The University City Science Center is designed to serve as a business incubator, sometimes serving as a landing spot for small foreign firms starting in America.
But the incubation can work the other way, as it did Thursday, when officials from the Wallonia region of Belgium explained to a small gathering of executives the basics of how they might one day expand their health-care businesses to that slice of Europe.
"When you enter the European Union market, it is very important to know where to start," Franck Toussaint, a partner with Biologistics Consulting, told the group. "That is one of the big challenges for U.S. companies. It is a little bit like when you go to China. You don't take the China market as a whole. You have to find which region you want to start in."
BioLog Europe, a Belgian government agency set up to provide free help to foreign firms considering expansion to Wallonia, organized Thursday's event. It occupies space at the Science Center, as does Biologistics Consulting, an independent consulting firm specializing in the medical-device, biotech, and pharmaceutical industries whose main office is in Liege, about 60 miles from the Belgian capital of Brussels.
Wallonia offers financial aid to companies setting up operations in the region, including paying portions of salaries in the first year. Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Baxter are among the big health-care companies with facilities in that region.
Pennsylvania exported $1.2 billion in goods to Belgium in 2011, according to the U.S. Commerce Department's International Trade Administration. New Jersey had $751 million in exports to Belgium.
Edith Mayeux, a trade commissioner who works from the Belgian Consulate in Manhattan, noted that Philadelphia's having a nonstop flight to Brussels was an asset for business going both ways. The airport in Liege was designed for cargo flights, with personnel trained to handle shipments.
Language is a key issue in Belgium, to the point of debate about whether to split the country into Dutch-speaking Flanders to the north and French-speaking Wallonia to the south.
Home to the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Brussels is the cosmopolitan national capital in the middle of the country - and the debate. Most inhabitants speak French, but the area immediately around it has many Dutch speakers.
Toussaint, who said he goes to and from Belgium monthly, said small American companies sometimes underestimate the need to find local help, even on a part-time contract basis, to deal with language, customs, legal, and regulatory issues.
"There are still differences among countries," Toussaint said, "but you are better with a local manager."