Maarten Michielssen (EnergyVision) & Andreas De Neve (TechWolf)
The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland: where world leaders see the white of each other’s eyes, where managers of multinationals think about the future together and where these two young Flemish entrepreneurs also walked around this year. For one it was his baptism of fire, for the other it was already the third time (if we count the summer edition in China). How did the two citizens of Ghent end up there, and with what feelings and insights did they return home? Maarten Michielssen of EnergyVision and Andreas De Neve of TechWolf tell their story of an unforgettable five-day event.
Co-founder and CEO of the Ghent energy technology company EnergyVision Michielssens was invited by the Global Innovators community, an international invitation onlygroup of promising growth companies/unicorns that focus on ethical, technological and business model innovation.
“I talked a lot in Davos, saw a lot of people and, above all, learned a lot,” he says. “For example, I participated in a panel discussion with entrepreneurs and investors from Israel and Palestine. Two regions that oppose each other politically with knives drawn, but within which start-ups and mature companies try to build bridges in a very mature way. What can they learn from each other? In what ways can they work together? I found that very impressive, all the more so because for many of those participants in the debate, doing business is often their only business way out of misery was.”
Don’t pitch ideas
To be clear, generating business and leads yourself is not the goal of the World Economic Forum. “That is also very explicitly stated by the organization: Davos is not for selling your business or pitching ideas”, agrees Michielssen. “Of course you can enter into new relationships or discuss projects. For example, I had a meeting with the Belgian and Moroccan Prime Minister who only discussed EnergyVision. That is the perfect time to put files on the table and raise certain issues.”
In Davos you get the chance to share ideas with people you would otherwise never see, and thus the opportunity to significantly increase that impact on people and society
“But that is not the first attempt. It is about looking at how things can be improved economically and socially. I also became an entrepreneur to make the world around me better and to have an impact. In Davos you get the chance to share ideas with people you would otherwise never see, and thus the opportunity to significantly increase that impact on people and society.”
Making an impact is also what Andreas De Neve wants to do with TechWolf. The Ghent-based HR tech start-up uses AI software to map and create the skills of employees reskilling opportunities visually, so that companies can continue to use their own talent instead of recruiting. This business model fits perfectly with the ambition of the World Economic Forum to reskill one billion people by 2030. The fact that De Neve, in addition to co-founder and CEO of the company, also wrote a paper about the ethical use of data and AI was certainly a reason to go there. He was even the only Belgian to receive an invitation as technology pioneer.
“In Davos, I took part in meetings about the ethical use of data and AI in human resources. Very interesting, because almost all technology players are represented there that are at the forefront of that market, while there are still very few governance exists in that market.”
“We will of course not fill that gap with TechWolf, but we could do our own guidelines explain, to inspire other companies,” says De Neve. “Burning topical, given the whole fuss about the AI-driven chatbot ChatGPI, for example. We talked about the opportunities and risks, because they do exist. Only there are always: with a kitchen knife you can also threaten the pilot of an airliner. So it is mainly the way you deal with new technology.”
In Davos I participated in meetings about the ethical use of data and AI in human resources. Very interesting, because just about all technology players are represented who are leading the way, while there are still very few governance exists in that market
Unicorns in the mountains
“It is a unique opportunity to be able to discuss all these matters in Davos, because as a young engineer with a start-up I do not have the network to convince large companies and investors,” De Neve continues his account. “You have to look at it this way: as a start-up you have the technology, but you are looking for distribution, while it is the other way around with large companies. These two worlds come together in Davos. Not a single CEO of large companies I spoke to gave me the message that they didn’t need our product. It shows that if we find the right traction, it heel can go fast.”
As a start-up you have the technology but you are looking for distribution, while with large companies it is the other way around. These two worlds come together in Davos
“I became like tech pioneer recorded by a very large community of all tech entrepreneurs, many of whom had a unicorn and, in other words, were a lot further than TechWolf. Nevertheless, those people were willing to give tips, share their expertise, make introductions or create openings in the US if I went there. There are also all mere mortals who thought 7:30 am quite early”, De Neve jokes. “And everyone was really approachable: I could just shake hands with Martin Walsh, the US Secretary of Labor, who, by the way, is a health tracking Oura Ring wore. And I’m in the picture with Will.I.am from Black Eyed Peas (laughs).”
EnergyVision’s core business is energy transition, and the Forum did not disappoint the founding CEO of the green energy company in that respect either. “We have thought about how we can get people involved in that story, especially the people who cannot afford to invest in it financially,” says Michielssen. “I learned a lot from that. Look, it was clear to everyone that today several crises converge: social, technological, financial, and so on. This means that more and more countries are going on the defensive and adopting a protectionist attitude. Everyone in Davos realized that there was a need for optimism and a constructive attitude across borders.”
In fact, no one knows what the future looks like – hence the nervousness – but there was certainly no negativity because everyone is eager to tackle those challenges
“I mainly experienced a cocktail of nervousness and optimism”, Andreas De Neve picks up again. “Yes, there is the geopolitical crisis, there are rising energy prices, there is an aging population. The realization is more alive than ever that change is a must and not just an option. So much is also changing: consumers are becoming more demanding, a generation is emerging that has different expectations for life and work,… At the moment no one actually knows what the future will look like – hence the nervousness – but there was also no negativity because everyone wants to address those challenges.”
Circus with its own atmosphere
Het World Economic Forum in Davos has a somewhat questionable reputation among the general public. In short: multi-billionaires fly in in their private planes and control the course of the world in smoky backrooms, lighting their cigars with dollar bills.
“It is a bit of a circus,” admits De Neve. “But I don’t mean that negatively, for the sake of clarity, because I like going to the circus (laughs). I just want to say that Davos has its own atmosphere, as is the case in Las Vegas or Dubai. It’s an intriguing place to be as a human being. I didn’t eat oysters myself and washed them down with champagne, but those things were there and above all: they were normal. Half of the village also consists of security people. I have had the feeling a few times: unbelievable that I can also walk around here as a young entrepreneur.”
Best wines in the world
Maarten Michielssens nods: “When I was there for the first time ten years ago, I had exactly the same reaction. I was there then as well technology pioneer and was really overwhelmed, because I didn’t know what to expect and what was coming my way. Today I can frame that better, schedule meetings in advance, study the more than 400 sessions and workshops from the program to decide where added value can be gained from,… In short, after three times you step into such an event differently. I personally wouldn’t call it a circus, but it is true that you have a choice: either you use the Forum as a platform to gain a lot of insights, or you go to the numerous parties and dinners that corporates throw there – every large company has taken over some building there.”
That questionable reputation is not entirely unjustified, says Michielssen. “For example, I almost spilled my coffee on Tony Blair, who you don’t want to have a chat with after what he did in Iraq. Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of Donald Trump, also walked around there, and Anthony Scaramucci, the spokesman for the White House at the time of Trump, held wine tastings with only wines that score 100 out of 100 with the renowned wine connoisseur Robert Parker and thus up to the very best wines in the world. So things like that happen there too – quite a bit wacko and surreal things that the average person cannot reach.”
“But as participants you choose to go along with it or not”, Michielssens continues. “So to be clear, I didn’t do that last one. You also have a completely different side of the Forum, which is too often underexposed: for example, there are also numerous NGOs present there and there is a lot of good will to think about social problems that are much bigger than one’s own business. Actually, I can summarize it very briefly: the World Economic Forum is ordinary a lot of. And as for those backrooms: all sessions that I attended, were livestreamed and numerous journalists were present. So I haven’t seen those rooms yet (laughs).”
Finally, we briefly inquire into the geographic why of Davos: it is a remote and snow-covered Swiss mountain village – both entrepreneurs were on the road for hours and had to take several trains, since they were not allowed the luxury of a private plane – where it was during the World Economic Forum also froze hard, down to minus 15 degrees. Surely there must be more efficient and, above all, warmer places to gather?
“Doubtless. And it is indeed not ideal, just as it is not the most environmentally friendly option. But the big advantage of Davos is precisely that isolated character. Everything is so concentrated there that you can’t do anything else than the core of the matter. I did that, and I will do it again if I get an invitation again,” says Michielssen.