We’ve been interviewing some of the companies that have attended our Scaleup Summits.
Today, we’re interviewing Steven Vandekerckhove, R&D manager Digital Innovation at Renson. We met through our Open Innovation for Midsize companies program that we run with the support of the European Commission.

The goal of this program is to expose traditional mid sized companies to Open Innovation and help them to engage effectively with startups to drive innovation in their organizations.
We’ve provided a select group of mid-size companies with dedicated assessment and scouting, and then facilitated 1:1 meetings with innovative startups, in which Renson was included.

In this interview, Steven shares with us his experience from the corporate perspective. A summary of the podcast is presented below.

Can you start by introducing Renson and your role at Renson?

Renson is a family business that has been around for over 100 years and is currently led by the 4th generation of the family. We started making hardware for doors and windows, such as handles, out of cast iron and later aluminium; gradually moving into devices that ventilate and protect from the sun as it influences indoor comfort. We’ve also added outdoor terrace covering, such as pergolas to our product portfolio.

Myself, I started 3 years ago as the first big data analyst – no one knew what that meant, including myself. At the beginning we were figuring out what would be the value of data analytics for the company. With the board convinced after a few months, we hired 5 data-related profiles: data engineers, data analysts, data scientists, etc. With this, we managed to get some quick wins and use data analytics to make our existing products better.
5 months ago, we decided to double the team – up to 10 people – as we’re convinced that analysing the data we gather really makes a difference to strengthen our innovation and our product leadership position.

Renson is raising awareness of the value of digital innovation – can you tell us a bit more on how this actually delivers value?

We started working on our connected devices and infrastructure that goes with it about 4 to 5 years ago – and we didn’t do it just to have an app. That’s what people see but there’s a lot more behind it.
Providing a whole solution (maintenance, warranty issues and so on) has been the ultimate goal in connecting our devices. We’ve done this with the participation of different teams including the electronics team, embedded software, cloud infrastructure (we call it our IoT team ensuring good communication between devices, central storage) and the data analytics that processes all this data, ensures the insights are spread throughout the company but also the professional installers and consumers with devices in their houses.
But only having data analytics is not enough – you need the domain experts that really know what the data means, so we also have a research team that is holistically aware of the technology and the context around it, including legislative trends.

What I find interesting here is how from a first humble step into data analytics the company has evolved in a short amount of time – how many people are actually working in this?

In the R&D division digital innovation we’re actually 35 in total.
Before there was a research team and an electronics team – around 15 people, which means 20 people really develop software in one form or another.

And the digital innovation unit is then serving the rest of the company?

Yes, our 3 main business units (Ventilation, Sun Protection & Outdoor) are all on the path of connecting their devices. The digital innovation division supports their digital ambitions.
So this small team serves from Belgium a company of over 1200 people.

With such a growth, how does the company feel? Like a large or a small company?

We’re in the process of transforming from a mid-sized company to a large one. For example, we’re also investing in a new ERP package – which comes with a growing pains and it impacts the organisation as a whole.

How do you see the future of the company? What are the short and mid term plans for Renson, particularly in terms of innovation?

We always keep our baseline in mind – creating healthy spaces – from the products we make, you can get this relation. But up to this point, each product contributed to this by itself – but we realise that if they interact with each other, they can achieve a lot more.
This is definitely our vision for the long term.

It’s also clear that we’re not the central component in a house – we’re provide a ventilation system, external roller blinds… – we’re not going to be the central brain of the house. This means partnerships will become very important for us.

I’ve personally been propagating redefining our baseline to “creating healthy spaces together” – not only together with the business units but also with external parties.

Making devices and the organisations behind them talk to each other requires a lot of software development: web and mobile applications, APIs. Writing software is expensive until you have a proper scale.
If you have to make a mobile app for 10 people or 10 million is sort of the same cost – so scale is really important.

When you start creating these healthy spaces in collaboration – what are you looking for? What kind of technologies, what kind of organisations?

Let me first share an insight we got a few years ago.
Renson, a 110 year old company, we’ve been making hardware for the most of that. When you make hardware, you have a new idea, you want to make a new device, you have a meeting: “are we going to make this?” – the question was: is it technologically possible? Can we shape metal or plastic to this form? And if this was possible and there was potential, we would do it.
But now, when we have these meetings, the answer is *always* yes. So you have to make choices. I’m deliberately not saying SMART choices. Only afterwards can you know if they were smart choices, but it’s better to make a bad choice than not choosing at all..

And why this change?

There’s basically no limits to what software can do – as long as you have enough manpower.

Going back to your question, we know we have to focus on our core business more and more. In order to get enthusiastic about AI and machine learning we wanted to invest in our product leadership.
We’re not trying to use AI to increase operational excellence or customer intimacy- there’s lots of companies doing this already and we can buy these solutions – but if we want to build computer models that extract data from our devices, there’s no one else who can do it, because we have the domain expertise and sufficient relevant data.

That’s super interesting, because you simultaneously say not only you have to recognise what’s out there that can supplement and improve your business AND you have to recognise the internal capabilities you still don’t have and you’re the one who’s better positioned to build it.

Exactly, do what you’re best at and work together with people who are good at other things you need which are not your core business.

Which leads us to our main topic – what are the most promising, non-core areas which you’d feel would really add to your business as it is? Is it companies on IoT solutions, monitoring air quality?

Firstly, data analytics becomes interesting if you combine interesting external data sources – and to us, the most interesting data source for us is outdoor conditions.

That data is out there somewhere, a lot of people have their own monitoring stations or air quality sensors. We’re reaching out to smart city organisations for this. That’s one of the partnerships we’re always looking towards.

Secondly, data analytics also needs labeled data. There’s a lot of things that can help us do it automatically. There’s plenty of startups and companies that do this automatically and have a lot of sensors that we can synchronize with our systems.

Can you give us a more concrete example of how this might be relevant for you?

Say we want to notify people about how they can aid ventilation system in “extreme” circumstances. Let’s say people have a party, which puts more people in the house than the system is made for, and we want to tell people to open a door for a short period of time, for example. But we need to know if there are doors that can be opened, there’s nothing worse than a message that you can’t follow up on.
So we’re interested in seeing and knowing when windows are open – so we can acknowledge if there is a window and how big it is, for example. So our domain experts can detect some things through air quality but it’s a whole different thing seeing it as an expert and automatically tagging “a window was opened in a room”. You can have fairly simple contact sensors that tell you “door is open”, but then there are also more advanced sensors that can tell us the angle of the door or window – not just if it’s open, which is way more interesting.
We met a start-up that can provide such sensors through the matchmaking by Mind the Bridge.

I’m sure there’s a million other examples and insights that can make a difference in the long run.

Exactly, it’s quite amazing when you start seeing what is possible with IoT and data analytics to go a lot further than the current standards of ventilation.

As you say there’s a lot of possibilities in the intersection between technologies and sectors – but let’s get to our main topic: do you have a standardized way of dealing with startups?

Not yet – we’re definitely thinking about it and experimenting with it. Renson acquired a smart building startup. Besides believing in their solution we were also quite eager to have a startup in the group – to be able to interact with the startup mindset.
I had plenty of fun discussions on when to automate what processes – for example, resetting passwords: they still do it manually while at Renson it was automated from the start. However, it wasn’t really worth it (yet), for a feature that’s used a few times a month.
It’s a whole different world and it’s important to stay in touch with this mindset.

That’s what we hear often that is an unexpected benefit from working with startups: not only learning from the technology, but from the culture. Going back to your answer, can I presume that Renson is approaching collaboration with startups in an experimental manner, going case by case and then deciding what to do?

Yes, for example, we considered starting our own startup initiative where you provide space for startups and access to experts in data analytics, so you don’t have to hire someone full-time when they’re just considering if they need it – and at the time we’d learn from their network.
But there are so many initiatives doing that and we have such a wide product portfolio already, that scale is more important – it’s better to sell 10 times more of the same product than sell 10 different products.

Can you tell us a bit more about other interactions with startups and what have been the results so far?

There’s this research project we’re submitting for national research funding where we’re cooperating with a startup that can provide sensors for labeling our data. This is quite interesting as they can focus on their sensors and they don’t know what their sensors are going to be used for – the case we came up with was quite surprising to them.

We have many conversations with many startups and the difficulty is starting a collaboration.
It’s easy to meet and discuss ideas but you need a use case that benefits both.

As a large company we’re looking to startups for more experimental things. Things for which we first want to verify an idea’s feasibility, do some proofs of concept, not spend too much money and get some confidence on whether it works.
While startups of course want customers, revenue and can’t keep spending time and resources doing proofs of concept that are not going to lead anywhere.

From a startup point of view (that I can only imagine), starting to work with a large company is a high risk, high gain gamble. You’re far from sure it goes somewhere but if it does, then suddenly they have 10x their revenue.

What we generally like from working with startups is that they are typically quicker to evaluate whether it’s worth continuing. We like brainstorming with them because we also hope that they will point out to us when it’s not worth continuing.
It’s something that we need to get used to, as large corporates, to learn how to do small experiments.

Let’s take a step forward – how did you actually get involved with us, as Mind the Bridge?

I was invited by startups.be to take part in the matchmaking session during the European Industry Days in Brussels – and I think I met over 10 startups, it was all back to back and thankfully you guys were making sure I was at the right place at the right moment.
It was really an efficient event, startups were quite well selected – I think more than half of those startups have visited Renson later – which means you did a good job at the matchmaking.
It’s one of the startups we met there that we’re developing a research proposal with.

Becoming a more international company is one of our priorities, so coming to these events and knowing what’s going on – as startups are born of demands in different regions – is very important to us.

Advice to corporations when working with startups

Because we talked a lot about mismatch and how difficult it is to get a cooperation running between a startup and corporate. In the end I would say, even if with this not small mismatch, even if you have to talk to a lot of companies to find the one that’s relevant for you – when you find each other, it’s definitely a good experience for both sides.
So have a little faith in the process and that there’s always more knowledge outside your company, no matter how many people you have on your payroll, than inside – and startups have a way of attracting this knowledge.

That’s it for this interview, thank you Steven!

If you’d like to know more about Mind the Bridge’s matchmaking activities, check out our Scaleup Summits or our reports on Open Innovation.

By Ricardo Silva
Head of EU Projects – Mind the Bridge