Backed by the French government, the La French Tech initiative aims for Paris, and France in general, to surpass London as Europe’s tech hub.
The agency supports the emerging technology ecosystem in France in order to showcase it to the rest of the world using slogans such as ‘entrepreneur is a French word’.
La French Tech has offices and communities across the world to encourage French emigres to remain connected with and supported by the French ecosystem. These French Tech Hubs can rely upon a small fund if they decide to build a product.
Its Mission Director Kat Borlongan believes the key to the success of the initiative and the continued growth of the country’s tech ecosystem is the fact that it is uniquely within government.
She explains: “We are totally unique; we are the only team of our kind in the world, in the sense that there are almost no start-up teams that are fully inside government. We are not even a single administration; we are also a tribe across multiple administrations across all 13 ministries.”
Importance of government support for the tech ecosystem
During an interview at Paris’ Viva Tech 2019 event Pascal Cagni, chairman of the Board Business France, the government agency overseeing the international development of the French economy that La French Tech is a component of, explains that this governmental shift towards embracing tech began at the end of Francois Hollande’s tenure as French President.
He explains: “There was a switch in 2013, when they [the government] realised enterprise was the only way forward to create jobs [etc]”.
France’s tech ecosystem has experienced growth under President Emmanuel Macron, whose background is as a civil servant and investment banker before becoming Minister of the Economy, Industry and Digital affairs in 2014.
Most recently, Macron has supported his aim to transform France into a ‘startup nation’ with the French Tech Visa, which provides a fast-track procedure for startup founders and employees, investors and business angels to obtain a French residence permit.
This goes hand-in-hand with the French Tech Ticket, a 12-month accelerator programme to help international entrepreneurs building startups in France.
Government initiatives have both facilitated and been supported by an innovative environment for enterprising individuals to start their own initiatives. Examples include Station F, Platform 58 and startup event Vivatech.
Platform 58 is a startup incubator supported by France’s La Poste bank. It was launched in February 2019 and currently hosts 10 startups working in the fintech, insuretech, govtech and legaltech spaces.
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Station F is a similar type of initiative; a campus for 3,000 start-ups located in a former rail freight depot. Entrepreneurs gain access to the space by joining a programme organised by both governmental and private sector actors.
The French Tech ecosystem has also been sustained by an increasingly keen venture capitalist and investment setting and a generational shift where being an entrepreneur is viewed as a positive career move; traditionally France’s best and brightest have stayed in academia.
Profiling French tech startups in the ecosystem
There are around 10,000 startups in France, which raised a total of €3.6bn in revenue in 2018, according to EY data cited by Business France.
2019 is already a record year for French tech startups. La French Tech figures show that French tech start-ups raised $1.2bn in the first quarter this year. This represents 178 deals and is $100m more than Germany. La French Tech expects the total revenue raised by startups in the ecosystem across 2019 to be $4.7bn.
Here are three French tech startups working in particularly unusual ways.
Glowee: initiating the ‘illumination revolution’
Conceived while founder Sandra Rey was taking part in a university design competition, Glowee reinvents light using natural bioluminescence of marine organisms to reduce the negative environmental impact of light and improve wellbeing.
Glowee is a biotechnology startup at its core. Rey explains: “We use marine bacteria…who carry these genes…engineer them to make them more efficient in production of bioluminescence.” Then they are mixed with a medium to grow a living, bioluminescent raw material.
Although Glowee’s goal is to “rethink how we use light, [it is] more than just replacing the bulb”, in the words of Rey, it is not currently possible for this green, blue light to completely replace LED light.
Instead, the company has started its ‘illumination revolution’ experiment through ephemeral light showcases for events and Glowzen rooms, which are specially designed immersive, wellbeing rooms for spas, hotels and airport lounges. I can testify to just how relaxing the Glowzen rooms are; I had a blissful 15 minute nap in one.
The next step for Glowee is to continue working on improving the capabilities of living light and create on-demand light in products and sustainable light in public spaces, such as within road signs.
Panda Guide: transforming visually impaired people’s lives
One of the start-ups taking part in Ubisoft’s gaming and VR programme at Station F is Panda guide, a discreet virtual assistant for people with impaired vision.
Panda Guide founder and robotic engineer by trade Arnaud Lenglet created the product after his blind friend fell onto a railway station platform.
Lenglet explains that he spent a week blindfolded in order to better understand the difficulties facing visually impaired people, describing the experience as awful, but the product was also designed with the help of 2000 visually impaired volunteers.
This first of its kind device consists of an AR audio headset with a camera that uses technology such as cognitive vision, AI and 3D sound, to respond to a user’s request and describe their immediate environment. The device can read out inscriptions, help people find lost objects based upon a description, as well as be integrated into other non-voice enabled devices within the home.
The aim is to restore visually impaired people’s vision by using their strong hearing capacity, and therefore allow them to regain their lost independence.
Pixpay: rethinking pocket money
On the belief that in an emerging cashless society “cash is the most common way to give money to kids, but it is probably the worst way”, Benoit Grassian and his two co-founders created a mobile bank for children called Pixpay; it is on the verge of launching in France.
The app can be used from the age of ten because this is when children in France start secondary school or college, and so, in the view of Grassian and Pixpay, it is the perfect time for them to start learning how to manage money.
As well as helping young teenagers to save pocket money, birthday money and wages from odd jobs into saving pots within the app, users will have access to reward programmes for their favourite brands and be able to use the MasterCard payment card online and in store.
To further differentiate Pixpay from current over-16s accounts at French banks, the account is convenient to set up and the card will be fully customisable.
Importantly, however, parents remain in control of their child’s spending. Like with cash, they can set limits on purchases and prevent reckless spending. However, parents can also use Pixpay to actively help their children learn to manage their money and resolve emergency needs for money securely and quickly.