Motivation as an engine of growth at Ghent University spin-off Impetus Academy

(06-04-2020) In these corona times, motivation is essential. Ghent University spin-off Impetus Academy is an expert in stimulating people. Time for a conversation.

Well-being at work, sustainable career policy, an optimal work/life balance … These are no longer hollow terms but concepts held to be very important. They are also the things that matter in the war for talent! But how do you create a positive corporate culture that takes your employees into consideration while also ensuring you have a flexible organisation, you obtain results, and your employees adapt to constant change, also in these corona times?


‘Motivation is often the key to solving the many problems and challenges that not only companies, but also educational institutions, the world of sports, and the care sector have to contend with’, emphasise Nathalie Aelterman, Maarten Vansteenkiste and Kevin Taelman, the founders of Ghent University spin-off Impetus Academy. ‘In all of these fields people are looking for ways to motivate others to action, to support them in their growth.’


As pioneers in the field of developing and applying self-determination theory—a solid motivational theory—they are making the difference. Not only in the improvement of employee motivation and organisational culture per se, but also in the attainment of strategic goals such as productivity, retention and turnover. ‘Evidence-based HR is the basis for continued growth and development in organisations and their people.’


‘Evidence-based HR is the basis for continued growth and development in organisations and their people.’


The kitchen table as a headquarters

The reasons that prompted the founding of Impetus Academy came mainly from a generally social context. Since his graduation, Maarten's career as a professor has revolved around the question ‘why do people do the things they do?’ and, more specifically, ‘why do they either quit or stay motivated?’ In school, in child education, in sports ... Nathalie was one of the first PhD students to specifically conduct research with Maarten and Professor Leen Haerens on whether teachers can be successfully trained to motivate their pupils. For although many teachers and management boards give their all every day, the latest PISA results, for example, show both a dwindling number of Flemish students in the top ranks and a steady decline in motivation and interest over the course of students’ education. In addition, too many young teachers call it quits after a few years. Too many hours planning, too many innovations, too much pressure. ‘So you need to continually motivate both pupils and teachers for them to give their best. Developing trainings forced us to make concrete motivational recommendations because teachers like to get concrete input on what they can do to motivate their pupils. Maybe that's when I planted the seeds of our transition to a spin-off’, reflects Nathalie.


Nathalie and Maarten started receiving more and more requests for lectures and workshops on motivation, not only from the world of education, but also business, sports, and the care sector. In 2015 Vitamines voor groei ('Vitamins for Growth', ACCO Publishers) was published, the book Maarten co-authored with Bart Soenens. ‘We presented core ideas from motivational psychology in an easily accessible way, causing the book to enjoy quite some attention and to even have a pull effect. Demand for lectures increased steadily. At the same time we noticed that people were looking for practical applications of the theoretical basis of our research, self-determination theory, which is a solid, proven theory with attractive and applicable ideas. Too often, however, it was all inspirational sessions and workshops. Granted, these are a first step, but they are not enough’, says Maarten. ‘You can’t have profound professionalisation when you just do knowledge sharing. You absolutely need to train in motivational skills if you want teachers or managers to sustainably motivate their pupils and employees’, Nathalie adds.


Through his dealings with the business world, Nathalie’s husband Kevin, who performed several management functions, noticed that her motivational insights did actually make a real difference in the workplace. ‘You can often solve a company’s problems by looking at their employees’ motivation.’ Conversely, the motivational challenges and problems Kevin encountered provided Nathalie with inspiration for her subsequent research, which expanded to not only include education but also the world of business, where she tried to identify the core ingredients of a motivational leadership style. In short, they started off using their kitchen table as their headquarters.


‘Motivation is often the key to solving the many problems and challenges that not only companies, but also educational institutions, the world of sports, and the care sector have to contend with. In all of these fields people are looking for ways to motivate others to action, to support them in their growth.’


Research translated into daily practice

‘Some five years ago we got the idea of taking our research further. The first step was to do more research in companies. There had been many studies around self-determination theory in education, caregiving and sports, but few in the context of business. Taking inspiration from the teacher compass, we developed a leadership compass. It proved to be a golden move: the leadership compass allows you to reflect on your leadership style and your possible hidden faults, the double aim being to continue your personal growth and to better motivate your team.’


‘The more we presented the leadership model in keynotes, the more we were asked to also apply it. So we soon decided to organise this practical conversion ourselves. The alternative was to just throw the scientific model onto the market, but then it would have started to lead a life of its own, it would have been applied incorrectly, and eventually it would have fallen short of its goals.’


The CAR of motivation and a compass for managers

So what is this self-determination theory that is the basis of Impetus Academy’s method of working? ‘Autonomy, Relatedness and Competence are three basic, universal psychological needs. We also call this CAR of motivation “vitamins for people’s growth”. The better these three needs are met, the more people are motivated to perform, the more energy they have, the more initiative they show ... This applies not only to the workplace but to every facet of our lives. Whether it's child-rearing or hobbies, we always go looking for things that add meaning and help us to be ourselves, to build meaningful relations and to feel that we’re good at something, that we meet goals. So pupils, too, can benefit from the application of this theory. The more you satisfy these needs in pupils, the more fascinated they will be by their learning materials, the more they will persevere when faced with difficulties, and the happier they will feel about going to school.’


Although everybody benefits when these needs are met, different people use different ways. ‘As a teacher or manager you have to offer custom-made solutions. This is where the teacher and leadership compasses offer refreshing insights. You can actually interpret this very literally as a compass, a framework that indicates how you interact with people and where you can make improvements. People often find themselves in a leadership position because they happen to possess a certain type of expertise, not because they have a distinguished track record leading teams. Take, for example, the teacher who gets promoted to a board position or the employee whose knowledge and experience get them appointed team leader. So there you are, no background in leadership styles but placed in an essential position. That’s where the teacher or leadership compass can help you to gain insight into your own style, your team’s perception of you, and your areas for development. This self-reflection is essential to personal growth. When people feel too much that things are decided from above, they quickly develop a kind of resistance. But when you make them the starting point, you automatically create a need for learning. Change can then grow from below instead of being imposed from above. If your aim is to support personal growth, this is a much more effective approach’, explains Kevin.


‘As a manager, you need three crucial elements to make your team function optimally. First, people need structure, a clear framework; they need to know what is expected them, the goals they have to meet ... In addition, people like their voice to be heard when certain decisions are being made, they like to receive feedback, they want to have at least some say when their tasks are assigned ... Finally, people also attach importance to their leader's involvement in what they do. This mix of offering structure, supporting autonomy, and being involved is something you can learn as a manager. The teacher and leadership compasses show you what to pay attention to, and often it is very simple things that help you to simultaneously feel better in your role as a leadership provider and to strengthen your team's motivation.’


In addition to helping companies to apply the CAR principle, Impetus Academy also takes initiatives of its own based on this trio of human needs. ‘During the start-up phase we often resorted to focus groups. We would invite HR managers to find out how strongly they considered topics such as motivation and leadership, whom they collaborated with on these topics, why they did so ... Even now we do this every day. The solutions we deliver always include feedback moments that teach us where we ourselves can evolve and improve. Information like that is priceless! It keeps us on our toes, makes us question ourselves ... These feedback moments are also when you feel the real impact that you are having on organisations and on people’s lives. It just gives you tons of energy.’


'Self-reflection is essential to personal growth.'


Continuing where others stop

‘Change is constantly the order of the day. A company or school that cannot keep up with change in such a context is virtually signing its own death warrant. But paradoxically the capacity for change resides in your people. Processes are easy to change, but if your people don't want to evolve along, you have a problem. When you want to make sustainable change, involve your people in the search for solutions, create a motivational work environment, then people will be more inclined to embrace change and even to contribute to it actively. In short, it’s all about the people! For this reason we also consider it very important to involve school boards and teachers. By supporting them in their motivational tasks we are helping a new generation of young people to lead resilient, authentic and socially engaged lives. These are qualities that will be very important in their future careers.’


‘Through Impetus Academy we are handing HR and school boards concrete instruments to deal with people in a different way, to make them more resilient and more flexible, and to better motivate them, with the aim of meeting strategic objectives such as increased profitability, higher employee productivity, higher retention ... Or, translated into the school context, to avoid academic fatigue, improve pupils’ results, retain teachers, etc. We measure these things throughout the process, and that's what makes us stand out from other organisations. We keep going where others stop.’


‘Satisfaction and involvement surveys usually focus on measuring symptoms, like academic fatigue in education or burn-out at work. Impetus Academy goes further, also mapping the motivational processes behind these effects. We examine the full context of procedures, processes, team functioning, team managers ... so that we don’t just fight the symptoms but tackle the whole problem. In other words, what precedes these effects? What’s the situation with the CAR, how is motivation among pupils, teachers, and managers? How do teachers or leaders view their own leadership? How do pupils view their teachers, and how do team members view their managers' leadership? Are they on the same wavelength, or is there a gap? We catch the whole picture, indicate the most important areas where companies, schools, organisations or teams can grow, and we support them in the process of implementing solutions. We use this as a starting point for a dialogue that is meant to bridge the gap and thus strengthen employees’ motivation, improve their well-being and performance, increase retention ...’


‘In summary, we provide a concrete answer to the question of what to do next, thus relieving school boards and HR departments of the need to rely on guesswork. Our approach allows them to implement evidence-based changes. Measurements are actually purely functional; the main aim is to develop organisations, managers and employees. The greatest value we provide lies in the support and trainings that come afterwards and are specifically geared towards the needs of the company or school. Standardised trainings don’t work. It’s very important to look at each organisation's context to find the right solutions and to create maximum impact. In short, we provide a concrete answer showing the next step on the road to building a motivational organisational culture.’


'It’s all about the people! Measurements are actually purely functional; the main aim is to develop organisations, managers and employees.'


From research to spin-off

Thanks to their daily work helping organisations develop, the members of Impetus Academy have also come a long way. ‘When five years ago we moved from our kitchen table to a nearby hotel to brainstorm with a number of colleagues, we realised that our greatest challenges would be to come up with practical applications and to create a complementary team. At the time there were quite a few of us, which meant there were also many diverging opinions.’


The tipping point came last year, when Nathalie took the conscious decision to start the spin-off. ‘As a researcher your main focus is your research, which leaves you little time for practical applications. Research stays limited to research, and the same practical problems keep cropping up again and again while there really is an answer available’, says Nathalie.


‘First we entered into a partnership agreement with Ghent University, and then through our own company we made the necessary investments to get Impetus Academy up and running. Because we really believed in the project and stood 100 per cent behind the idea. We received immediate validation from the business world because from the beginning demand boomed and we quickly started long-term collaborations with Torfs, Partena, Agristo, Fluvius, the department of Personnel & Organization of Ghent University ... We also get a lot of interest from the educational sector, both from individual schools and at the provincial level.’


Having two academics on their team and self-determination theory as the basis of their work method means that science is really embedded within their company's DNA. This background was a contributing factor in the decision to make their company a Ghent University spin-off. ‘In this way we are sure that our scientific insights are correctly implemented and brought to the market. With the establishment of the spin-off, we also aim at social engagement by facilitating the interaction between research and practice. New scientific insights feed practice, while practice provides ideas and data for further research. These conversions are not self-evident. We have personally experienced how difficult it is to turn research into practical applications, the distance still separating research and practice today. So with our spin-off we want to bridge the gap between science and the professional world.’


‘At the same time we realise we’re operating in a commercial context. Hence the importance of Kevin's expertise in strategic planning, product commercialisation, marketing ... This expertise was all the more important because our spin-off wants to serve both education and business. The complementary nature of our team is incredibly useful. We examine problems from different perspectives, which allows us to switch gears very quickly.’


‘UGent TechTransfer, too, played a crucial part in our story. By joining these two very different worlds—daily practice and functioning in a business vs. the academic world—they were able to operate as a kind of independent moderator. By asking the right questions they helped us to choose the proper focus and to make the right considerations.’


‘In retrospect, we could have gone through the start-up process in less time. At first, starting a spin-off looked like something incredibly complex, but in fact it was a simple process. Sometimes a person’s mind slows them down more than is good for them’, says the on-duty psychologist. ‘But at the same time we enjoyed the incredible luxury of being able to afford to take it slow. From my background as a researcher I still marvel at how fast things proceed in reality. As a company your work is driven by demand, you spot gaps more quickly, and you continuously develop better or easier ways of working. Thus, it is becoming clear to us that high domestic and also international demand is going to force us to train and certify external organisations as well as create platforms to map measurements sooner than planned. But this is the good thing about entrepreneurship: you think of something, and you do it!’


Do you want more information on Impetus Academy’s approach?

Visit their general website at and their website specifically for schools at


Are you also curious on how UGent TechTransfer can help you in your quest for opportunities in your research?

Then don't hesitate to contact or take a look at