Last month in Angers, 300km from Paris, President François Hollande opened Europe’s biggest centre dedicated to “internet of things” (IoT) technology — the gadgetry that enables objects to communicate with other objects.
Innovations from this emerging sector include heating thermostats that talk to your mobile phone, litter bins that connect remotely to refuse trucks and hives that communicate with beekeepers. By 2020, forecasters predict between 26bn and 50bn IoT units being connected to the internet.
The mission of Angers’ new 10,000 sq m Cité de l’Objet Connecté is to support France as a leader in IoT, converting innovative ideas quickly into French-made, smart, connected devices.
The centre’s goal may seem ambitious, since outside France, the phrase “French technology” often prompts the question: “What French technology?”
Yet over the past few years, France has already risen from nowhere to become second only to the US in this field, as measured by almost weekly innovative product launches.
At January’s International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, more than 100 of the 350 non-US companies exhibiting were French, the majority showing IoT products.
And while the US usually outsources production to Asia, many of these smart products are made in France — a passion of the centre’s honorary president Éric Carreel, an engineer and serial entrepreneur. He believes the campus approach at Angers is key: “Even in a global world, I am convinced that innovation comes from the physical proximity of companies developing products.”
Gimmicky products and solutions looking for problems in some cases? Possibly. But the number of such devices cascading out of France is almost exhausting — and this before the Cité de l’Objet Connecté has got going.
At the Connected Conference in Paris in May, more than 100 exhibitors were on display, 38 of them French start-ups, alongside bigger French companies also active in IoT technology, such as Orange, Alcatel-Lucent, Sigfox, Éolane, Actility and La Poste.
Not showing were more established small French companies, notably Parrot, Withings and the pioneering IoT entrepreneur Rafi Haladjian’s sen.se — all of whose products have long been available globally in mainstream stores.
By contrast, at a London Innovator of the Year event three weeks later, of 50 nominees for the award, 39 were software, services, app and website offerings, with just three the kind of connected gadgets France is making. (Though it may be argued that UK start-ups have grander ambitions; the London winner, what3words, has addressed the problem of many of the world’s poor not having a street address, by dividing the world into 57tn small squares, each with a unique name.)
The latter reflects the fact that, since the 2008 crisis, engineers graduating from the top universities have been less able to jump into jobs with big companies, so have founded start-ups instead.
“You have to remember, France had Minitel, a version of the internet, available to 90 per cent of the population by 1981 and universal home WiFi by 2000. It’s a very tech-oriented society,” explains the 26-year-old organiser of the conference, Liam Boogar.
Mr Boogar is a Paris-based Silicon Valley native who publishes Rude Baguette, a French tech start-up blog, with some 200,000 readers. “Also,” adds Mr Boogar, “French design, with its roots in fashion and luxury, has been central to these chic products.”
One exhibitor in Paris was Invoxia’s Julie Duvergé, 30, who was about to start marketing Triby in the US. “Graduates of my generation want to do things that make sense to them, and to create value . . .
People are more and more excited about developing new things.” This was reflected by Lydie Roure of Iskn, a Grenoble start-up behind a tablet-based writing device. “For us the aim was clear — to make something trendy, arty, premium and useful.”
Barbara Belvisi, co-founder of Hardware Club, a French forum for new wave tech manufacturers, with branches in San Francisco and Taipei, even goes so far as to suggest that the state helps so much that “you really don’t need cash to get going and build a company”.
Other entrepreneurs mention government competitions with prize money for R&D. “We won €200,000, not repayable,” says one exhibitor, Xavier Bonjour, chief executive of 3D Sound Labs, a Rennes business with a new 3D-effect headphone.
For Cyril Bertrand, managing partner at Franco-German venture capitalists XAnge, the boom in French IoT start-ups is “almost bizarre”. He adds: “It’s a mix of technology, affinity and a real interest in design . . . there is an element of nobility in doing something well, and that’s what’s happening.”