A 2018 relaunch of the intrapreneurship program for employees is on the list. Previously, the program had a set structure, but this new installment will be flexible, catering to the individual needs of each startup and accepting applicants on an ongoing basis.
We’ve established ourselves as an incubator. Now I would like to see us become more active on the acceleration side. A four-month initial acceleration program for new lab members would help direct them down the right path and set a fast pace from the start.
What do you enjoy about life at the lab?
What is great about the lab is that every day is unique, but my favorite days are the ones when I get to meet new members for the first time.
Those last days when startups successfully exit the lab and move onto bigger things are also special. It’s mixed feelings because you are proud that they’re succeeding, but sad to see them go.
I have to say that I’m most proud of the direct and concrete impact we have on the community. We’ve created well over 400 jobs. We have a real impact on people, on their careers and on their experiences, not only within startups but also within the bank.