[French Tech Tour] As part of our tour of cities carrying the French Tech label, L'Atelier looks at the innovation ecosystem based around the northern French town of Lille.
With its 230,000 inhabitants, Lille constitutes the nerve centre of France’s Nord-Pas-de-Calaists region. Once a thriving mining and textiles area, this area of northern France was one of the country’s economic motors during the 19th century. Since its heyday however, the rise and rise of the service economy has put an end to its status as the renowned ‘workshop of France’. In the 4th quarter of 2014, in this region 13% of the total workforce were registered as unemployed, 3% above the average for the French regions, and 19.3 % of the population (a total of 770,000 people) were registered below the poverty line – i.e. 5 percentage points above average, according to figures from France’s National Institute for Statistic and Economics (INSEE).
Are the ‘Chtis’ – as the inhabitants of this northern part of France are known – the ‘poor relations’ of the French family? The traditional entrepreneurial spirit present in this region would appear to refute this suggestion. The North has always been the cradle of such titans of the French economy as Auchan, Décathlon, Leroy Merlin and Kiabi, to name but a very few. More recently, we have seen major mid-cap players such as website hosting specialist OVH emerging on the Lille scene.
« Over the next 15 - 20 years the challenge for our region will be the following: - Either all the regional players make major efforts to turn our region into a business leader at European level in a number of strategic fields…
- …or our regional companies do not succeed in meeting this challenge, in which case the economic fabric of the region will continue to weaken and the Nord–Pas-de-Calais will be left as a ‘sub-contracting workshop’ area subservient to the decisions of outside players.
Extract from the report on the 18th Permanent Conference on the SRDE (Regional Economic Development Scheme), 4 December 2013
Accordingly, Lille and its surrounding area are now spearheading – with a strong impulse from the government and the Nord-Pas-de-Calais regional authorities – the movement to regenerate the economy through innovation. In 2013, the region began, with the support of the government, to roll out its Research and Innovation Strategy for ‘Smart’ Specialisation, in tandem with the Regional Strategy for a Smart Economy intended to boost the Nord-Pas-de-Calais economy. The plan, which runs to 2020, is designed to foster sustainable growth, competitiveness at both national and international level, and help anticipate economic changes on the way, leading some commentators to say that the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region is one of the most innovation-oriented in France today.
An innovation-friendly setup driven by the government and the regional authorities
With this strong encouragement from the public authorities, the innovation-support infrastructure has flourished in the course of the last few years, spearheaded by EuraTechnologies, which recently featured on a list of the top 10 European incubators drawn up by Fundacity, a platform which specialises in putting investors in touch with accelerators. Since its launch five years ago, some 250 companies have passed through the portals of this former textile factory in Lille, now converted into a centre of innovation focusing on new technologies and digital tools. “We’re trying to build our own model and are helping to create one of the most promising innovation ecosystems in France,” explains Raouti Chehi, founder and Chief Executive of EuraTechnologies.
Not far down the road from Lille, the town of Tourcoing plays host to Plaine Images, a space dedicated to innovation in the field of digital images and the creative industries. At Loos you can find the Parc EuraSanté, one of the largest university hospital campuses in Europe. Several of the business schools and engineering colleges in this area also offer incubation programmes and innovation spaces in the broad sense of the term, such as fablabs, for instance, a leading example being the ISEN institute of higher education for electronics and digital technologies.
Meanwhile a swarm of tech events have arisen – at Euratechnologies and elsewhere – in support of the entrepreneur community. Startup Weekend has also made its appearance at both Lille and the coastal town of Dunkerque.
Start-up Giroptic has developed a HD 360° video camera
Lille is clearly focusing on tech innovation as a strategic path towards regenerating its economic prospects, by developing startups in the field of IoT, Big Data for the retail sector and cybersecurity, plus hardware for e-health, well-being and – true to its designation as European Capital of Culture in 2004 – culture & entertainment. Lille-based startups that are beginning to make a name for themselves include crowd-marketing specialist Click and Walk and Giroptic, with its HD 360° video camera.
Major challenge for the Lille ecosystem: to attract and retain talent
The Lille ecosystem will however need to overcome a number of challenges if it is going to really take off. While the French Tech label has definitely served to draw attention to Lille, Raouti Chehi nevertheless points out that there is a lack of vital finance, to the tune of several million euros, at regional, as at national level. Although the city boasts a vibrant pool of good schools and reputed university programmes, such as the Master in Entrepreneurship at the EDHEC business school, Lille does not find it easy to retain the talented people who graduate from these programmes. “We’re still suffering from an image deficit, whether you take those old cliches about the weather or whether we’re talking more seriously about Lille’s old industrial landscape,” points out Raouti Chehi. The Euratechnologies CEO reckons that there is still a lot to do to improve the city’s appeal to entrepreneurs and project owners and so “give ourselves every chance of having some real success stories in our ranks.”
Lille offers startups opportunities to expand abroad
We should not however ignore the many assets of the Lille conurbation. The city has the advantage of being situated close to the Belgian border, in a strategic triangle between Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam, which offers international openings that are quite evident to businesspeople. Moreover, Lille is perhaps one of the rare places in France with a genuine entrepreneurial culture, a legacy of the great business families who once thrived in the region.
Today there are 200 companies with over 200 employees and 150 mid-cap firms, operating across all business sectors in greater Lille. In 2012, INSEE reported 9,000 newly-created companies or company takeovers in the area. For a startup, this constitutes a powerful network of potential customers or partners. Last but not least, Lille offers residents a quality of life that is in many ways superior to that of the capital cities in the triangle, with affordable rents and tasty local cuisine.