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World class: Wallonia rewards companies spreading local excellence across the globe

23:00 30/04/2017

A handful of companies with outstanding track records in export were recently pushed into the limelight by the Walloon Export and Foreign Investment Agency (AWEX). In front of a 300-strong audience at a ceremony at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Charleroi, six companies – from a biotech firm to an aeronautic enterprise – received the agency’s Wallonia Export Award. The ceremony included performances by Charleroi Danses.

The honours celebrate companies that have helped spread Walloon excellence and knowhow abroad by increasing exports of their products or by breaking into difficult markets.

The two-yearly competition, already in its 15th edition, received 40 submissions this year, the second-highest number ever.

PhysIOL, a Liège-based company that develops, produces and sells intraocular lenses to treat presbyopia and cataracts, took home the coveted main prize – Le Grand Prix Wallonie à l’Exportation. According to export manager François-Xavier Lahaye, the company’s export success springs from a combination of factors – its innovative quality product, its priority-setting and its high-quality service.

“It is necessary to be close to your markets, listen to the needs and be flexible,” he says, noting that the company started exporting to Belgium’s neighbouring countries first to build a strong foundation as well as brand recognition.

Thanks to the company’s distribution network, PhysIOL lenses are today available in more than 60 countries around the world. Still, one of the company’s goals for 2017, Lahaye says, is to strengthen its business relationships in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East via its agents based in Singapore, Belo Horizonte and Beirut, while a long-term goal remains to break into two huge, but very different countries – the US and China.

AE Valves, which manufactures industrial valves for the LNG and petrochemical sector, received the award for Large-Scale Exports. Based in Petit-Rechain in Liège province, the company was created in 2010 when its founders set out to modernise the design of industrial valves.

“We invented and developed a new design that gave our clients an advantage at the technical and security level,” manager Serge Gerome says. Since its founding year, AE Valves has successively doubled its turnover every year, with a €28 million turnover in 2016. The US currently accounts for the company’s biggest export market, but its valves can also be found in Singapore, Norway, China, India and Canada.

Eurogentec, a Liège-based biotech firm that specialises in genomics and proteomics, won the award for European Exports. One of the first University of Liège spinoffs, Eurogentec was established in 1985 and today provides services and products to the life sciences industry. t has, for instance, developed its own technology to produce DNA plasmids: a new type of DNA that has resulted in a new generation of more efficient vaccines.

“This exclusive technology provides a wide-open door to the global pharmaceutical industry,” executive vice president Lieven Janssens said in a press release. The company, which reported a turnover of €44 million in 2015, has expanded its footprint abroad through a distribution network and Eurogentec subsidiaries in France, the UK and Germany, as well as through acquiring other companies. Since 2013, the company has realised 90% of its turnover abroad every year, and it is one of the rare Belgian companies to have won approval from the US FDA consumer protection agency.

OncoDNA, which specialises in precision medicine for anti-cancer treatments and helps doctors find new treatment options for patients with advanced cancer, won the Springboard Award for Large-Scale Exports. Based in Gosselies in Hainaut, the company recently made headlines when it raised €7.7 million from its shareholders as well as a new group of investors.

Though it was founded only in 2013, OncoDNA has already partnered with more than 200 healthcare institutions in 60 countries, while OncoSHARE, a network that allows doctors, patients and relatives to exchange information, is now the world’s largest cancer community, with 10,000 members. The relationships OncoDNA has built up with its distributors across the world have been key to the company’s export success, says spokesperson Orane Amant. “Our distributors represent us in the territories they oversee; they are our ambassadors,” she says, adding that the company’s international development is also the fruit of long-term efforts, its prospecting activities as well as market studies it has completed.

Meanwhile, Market-IP, based in Naninne near Namur, brought home the springboard Award for Europe, which rewards companies on the verge of reaching an average export quota of 70%. This technology company produces geographic optimisation services and technological solutions that help improve business mobility management. According to marketing and quality manager Sarah Laval, the key to Market-IP’s export success was the “European quality” of its products, which she says is highly valued outside Belgium’s borders. In the coming years, Laval says, the company wants to help its business partners increase its sales figures and bolster Market-IP’s position in those markets where it is already active. “Northern Africa has been in developments for two years now; we intend to strengthen our presence on the continent in those places where the demand for mobility management is more and more mature,” she says.

Finally, Gosselies-based Sonaca Group, received a special mention from the jury ofexport specialists. Sonaca develops, manufactures and assembles advanced aerospace structures for commercial and military use, as well as for the space industry. The company has production facilities in China, Europe, North and South America and today employs 2,500 people. With an annual turnover of €400 million, 99% of which is realised abroad, and a client roster that includes such big names as Airbus, Embraer, Dassault Aviation and Bombardier.

Sonaca has charted a stellar export path. Earlier this year, Sonaca also received an €8.5 million loan from the European Bank for Development and Reconstruction to build a new plant in Romania. CEO Bernard Delvaux says Sonaca develops high-quality products, with its clients. “A client chooses us because we guarantee the quality and trustworthiness he is looking for,” he says.

Written by Linda A Thompson