‘The dream is to cure people by using data’
Network and strategic advice help Ontoforce break through
‘Half the doctors and dentists don’t want to be paid by card,’ read the recent headline of a national newspaper. It would seem the medical world is slow to digitise. Yet, there are exceptions to the rule. One such example is Ontoforce: with strong support from Korys – and within a common framework of values – this data company from Ghent became the ‘scale-up of the year’.
The Ontoforce search engine could be conveniently called Google of the pharmaceuticals sector. It links information from pharmaceutical companies to public databases, clinical studies and scientific publications. Technology thus helps to drastically reduce the lead time of new medicines.
Disqover – which is the name under which this Belgian technology was baptised – personifies the history of its founder. Hans Constandt combines two seemingly unrelated passions: medicine and IT. ‘As a child, I dreamed of becoming a doctor,’ says the CEO nostalgically. ‘But as the years went by, the data-geek in me grew stronger and eventually triumphed. The turning point was in 2012, when my child appeared to be struggling with a motor impairment. I immediately decided to wave goodbye to the pharmaceutical industry to chase my dream: curing people by using data.’
The crossroads of America and Belgium
With the blessing of his wife (‘Take a chance and go for it!’), Hans invested his savings in his entrepreneurial dream: ‘The starting capital for Ontoforce consisted of money from fools, friends and family. I was all three.’ (Laughs heartily)
I believe in “smart money”: that’s why I looked for an investor who wouldn’t just bring cash to the table, but who was prepared to work with me.’
The start-up grew quickly. And Hans soon found himself at a crossroads: ‘Technology often needs a ripening period in which you combine consultancy with development. You use the cash you generate with advice to iron out the bugs in your technology. Ontoforce basically had a finished product with global potential in their hands from day one. I wanted to grow quickly and overtake the big boys. But for that, you need external finances.’
In his search for financing, Hans saw a clear target point on the horizon: ‘I was educated in the United States. Investors there line up to blindly shovel money into a powerful product. The American philosophy is to “pick up as many market shares as quickly as possible, then see what happens”. Belgian entrepreneurs are naturally more reserved. They try to grow using their own means. For me, the right path lay somewhere in the middle of the two approaches. I believe in “smart money”: that’s why I looked for an investor who wouldn’t just bring cash to the table, but who was prepared to work with me.’
‘Human capital is more important than financial capital’
In the subsequent capital drive, Korys, LRM and PMV all came on board … And the ambitious start-up emerged as a fast-developing start-up. Hans says Korys has helped Ontoforce to grow: ‘The start-up from back then is now a real company. Under the guidance of Korys, we worked hard on our “corporate governance”. A professional framework like this forms the foundation for healthy growth.
‘Raf Roelands – who is on the Board of Directors at Korys – plays a very active role,’ Hans emphasises. ‘And through Korys, we also brought on Annie Vereecken, an inspiring director. She guards the no-nonsense mentality at Ontoforce. Working professionally is necessary, but you can’t lose yourself in KPIs and procedures. You need to move forward. As CEO, you’re a Chief Everything Officer: you need to know something about everything. Thanks to our external sounding board, I’m not making the mistakes that so many entrepreneurs before me have made. Raf and Annie are natural entrepreneurs and help to sketch out a strong strategic course (financing, sales, product development, etc.).’
The start-up from back then is now a real company. Under the guidance of Korys, we worked hard on our “corporate governance”.
The Korys network also strengthened the Ontoforce HR policy: ‘Korys tipped off a few strong candidates, helping us in our search for a COO and a Sales & Marketing manager. Financial capital is important, but human capital is crucial. And finding the right people is not easy for an IT company.’
Triple the social impact
Let’s make it clear: Korys and Ontoforce are a match. Ontoforce has a nice pedigree as a business. But the connection eclipses the financial relationship between an investor and a company: ‘Our values are very similar. From the very first contact, we recognised integrity in Korys. As a partner, they get along with people respectfully, working with them for the long term. Their attention for 3P is not just window dressing: we share the urge to improve the world together. This social impact drives our workers and helps us to attract top people.’
In an era in which the costs of developing medicines are out of control, Ontoforce has impact in three ways: ‘Our search engine improves access to academic information. As pharmaceutical companies avoid unnecessary medical research, a medicine is ready for the market 20% faster. If you know that such a development will consume 1 million dollars a day, you realise how enormous the effect is.’
The fast lead time translates into a lower cost price for medicines, with a saving in social security as a result. Last but not least, the most important impact is that patients have access to new medicines 20% faster. ‘Receiving a grateful telephone call from someone who would otherwise have died within six months is truly heart-warming,’ says Hans.
Raf Roelands works with Ontoforce on behalf of Korys. With his background in the life sciences, he is well placed to assess the fast-growing company: ‘Ontoforce attracted us for two reasons,’ says Raf. ‘On the one hand, the life sciences are one of the ecosystems that we are focusing on. On the other hand, we have a healthy interest in everything related to data. As the data technology at Ontoforce is generic, applications in other sectors will be possible in the long term.’
Yet Ontoforce is something of a misfit: ‘Korys mostly invests in companies with a bit more history. But in technology, you have to step in at an earlier stage. Being named ‘Scale-up of the year’ demonstrated that we had made the right decision. The company is performing strong operationally and the commercial income has doubled over the last year.’