Business Angel Story - Jerome Wertz

Business Angel Story - Jerome Wertz

Can you tell us about your entrepreneurial journey?

When I started studying industrial engineering at the Gramme Institute, I didn’t plan to become an entrepreneur. Actually, my interest in entrepreneurship came gradually during my studies and my early career.

Graduated in 2009, I joined the University of Liège as a researcher on 2 projects: one to develop the 1st satellite of the University of Liège and the other to develop a drowsiness detection system. After 1 year, I took over the coordination of the drowsiness detection project while having the ambition to market it. In parallel with the project, I did an Executive Master in management to get ready for the creation of the spin-off.

In December 2014, after 5 years of research and development, we created Phasya based on a first prototype to detect drowsiness which still required some improvements. It was time to face the market reality and put the project in a different dynamic than the one of a university lab. At the end of 2015, we signed our first customer, a Japanese university.

We carried out two capital increases in 2016 and 2018, notably with BeAngels and SCALEFUND I. In 2019, we were contacted by an automotive supplier which considered acquiring Phasya to accelerate the development of its driver monitoring system. However, after several months of discussions and due diligence, this equipment manufacturer changed its strategy by abandoning the development of the system and therefore the acquisition project as well. In 2021, after the failure of a second acquisition project by one of the leaders in our business, we finally sold Phasya to Tobii, a Swedish group which is the world leader in eye-tracking systems.

Now I am Director Business Development at Tobii, mainly for the automotive market. I also take care of other projects inherited from Phasya.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced in your career and how have you overcome them?

The first challenge was to develop a technology from scratch without any prior experience in R&D or real supervision/coaching during this phase. We had to learn a lot on our own, which resulted in a significant waste of time and resources.

Then we faced the reality of the company and the market. Again, we had no experience coming out of our university lab. However, we benefited from coaching, in particular from the WSL, our board, and the Réseau Entreprendre. We also worked with freelance sales representatives for the automotive business . Despite this supervision, our lack of personal experience in business and sales has undoubtedly been a significant obstacle in the development of Phasya. It took us several years to to fill this gap of experience as well as to find our strategic positioning.

Building the team proved to be a significant challenge. Each individual is key in a small team and casting mistakes can have devastating consequences for the project. We made mistakes in both hiring and management. Nonetheless, our administrators provided invaluable support in managing certain situations. After a few years, we decided to partner with Anthé, an HR consultancy company in human resources, which allowed us to step back and make necessary changes at various levels.

The COVID-19 crisis was particularly challenging circumstances from various perspectives. In 2019, we started developing our new positioning, which was beginning to yield positive results, with increasing market traction. However, at the beginning of 2020, the automotive industry was severely impacted by the crisis, resulting in the abandonment of several projects that were under discussion. This crisis was a key factor for the acquisition of Phasya by Tobii.

How did you become involved with BeAngels and what was your experience working with the network as an entrepreneur?

I had an excellent experience with BeAngels. Some members really played an “angel” role: they were there to help us with kindness and humility. They respected us a lot, they didn't want to make decisions for us, push their vision or their way of working. I think that without the support of certain business angels and shareholders, we might have given up during the project.

Then, SCALEFUND I also accompanied us and did a huge job. The members of the network and SCALEFUND I complemented each other well. As much for the financial investment as for the personal investment of certain people which was well beyond what one could have imagined by bringing them into the capital.

What led you to move from the status of entrepreneur to that of investor?

I wouldn't say that I moved from entrepreneur to investor. I still feel like an entrepreneur and I think being an investor can also be a form of entrepreneurship. In fact, I'm still very interested in the entrepreneurship community and there are different ways to get involved. Becoming an investor in start-ups enables me to continue learning, meet new people and contribute towards new projects. The fact that the BeAngels network and the SCALEFUND I fund played a major role in Phasya is also one of the reasons for joining BeAngels.

In conclusion, the desire to return to entrepreneurship, to continue learning, to support new projects, and the interest in diversifying my investments urged me to become an investor.

What qualities do you look for in potential investments?

I don't have strict criteria. There is always a little bit of emotion, but my decision is based on a combination of different criteria for the projects presented at BeAngels.

I'm mainly interested in start-up projects that have already shown some traction in the market without being in the scale-up phase.

The background of the founders, their relationship dynamics, the risks they are willing to take in the entrepreneurial journey alongside investors, and their mindset are all crucial points of attention for me. To me, it is essential to establish a climate of trust and transparent communication between founders and investors.

The team's ability to adapt and pivot is a key quality. The world and its markets are rapidly evolving, and it's crucial to be able to adapt quickly.

Although I'm more interested in engineering, I am open to investing in different sectors. However, I prefer not to invest in projects where I struggle to understand the product/market or the value it brings. For instance, I am currently considering an investment opportunity for which I am consulting a friend who is specialized in the sector, so he can help me assess the potential of the project.

Finally, there is little chance that I will invest in a project where I cannot contribute any added value beyond financial investment.

Does your experience as an entrepreneur influence your approach to investing and how do you assess the potential of a start-up or business?

My experience as an entrepreneur has undoubtedly provided me with greater pragmatism and realism compared to the past, as I have personally encountered and tackled various challenges that founders of start-ups often face.

Currently, I have no experience as an investor in a start-up, I am in the learning phase. Among my evaluation parameters, I can mention the team, the value proposition and its commercial potential, the vision, the potential for international growth, the opportunities for extending the offer to other markets/applications, IP. During my evaluation, it is also key for me to discuss the project with different stakeholders.

Assessing the potential of a project is not an easy task, not only due to the multitude of factors involved but also because what may hold true today may not necessarily be the case tomorrow.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs looking to start their own business?

There are many, but I would like to highlight 2 principles: "stay focused" and "ensure a strong basis with your close circle".

  • Focus on your customers, spend as much time as possible with them. Do everything you can to put yourself in their shoes and understand how to meet their needs.
  • Stay pragmatic and focused on what can quickly take your project to the next step. You must make the best use of the (often low) resources at your disposal – your time and energy are part of it… You can quickly get dispersed on activities that do not bring real added value to the project.
  • Discuss with your family and partner, so they are well aware of what your project implies as a personal investment and make sure of their support.
  • Get to know your co-founders well and make sure everyone's expectations and responsibilities are clear.