Under the former Waterschei mine shaft, Thor Park is developing as the hotspot for energy transition and smart manufacturing. The new management wants to attract numerous companies and start-ups in the coming years to lift Limburg to a higher level in these domains. The plans are ambitious.
Joris Merckx has been appointed managing director of Thor Park since December 1. He has extensive experience in various multinationals and private equity. Together with Gabriële Buglione and Erwin Julius, he forms a trio that should put Thor Park on the map in the coming years. Gabriële is an industrial engineer in chemistry with an additional master’s degree in management and economics. As business development manager, he is responsible for identifying synergies between the various organizations active at Thor Park and for developing the ecosystem in the two core areas of energy and manufacturing. Erwin has been appointed as expert and project manager industry 4.0 in which he has extensive experience.
Following a recent capital increase, LRM and the City of Genk each hold 47.5% of the shares in Thor Park. KU Leuven signed for the remaining 5%. The mission of Thor Park is on the one hand to accelerate the energy transition by combining scientific research and companies. On the other hand, it aims to bring together starting companies and established values in an ecosystem to promote knowledge exchange. Thor Park aims to promote exchange between companies and research institutions so that the sum of the whole is greater than the parts.
“We want to demonstrate as a living lab a number of developments in the field of energy transition to the public and regulatory authorities,” explains CEO Joris Merckx. “This way they can see that certain technologies are functioning that can replace more polluting technologies. An example is the discussion about the construction of a thermal network where one no longer uses a classic gas combustion plant, but where water from the underground is used to cool or heat a building. Discussions are currently underway with a grid operator to implement this at our park. If you compare such an investment today with current gas prices and the traditional way of heating, you have to conclude that it is not profitable. But look what is happening today with the electrification of the vehicle fleet. There is a movement towards these new technologies anyway. So you get a certain critical mass and they become cheaper and more accessible.”
Joris Merckx: “In addition to the energy transition, we are working on the smart manufacturing campus, which aims to help bring the manufacturing industry, where Genk used to be very important with Ford, among others, back to Belgium and Limburg. But that is only possible if it involves smart manufacturing. I am stating the obvious when I say that we are not competitive compared to the low-wage countries. We must therefore put all our efforts into Industry 4.0. This is a term that is often misused. It’s actually about generating data and doing something with it. From the design of a product, one must already ensure that it is smart and connected. The design must be smart, circular and sustainable. All materials must be reusable. By doing something with the available data, you can further optimize, automate and future-proof the process. For example, using cobots to assist the operators. We want to demonstrate that whole process here.”
Smart manufacturing campus
STERCK. You will start building that smart making campus in October 2021?
Merckx: “That’s right. That campus will cover a total of 32,000 m2 . In a first phase we will start with 8,000 m2. The ambition is that companies, start-ups and scale-ups can go through the entire process from idea to design for manufacturing. And then to go and do volume production elsewhere, preferably in Genk or Limburg. In that sense, we also want to be a testing ground for the manufacturing industry. We are in full discussion with interested parties, including a number of established names. The first phase is a difficult one, because we have to concretize the concept without knowing exactly who is going to settle there. We want to provisionally deliver the building in December 2022.”
Gabriële Buglione: “There are already numerous companies present in the IncubaThor that are active in the manufacturing industry. Of the 40 organizations (including knowledge institutions and the like) present at Thor Park today, 26 to 27 have links in the fields of manufacturing and energy transition. These range from start-ups and sole traders to mature SMEs.”
STERCK. In addition to these two core domains, you also want to focus on smart city applications?
Merckx: “That is indeed another area for which we want to open up our sites and network. We may not be a city, but a very typical application is, for example, the smart cameras for surveillance that can also steer parking activities in the right direction: smart lighting, smart control of buildings, cars and charging stations … Our park forms a nice experimental zone for that technology.”
STERCK. Thor Park is also the first rule-free zone in Flanders. Explain that?
Merckx: “The lack of regulation consists of the government making an exception to the rules on exchanging energy. You can’t simply exchange energy with your neighbor at home. We can do that between our buildings. For example, Thor Central with its large glass dome has a large energy requirement. When the sun shines, the solar panels on EnergyVille‘s roof can be used to power Thor Central‘s air conditioning. We can also exchange electricity with direct current grids. These are things that are not possible elsewhere because it is not allowed by law.”
STERCK. What message do you have for Limburg entrepreneurs?
Merckx: “Obviously we are looking at companies that are active in the energy transition or manufacturing industry. Not every company is eligible to establish itself here. The exchange within our ecosystem is extremely important. A company that comes here automatically becomes part of that ecosystem. They can fall back on the expertise present. For example, a start-up specializing in software for smart charging stations can collaborate with other parties. Today’s themes are so complex that one individual company can no longer cover them all on its own. Certainly not if it is a start-up. At the same time, our companies can fall back on the academic research centers present. It is often more efficient for a company to rely on a broad network of researchers and to pay for them instead of hiring researchers and putting them in a lab.”
Buglione: “An important message is also that we still have room here. A lot of land can still be sold or leased via a building right. There is also a business park available here. That is not to be sneezed at, because free space is becoming scarce. Furthermore, we are in a beautiful setting here. Thor Park is a public park and that provides the necessary dynamism. The site looks beautiful and it is pleasant for employees to work and stay here. Training courses are also organized in the T2 campus. For a start-up company in new technology, that opens up opportunities. Moreover, sustainability is central to us. There is a thermal net, we are working on CO2-neutral buildings. That is becoming increasingly important and our companies can play that off. Labs are available in the already existing infrastructure of EnergyVille, offices, meeting rooms and other facilities in the IncubaThor. In addition, we have easy access to the various shareholders in Thor Park, each with their specific added value.”
Merckx: “For the smart manufacturing campus, we are also going to invest ourselves in a number of devices and applications that a company needs from time to time, but which it cannot invest in itself. We want to make these available as a kind of service to lower the threshold. If we can lower that investment threshold, that’s interesting for startups.”
Buglione: “We are not going to be successful as Thor Park until our companies are successful. It’s our daily job to support them with what they need.”
Source: Buglione, G., Merckx, J., & Junius E. (2021, 10 mei). Hotspot voor energietransitie en slimme maakindustrie. Sterck Magazine., van https://www.sterck-magazine.be/limburg/editie-42/hotspot-voor-energietransitie-en-slimme-maakindustrie-3709/