In the sixteen years that founder Casper Bruens has been active for Brightlands Venture Partners, he has seen the world around him change dramatically. And that naturally meant that the funds’ activities had to move with those developments. Founded by people from DSM‘s corporate VC team and from LIOF Participations, Brightlands Venture Partners has developed through the years into an independent venture capital fund manager in the south of the Netherlands with a focus on smart materials, life sciences, and agrifood. The funds linked to the organization support innovative companies that fit into the ecosystem of the Brightlands campuses – sometimes even if they are not yet established there.
Brightlands Venture Partners currently manages three funds with a total size of €75 million. Limburg Ventures was founded in 2004 and manages €15 million. Chemelot Ventures, a € 40 million fund, was launched ten years later. The Brightlands Agrifood Fund is the most recent branch on the tree; it comprises €20 million and has existed since 2017. Soon to be added is a fourth fund that has health and circularity as its central line – a logical step, given the emphasis placed on the Chemelot Circular Hub.
Marcel Kloosterman joined Bruens two years after the start and they now are jointly responsible for the funds. In a talk with both of them, we try to find out about the achievements and ambitions of Brightlands Venture Partners.
The beginning of Brightlands Venture Partners was mostly explorative, Bruens recalls. “We took our time to explore the field and, together with LIOF, to investigate how we could make it meaningful. We quickly saw a need for new entrepreneurship and start-ups, of course, but whether we would be able to find and bind those initiatives remained to be seen.”
It didn’t take long for Bruens and Kloosterman to answer that question in the affirmative. Since then, over twenty investments have been made with the first fund alone. Sustainability and Health are recurring themes here; regenerative medicine – now one of the showpieces of the Maastricht campus – received a lot of attention early on as well. “Take Pharmacell, a producer of human cells, for example. When that company was acquired by Lonza in 2017, it was proof to us of our right choices. The fact that Lonza is now located on the Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Geleen with some five hundred people only makes it even better. Can you imagine how important that is for local employment?”
One thing led to another and, as a result, Brightlands Venture Partners and the Brightlands campuses were able to continue to grow together. Partly thanks to a company like Lonza, combined with the ecosystem that has been built around it, Chemelot can continue to grow and show the world what it is capable of. “It may sometimes seem like we’ve been at it for a long time already, but we’re actually just at the beginning. There are still some really great things going to happen here!”
Proximity is key
Although the four funds are different in content, they float on the same philosophy. “Proximity is key in our view,” says Bruens. “Our portfolio companies have a greater chance of success and a shorter time to market due to their interaction with the Brightlands ecosystem. We, therefore, have a very strong focus on managing risk and increasing value with our network for our portfolio companies.” But what does that mean in concrete terms? “We look at the financial impact, of course, but also always at a substantive and a regional component: we need to have something to offer a company here, otherwise they will leave again in time. And vice versa as well. That match is really very important.”
When it comes to financial terms, the Brightlands funds operate the same as other venture capitalists. “But the terms we work with and the exit horizon can vary. In our sectors, start-ups may have a horizon of about seven years. And we always look for co-investors; it’s really exceptional if we get in somewhere on our own.” It’s not just about money and spreading the risk, adds Bruens. “A co-investor often brings relevant knowledge and a network, so joining is also directly part of the validation of such a company. If another investor also looks at it positively from a different perspective, it gives us more confidence for the next step.”
Success stories of Brightlands Venture Partners are now plentiful. Besides Lonza, Kloosterman and Bruens point to well-known names such as ‘national icon’ Ioniqa, QC Polymers, which at one point proudly called itself “the largest startup in Europe” because of a 400-meter plant, Isobionics, which was taken over by BASF and Enzypep that was acquired by a large German pharmaceutical company.
With the development of Chemelot Circular Hub – together with the institute RegMed XB for regenerative medicine and the Einstein telescope the initiatives for which the province of Limburg wants to make an extra effort – these companies fit perfectly into the sustainability ambitions at Brightlands. “We have gained a lot of experience in recent years with more efficient use of raw materials, but we now know that that is no longer enough. Biobased is already a step in the right direction, but actually as much as possible of what we do should be truly circular. Biobased materials must also be recyclable, otherwise, you are still only doing half a job. We are also going to measure and report on the impact of our portfolio companies. With that, we also hope to show that we can make our startups more diverse, starting with more women in the teams. In short, the ‘magnet’ we are building here is becoming more and more powerful. One success attracts another. Thanks in part to the new fund and the power of the Circular Hub, the world is going to see a lot more of this in the near future. ”
Looking back on the adventure so far, Bruens and Kloosterman conclude that it has all gone very quickly. “Do you remember, in the beginning, when it took roughly six weeks before we had arranged a telephone connection for one of our start-ups? It’s become hard to imagine this was the case. That was also in the days when, as a researcher at DSM, you were called crazy if you resigned to start your own start-up. That mentality is completely different now. We have achieved a great deal, but we still have a long way to go. We are already an important hub in Europe, it’s time to grow to world level.”