These days Charles-Antoine Janssen is entirely in his element. The company Kois Invest, which he cofounded, is indeed the perfect amalgam of everything that excites him: finance, economy and philanthropy. We interviewed this descendant of Ernest Solvay.
Rumour has it that earning a living and making an impact on society are just not compatible. To this Charles-Antoine Janssen would reply “Absolute rubbish!” Throughout his academic and professional career, he has naturally maintained an interest in social affairs, whether in Belgium, in India (where he currently lives) and everywhere else he goes.
Strong personal commitment
Even as a teenager, this son of former Solvay CEO Daniel Janssen was involved in social projects such as La Clairière at Louvain-la-Neuve, an institution for people with learning disabilities, and the charity Nativitas in the Marolles, for people in need. This strong personal commitment to social projects was an early indicator of the values which still motivate this finance enthusiast. Later on, with the creation of Kois Invest, he would be investing money in projects and companies with good performance and similar goals. After his college degree, Daniel Janssen then set his sights on a law degree. “By following this course of studies, my intention was to find a compromise between philosophy and economics, my two favourite subjects at the time, and which I still find fascinating today,” he explained, “but it didn’t work out like that. In my opinion, both philosophy and economics had too little influence on law.” In 1995, the eldest of the three Janssen brothers had a law degree in his pocket.
From Merrill Lynch to UCB
His career was launched in the financial sector, at the American investment bank Merrill Lynch in London. Working on financial analyses, mergers and acquisitions, and the structuring of derivative products, the young man was struck by the intellectual stimulus and adrenaline rush of the financial markets. For three years he worked at this bank before starting up his own online finance business – weblab Europe – with the aim of using the Internet Finance with a social impact to make accessible to the public certain financial services normally reserved for “high net worth individuals”. But the Internet bubble brought an untimely end to this project. With finance and altruism already entrenched in his character, Janssen continued his professional career in 2001 at UCB, a family company and global leader in biopharmacy. After taking charge of a number of different missions (enrichment of the product portfolio, pharmaceutical mergers and acquisitions, integration of a biotech company into the heart of the business, etc) Janssen became manager of UCB’s Austrian branch and later its Indian branch. It is without doubt while he was in contact with Indian nationals that he realized the potential of impact investing.
It was only in 2011 that Janssen decided to enter the world of management by following an Advanced Management Program (AMP) at the Harvard Business School. This short (two months) intensive study course in the United States confirmed his interest for economics and finance. “I always liked these two subjects, but in my school days I devoted little time to studying them.” Returning home from Harvard, he was appointed assistant professor in social entrepreneurship at the SBS-EM, a post he still holds today. Once again, he is fired with enthusiasm for the societal perspective. “I have fond memories of the SBS-EM. I always liked working there with the students on various case studies and guiding them in their first encounters with the real world and social economics.”
Kois Invest: problem-solving
Finance, business development, teaching, launching a start-up, social entrepreneurship – these were the necessary elements that Janssen combined in May 2012 for launching a company that truly mirrored his values, a business which “creates societal impact”. Together with François de Borchgrave (SBS-EM 1995) he founded Kois Invest, a firm specialising in impact investing. The underpinning logic is undeniable. “The social and environmental issues that confront our planet today are not going to be resolved by governments alone. Altruistic managers have both the potential and the capability to resolve these issues on a large scale, thanks to innovation and quality management. It is possible, given the necessary financial resources, to resolve these issues of access to healthcare, to education and jobs, and to improve agro-industry and renewable energy services.” Every product offered generates financial returns in the same way as purely commercial assets in the same category, and of course, produces returns for society too. With Kois Invest, Janssen aims to put in place an ecosystem for fulfilling this objective.
Toolbox, the first steps
Before all this, way back in 2002, Janssen with François de Borchgrave (Ingest 1995) and Alexis du Roy (Ingest 1993) had founded Toolbox Belgium and Toolbox India followed in 2007. Toolbox is a not-for-profit company which opens up access to private sector skills to help NGOs. This is one way Janssen found to contribute to the resolution of social issues in Belgium and to create a laboratory for Kois Invest… Basically, thanks to Toolbox, companies volunteer the services of their employees on an ad hoc basis to NGOs to share their expertise with them. “What struck us several years later,” comments Janssen, “is that, whatever the management of an NGO, there were only a few times that we managed to achieve more than quadruple growth in terms of impact over the period we were involved with them. But to achieve resolution of the social issues we targeted, what we actually needed was a hundred-fold growth.” What was lacking? Having the best possible management and proper funding. The solution? Impact investing: resolving these issues not by adopting a not-for-profit approach but using a product or service that could generate profit.
Between philanthropy and economy
To begin with, on behalf of third parties Janssen completed a dozen investment projects for small businesses that managed to combine financial potential, societal issue-solving and human development. “We did it!” he exclaims. He went on to create four funds in partnership with a financial institution specialising in this field. That is not all. Starting with two colleagues, now with 15, he is structuring financial products that are both social and innovative. Finally, he has been developing “Impact Bonds” in order to align the interests of various stakeholders: private investors, governments, social entrepreneurs, charitable foundations and others.
Is Kois Invest announcing the forerunners of a new kind of financing? The success of impact investing could give this impression, but “there’s a whole set of financial rules that cannot be avoided,” Janssen warns. “Growth in our business segment nevertheless remains very robust. Five years ago, fund managers and company managers regarded us as two idealists with our heads in the clouds. Today, the largest multinationals can sometimes be well ahead of us when they adopt a genuinely altruistic approach and firm belief that no gulf needs to exist between contributing to society and raising profitability.” According to Janssen, “money is definitely a source of energy. It can generate more money, just as it can generate more energy and have a positive transformative effect.” Kois Invest applies an additional filter to conventional economics thinking: using the energy produced to generate more funds which can then be used to resolve social and environmental issues. In this context, money and finance are a means rather than an end.
India – Belgium commuting
After taking up residence in Bombay last year, Janssen divides his time these days between Kois Europe and Kois India. He holds meetings with social entrepreneurs active in the health sector, visits Indian hospitals to get to know what is actually happening on the wards, spends time with engineers and technicians on the development of new technologies, and meets investors to listen to their advice, and so on. What appeals to him most? “Combining innovation, the richness of human interactions and efficiency to try to improve the planet on which we live.” This is quite a different and more promising image of finance as we know it…