In France the development of an innovation ecosystem, especially the growing number of startups, is driving an increasing number of major investors to bet on the future. BPI hopes to encourage the habit.

“We need to broaden our conception of what innovation is”

Interview with Paul-François Fournier, Executive Director for Innovation at state-owned French financing and development company BPI France, following a press conference at which BPI unveiled its 2014 Innovation Action Plan.

L’Atelier: BPI France has just unveiled a new action plan for 2014, the NOVA plan, designed to promote innovation. Why are you backing innovation just now?

Today innovation is absolutely essential for transforming the French economy. There are heaps of factors indicating that we’re now seeing a step-change. These days the Masters degree programmes focusing on entrepreneurship offered by the Grandes Ecoles [elite French tertiary education colleges] are usually in great demand, because young people want to set up their own companies. Last week I attended the Salon des Entrepreneurs [Entrepreneurs’ Fair, held in Paris in early February], and the session on Innovation was packed out. And we’ve had an exceptional year in France. For example, the French start-up Criteo was valued at €2 billion when it launched on the NASDAQ! In addition, investment in innovation is on the rise. It’s one of the few investment sectors which saw growth of 20% between 2012 and 2013, and this is continuing in 2014. The regional authorities are also taking the issue of innovation increasingly to heart.

Is this step-change the reason why BPI has come out with its action plan?

Partly. In fact the primary aim of the plan is to help the innovation ecosystem in France to evolve towards a new stage of innovation. But we started out with a simple observation. A French entrepreneur needs fertile ground and a range of tools to help grow the business. In order to ensure this we now need to push for public policies that will foster innovative entrepreneurship. The BPI action plan is intended to simplify the steps an entrepreneur needs to take to obtain funding. We’re hoping to increase the financing of the ecosystem by establishing a €200 billion fund under the [government-sponsored] French Tech Network and commit to supporting promising fledgling companies all the way – no matter what sector they’re in, though it is a fact that most of the support goes to our three priority areas: digital, ecotech and biotechnology. Digital is claiming an ever-greater share of the support, which is in line with the way things are evolving generally.

During the press conference, you stressed the huge changes taking place in people’s habits and patterns of consumption, rather than the technology changes. Why was that?

AT BPI France we firmly believe that we need to broaden our conception of what innovation is a little bit. In France, the culture is very much engineering- and technology-oriented. This is a real asset. But there are also companies that are coming up with disruptive ideas where there’s less of a technical dimension – [car sharing website] BlablaCar and [French cinema information company] Allociné, for instance. Technology is very important but first and foremost it’s about encouraging and fostering behavioural change, and technology should be there to serve the new way of doing things. Even when it comes to technical innovation, it’s obvious that we’re no longer in the 1980s, when people wanted technology for technology’s sake. Practical usefulness has come into its own again and technology is no longer seen as intrinsically valuable; it’s what it brings to users that’s important to them. But even though major disruptive change is taking place in society, that’s not the only thing. Process innovation is also a really hot topic. In France we’re not as good as our German neighbours on this one. They believe that improving a process is a form of innovation that can provide productivity gains. In France this is not yet part of our culture.

When you drew up this plan, did you draw inspiration from any particular foreign models?

Yes, I went with Nicolas Dufourcq, the CEO of BPI France, to two cities – San Francisco and Tel Aviv – to meet investors and entrepreneurs and observe entrepreneurial ecosystems over there. These ecosystems taught us a lot. In particular they inspired us to set up a system of seed funding to support companies wanting to launch. We were especially impressed by the Israeli system and we’ve now begun to link up our two services – equity investment and debt financing. And the ecosystem in San Francisco opened our eyes to this whole question of how people use innovation and the fact that technology is simply not an end in itself. Not forgetting, of course, the need for marketing know-how.