PARIS -- With the Grand Prix de l'Innovation currently in the final rounds, the French are putting more and more focus on innovation, especially in Paris. With the 11th annual competition and 12,000 euros at stake, contestants are striving to raise the bar to rethink new technology in fields like service industries, ecology, and health.
At the same time, under the direction of mayor Bertrand Delanoë, Paris is looking to become the capital of startups in France by increasing investments in business incubators for these fledgling companies. More than twenty such spaces, like the recently opened Pépinière 27, foster physical room but also provide advising and direction for new businesses, financed in part by the city. The city aims to add 30,000 square meters to the existing 75,000 square meters of office space available to small business citywide by 2014.
One of the main leaders behind this push to enhance pioneering startups in Paris is Jean-Louis Missika, deputy mayor in charge of innovation and university research. Since 2008, Missika has made developmental research and urban experimentation a priority in Paris, turning the French capital into a sort of living laboratory of innovators. SmarPlanet reached out to the deputy mayor's office to take the pulse of the French innovation and new business incubation.
SP: Innovation is very in vogue in France, so how do you interpret this idea?
JM: Innovation is a way to reinvent permanently. For a city, it's obviously vital.
Innovation is, it's about betting on the economy of collective knowledge and know-how. Open innovation exposes you to collect all the ingenuity and inventiveness throughout the world. A simple example: we have a wide experimentation policy, which transforms Paris into an open-air laboratory so that businesses, startups and designers can test their prototypes in real conditions, testing them on real live Parisians.
With this in mind, we launched a call for experimental urban projects and left it deliberately open-ended. Those with 30 years in urban development, the leading experts, predicted that we would have four or five responses. We had 50, and right now we are testing 40 prototypes across Paris. Some have already convinced investors and were purchased for broader use.
SP: In your opinion, do the French value innovation or is there a distrust of perpetual change?
JM: The French are attached to their traditions because they have a lot of very beautiful and very old ones. Still, at the same time we can love Camembert, red wine, and smartphones. The French, like everyone, know how to recognize and appreciate innovation that will change their lives. We can recall, for example, that 37 percent of French connect to broadband Internet while only 30 percent do in America.
SP: What are the motivations for City Hall to support so many new small business incubators?
JM: Businesses that are creating themselves in incubators are the jobs and taxes of tomorrow. It's a real investment and a wager for the future. Public power can try to help the players in the former economy that are disappearing and pay indemnities to the jobless, or instead they can help entrepreneurs to create new economic models, new wealth, and new jobs for the city's inhabitants. We are lucky to have excellent universities and good infrastructure allowing incubators to set up on fertile ground.
SP: Are startups in France as fragile as they seem to be? Is the situation in France really that difficult for entrepreneurs?
JM: That's like asking, "Are your kids so fragile that you have to help them go to university for them to make their way in life?" Sure, certain entrepreneurs could make it themselves, but with help, it's even better. We're not taking over the businesses, but on the contrary we are welcoming them and letting them find their own rhythm by giving them certain tools. It's also the chance for them to enter the ecosystem, to meet other entrepreneurs, to form their first partnerships. It's a model that proves itself in France but also worldwide like in Israel or the U.S.
SP: Are French investors intimidated by the risk of investing in a startup in sustainable technology, or in any field for that matter?
JM: The problem for investments in France is not limited to risky sectors, it's more general than that. It's based on one thing: the timidity of French and European financers. Something very symbolic, what we call "venture capital" in English, translates in French as "capital risque." We see a difference there in the mentality of financial institutions. What you call in the U.S. an adventure, we in France call a risk.
There is a dramatic lack of financing, but the situation is getting better little by little thanks to, for example, the new generation of French millionaires of the internet age, who invest a lot. International investors are beginning to look our way, and with good reason: there are excellent startups with very little competition, so there's lots of money to be made.