[French Tech Tour] As part of our tour of cities carrying the French Tech label, L'Atelier looks at the innovation ecosystem based in and around Toulouse. Here is Part 2 of the survey.
When you meet some of the players in the world of Toulouse startups, you are immediately struck by the fact that everyone seems to know everyone else. This is pretty surprising given that there are close to 4,500 IT companies operating there and that the core city is home to over 450,000 inhabitants. In fact the reason why people working in the startup and innovation ecosystem are so close is that the Pink City – as Toulouse is known in France – is a hotbed of innovation in the broadest sense. ‟We’re not the only ones to foster open innovation but we were among the first,” claims Bertrand Serp, who is a Toulouse city councillor and Vice-Chairman of the Greater Toulouse Council.
New technologies in Toulouse: thousands of jobs. Source: French Tech Toulouse
Open innovation could also be seen as the starting point for la Mêlée Numérique, a non-profit organisation which brings together players in the digital economy. Behind the name – which, with a firm nod towards the local passion for rugby, means Digital Scrum – there is a real desire to encourage players in the local economy to get together, mingle, share ideas and drive forward innovation in Toulouse. La Mêlée Numérique member Guillaume Marquette explains that the idea is to ‟get people working together who would not otherwise do so.”
Ideas before business
However, this desire to get companies working together and coming up with innovations in the Pink City is not necessarily directly geared to creating business opportunities. There are a lot of get-togethers, events, sharing of ideas, etc – in short, brainstorming at the level of an entire ecosystem. But whether these happenings are hosted by la Mêlée, knowledge-sharing and best practice development centre IoT Valley, accelerator le Camping or co-working space Cantine, they are not primarily intended to forge business links. Explains Guillaume Marquette: ‟The aim is not necessarily to do business; we’re there primarily to share knowledge.”
‟French Tech aims to bring together non-profits, sector federations, clusters and players in both the public and private sector”
Overall the members of French Tech Toulouse share this approach. CEO Philippe Coste points out that: ‟French Tech aims to bring together non-profits, sector federations, clusters and players in both the public and private sector.” Nevertheless Coste, Head of the Schools Office at computer science higher education institution Epitech (aka the European Institute of Technology),underlines that ‟There’s certainly a sense of team spirit, but it’s up to the teams to set their own objectives and targets.” The forthcoming startup competition in the region – under the title ‘Start me up’ – organised by major French bank Crédit Agricole, is taking a similar approach.
Every year ‘la Mêlée numérique’ brings all the innovation players in Toulouse together
Focus on the IoT
When you mention Toulouse, the first thing that usually springs to mind is that this city is the home of France’s aerospace industry. However, when it comes to digital innovation, a great many industries and sectors are affected and in fact Pink City tech innovation focuses on the Cloud and the Internet of Things rather than the stars. An indication of this emphasis is the recent move by what used to be called ICT Valley to change its name to IoT Valley. ‟We realised that many of our startups were working in this field,” says IoT Valley Manager, Marion Fontana, who downplays any possible rivalry between the pink city and the western French city of Angers with its newly opened Connected Objects Centre. ‟Angers is focusing more on the actual physical connected objects whereas we’re concentrating more on applications,” he reveals.
IoT Valley is looking to encourage collaboration between startups working on the Internet of Things in order to help them progress.
So could Toulouse prove to be one of the new hubs for the Internet of Things? Ivain Frain, co-founder and CEO of startup Enersy, a ‘connected heating’ company, has no doubts about it: ‟There’s a strong drive towards IoT in Toulouse. We hope to be able to achieve synergies with other firms next year.” Also noteworthy is the success of Toulouse startup Sigfox, which has set out to provide a highly scalable global network for connected devices. Marion Fontana points out however that specialising in IoT does not mean ruling out work in other areas, a view entirely shared by Philippe Coste.
Open innovation begins at college
The Head of the Schools Office at Epitech stresses the role schools and universities play in the Toulouse innovation ecosystem: ‟Schools are a hugely important vital force for the growth of startups.” Coste explains how, in addition to providing a pool of potential trainees and interns for companies, the various Toulouse institutes of higher and tertiary education encourage innovation in the area by helping to create networks, set up meetings and organise events. For instance, web and multimedia school Digital Campus arranges meetings between its students and startup entrepreneurs as part of the business projects the students have to run during the final phase of their course. In line with many open innovation initiatives, students start out with a blank page and step by step draw up the parameters and set the objectives of their final course projects.
‟Getting all innovation players in Toulouse to work together remains a challenge”
In fact innovation in Toulouse in not just about IT and tech startups. ‟IT is the link, but at our [la Mêlée] meetings, you’ll also find lawyers, SME managers, and so on,” says Guillaume Marquette. Innovation in Toulouse therefore does seem to be driven by a kind of ‘team spirit’, to repeat the words of the French Tech Toulouse CEO, although he emphasises nevertheless that ‟getting all innovation players in Toulouse to work together remains a challenge”.