For a country with an economy where the state still has an important say, the rise of start-ups in recent years may seem like a strange phenomenon for France. On the other hand, entrepreneurship could be the answer of the younger generation to the status of the French society, whose representatives no longer want to depend on the state, employers or trade unions, but to be their own bosses.

The new French Revolution, an entrepreneurial one this time, was the main topic of the fifth debate organized by the Northeast Regional Development Agency (ADR Nord-EST), within the ROStartup program and moderated by Inès Gaisset, entrepreneur and vice president of the MIT Club de France.

How the French state supported the start-up ecosystem?

Raising venture capital and attracting the scientific community were the key factors that helped French start-ups grow in such large numbers and be successful, according to Arnaud Delaunay, Deputy Director of Innovation at France’s Ministry of Economy.

Thus, France raised more than 4 billion euros in venture capital in 2019 and in 2020, while the ecosystem also attracted foreign investors, which was not the case 10 years ago.

Among the main reasons that brought us here is a continued and lasting effort to finance innovation. Close to 10 billion euros per year have been allocated to innovation. We also talk about tax schemes, direct investment loans or collaborative R&D agreements.

Arnaud Delaunay, Deputy Director of Innovation at France’s Ministry of Economy

Also, the French public authorities have dedicated close attention and focus to the start-up ecosystem, by building La French Tech. The program has been launched by the Government as a major collective effort to bolster the growth and standing of French digital start-ups. It consists in a network of start-up ecosystems (French Tech Hubs), aimed at providing a framework for French Tech communities in the world’s major innovation centres.

We also tried to build on our assets – one of the French assets is the rich scientific culture, research centers and scientific publications. Over the last years we committed more visibility to these start-ups. The way we have communicated these assets have encouraged many entrepreneurs to launch deep tech start-ups. France is asserting itself as one of the deep technology leaders of the world – a third of the new start-ups launched in France are from the deep tech”.

Arnaud Delaunay, Deputy Director of Innovation at France’s Ministry of Economy

In terms of the number of start-ups, France currently ranks in the second place after UK. The country also has around 14 unicorns, but the number is expected to grow in the coming years.

Entrepreneurship is modern exploration

The evolution of entrepreneurship in academia and the risks of teaching entrepreneurship were the main topics of the presentation of Bruno Martinaud, Co-Director of X-HEC Entrepreneurship Program.

When you start building programs or incubators people will try to measure what you are doing. My point is you must be aware that numbers lie at the beginning. In the start-ups world, a smaller number of success stories will drive a cumulative impact that is higher than the impact of the rest of start-ups created in the ecosystem. However, this success stories, these few role models that will help setting the dynamic, will motivate students and candidates and will help funding this initiative and start building the credibility of the ecosystem. So, my advice is to look for quick early wins.

Bruno Martinaud, Co-Director of X-HEC Entrepreneurship Program

The professor also mentioned several important lessons that every student who wants to learn more about entrepreneurship or any would-be entrepreneur should consider.

Multidisciplinary & diversity

Multidisciplinary and diversity are crucial for entrepreneurship. The first life of an entrepreneur is the life of an explorer. Entrepreneurs have an idea that usually proves to be wrong along the way and they have to tear they hypothesis and find something that is usually different that they initially had in mind and build your map on that.

Exploration works well when you have people with different backgrounds and culture because they have different perspectives on the problems the project will face along the way. It does require hard work to build the diversity in the team, because people usually tend to team with people with the same background – engineers with engineers, Chinese with Chinese.

Bruno Martinaud

Learning by doing & learning outside the classroom

Learning about entrepreneurship is more project-based and less formal education. Projects are more important than courses. That is why activities happen mostly outside the classes. Meeting with entrepreneurs, meeting with experts is usually more impactful than straight entrepreneurship courses can be along the way.

Technique & mental model

Understanding the technique and the methods of entrepreneurship doesn’t automatically turn anyone into a good entrepreneur. It is more about the mental model – the model of an explorer.

We try to instil this model to students – an explorer is someone who knows he doesn’t know, someone who realizes hypothesis will fall apart along the way. Simple to say but challenging to apply.

Bruno Martinaud

International exposure

The Parisian entrepreneur will try to launch his start-up in Paris. It happens the same way all around the world. However, this can be wrong because it doesn’t come from the fact that the entrepreneur launched the start-up in Paris because it is the right place to put a project in motion. Actually, an entrepreneur should go where the best place for his project is.

One of the challenges when we engage students in discovering the world is that they start rethinking their world map not from a local perspective but from a worldwide perspective. At the end of the day, they may start their project in Paris, but that will be because this is the right place for them to start their venture, not because their life is there.

Bruno Martinaud

Room for trial, error and experimentation

Teaching entrepreneurship is itself an entrepreneurial project. It is about trying to find the subtle chemistry that seems to work with your educational program and may not work in another program. Therefore, it is crucial for such programs to have the autonomy for running experimentation without asking the permission every time.

Uniqueness & attractiveness

What makes us unique? At the end of the day everyone read the same book about entrepreneurship, everyone has the same reference about successful entrepreneurs who built unicorns. We pretty much talk about the core principles of entrepreneurship the same way because the same information has spread around the world. So, every entrepreneurship teacher should ask himself or herself – what do I do that is so unique that my student will not be able to do if he goes in other institution?

Bruno Martinaud also mentioned that entrepreneurship as a discipline still needs to struggle and try to collaborate with other more established disciplines.

Scientists still look down to entrepreneurship and to me. They think that we are “stealing” students from them. However, connecting the entrepreneurs is important, even if the relationship is very difficult.

Entrepreneurial culture in scientific community is close to zero among researchers in France. It is a challenge we have to start dealing with because we need scientists who understand what building a venture out of their work is about, but also for better understanding what others do with their work.

The importance of the success story for the entrepreneurial culture

The dramatic increase of venture capital funding in France was possible due to several factors, Robin Rivaton, VC Director at Idinvest, an investment firm, explained. According to Robin, one of the key factors was that a couple of traditional institutional investors (banks, insurers) have decided to allocate a tiny part of their assets to a venture capital fund. There were also money coming from foreign investors that helped the French venture financial landscape to develop.

However, money does not come first.

I think investors are not the main asset. The most important thing for a start-up is the entrepreneurial culture. When you see a tremendous story like the one of Frederic Mazella, founder of BlaBlaCar, which is currently one of the board members of Renault, it is just a sign that entrepreneurs are now part of the elite of the country and are even replacing some of the former elites.

Robin Rivaton, VC Director at Idinvest

Currently, the surveys show that more than half of the French people aged between 18 and 30 years old want to become entrepreneurs, as they are willing to create their own company.

A few years ago, a lot of people were solo entrepreneurs. Now the youngest entrepreneurs are usually teams of 3 to 5 people and this demonstrates that the willingness of people to become entrepreneurs is a shared mental pattern. Investors are therefore more confident that the return is there, so there are not so many risks as the could have been in the past.

Robin Rivaton, VC Director at Idinvest

How incubators support emerging ventures

Agoranov is an incubator located in central Paris, that has already produced three French unicorns and there is a high probability for other 2 or 3 companies to become unicorns in the near future. According to Jean-Michel Dalle, its director, the secret ingredient for success is actually the process of understanding of what could work and what could not.

I am convinced that what was instrumental in allowing us to create such a portfolio was the openness we developed. We had respect towards the projects that were proposed to us. We don’t care about gender, age, the colour of the skin and we don’t even care that much about the market and the technology. Of course, we select people based on our expertise or with the help of selected experts. However, there is a point when we know we cannot predict what will happen. We could just do our job and make sure we select just the projects that have chances to succeed, but beyond one point, we know that we can’t predict. Maybe it’s because uncertainty and innovation have been linked from the very beginning. Profit is actually how entrepreneurs get paid for uncertainty by the entire society.

Jean-Michel Dalle

According to director of Agoranov the openness helped the incubator deal with a variety of start-ups, allowing them to select Doctolib, that deals with appointments at physicians, that has become a unicorn. Agoranov also selected Insect, founded by people who raised 300 million euros last fall to build factories where insects get raised and transformed into a protein powder used to feed animals, poultry, fish. The incubator also selected quantum computing projects or start-ups using artificial intelligence.

We have done all of that because we knew that we couldn’t know what the future will actually be. This mindset has been instrumental in allowing us to select the right portfolio, although it has been sometimes at odds with French culture, which is quite deterministic, cartesian. The reason we had this open mind comes from our close links with the academia. Agoranov has been co-founded by several academic institutions with a wide range of disciplines.

Jean-Michel Dalle

Inside Station F incubator

Cystèle Sanon, founder of Full’Street, a digital platform that help other start-ups, told about the benefits of an incubator. He explained her own experience within HEC Paris – Station F incubator.

Their goal is to help start-ups achieve in one year what they would not be able to achieve by themselves in three years. When selecting by a jury, any project gets the opportunity to be mentored through a tailor-made program that is weekly adjusted by the incubator for the 60 start-ups based on their specificity, activity and maturity level.

Cystèle Sanon, founder of Full’Street

HEC Paris provides free human resources form specialized companies – for coding, UX, design. It also cultivates an inclusive entrepreneurship approach which brings together cultures from all over the world and offers access to all types of project holders – free access to refugees or entrepreneurs with difficulty backgrounds, free access to some students and reasonable fees for others.

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