[French Tech Tour] As part of our tour of cities carrying the French Tech label, L'Atelier talks to Philippe Coste, Chief Executive of French Tech Toulouse to try to find out what is so special about the Pink City on the innovation front.
Philippe Coste is both Head of the Schools Office at computer science higher education institution Epitech (aka the European Institute of Technology) and Chief Executive of French Tech Toulouse. Wearing these two hats enables him to obtain a broad view over the city’s innovation ecosystem, which seems to be hesitating between the world of (aero)space and the Internet of Things (IoT)
L’Atelier: What exactly has Toulouse done to deserve the French Tech label, which was recently awarded to the city?
Philippe Coste: The French Tech initiative requires ecosystems to organise themselves and get together so as to speed up entrepreneurial action that will foster innovation. Having this label is also a way of spreading the word in France and abroad that you have a large pool of talented people and promising companies in your city.
So why Toulouse? Well, because it’s an IT city. It’s a city of innovation which at the same time benefits from the momentum of some major companies, especially in the aeronautics and space industries. But since the 2000s Toulouse has also become a city for startups. It provides fertile ground, with such major initiatives as la Mêlée numerique, a non-profit organisation that brings together players in the digital economy. In addition we have startup hubs and ICT knowledge-sharing centres such as IoT Valley.
All this is happening within a system that boasts a range of educational institutions – schools and universities – equipped to train young people in the right skills. What is also special about Toulouse is that it has a large number of non-profit-making organisations in this field. All these components create a strong network that helps to drive entrepreneurial activity
What differences are there between Toulouse and other cities carrying the French Tech label?
Well, all these cities carry their own historical legacy while at the same time looking to invent tomorrow. Toulouse has a very rich past, which tends to orient innovation here towards embedded systems and hardware. Fully 80% of the IT economy is made up of service companies working in embedded systems, aeronautics and space technology. People develop skills in these fields and good ideas emerge.
However, if we’re speaking about innovation in more general terms, we should also mention e-health and the agri-foods business, sectors where the city certainly has strengths as well. Toulouse has a strong background in this area. And today the innovation ecosystem in Toulouse is really booming: in addition to aerospace, we’re also seeing a lot of work on agricultural robotics and a large number of startups in other fields.
Our friends over in Montpellier tell us about how they really had to start from scratch. They had to more or less invent a digital ecosystem. That called for agility, vision and a sense of mission – all of which are different from ours. They now have an ecosystem vibrant with innovation and new ways of doing things, while we’ve inherited a strong industrial sector.
So is there a desire to invest in all areas of innovation in Toulouse?
When we got together to celebrate obtaining the French Tech label, we took note of the drivers we need to encourage if we want to boost this new entrepreneurial activity in Toulouse. In fact we believe that the city’s drive to become a major centre for innovation must be rooted in the Internet of Things. Just to illustrate my point, the organisation that used to be called ICT Valley has now changed its name to IoT Valley.
‟Using information and communication technology to meet people’s needs rather than ‘going digital’ for its own sake.”
If we can find the will to break down silos between different areas of specialisation, then we’ll have a chance to go ahead and make Toulouse an experimental area, pushing forward ideas which range beyond technological compartmentalisation. The digital sphere is universal, transversal. Entrepreneurial activity these days is geared to user needs, for sure, but is conditioned first and foremost by habits, the way people do things. So we have to start by observing and analysing what they’re doing, whether we’re talking about manufacturing or sales. The aim is to be able to experiment, to test hypotheses, to decide on new ways of working so as to solve actual problems. This approach should enable us to come up with real innovation projects. It will allow us to use information and communication technology to meet people’s needs rather than ‘going digital’ for its own sake. To sum up, Toulouse is indeed IoT territory but history has also made Toulouse the home of embedded systems and the home of experimentation as well.