This Thursday, September 9 was “back-to-school time” for innovation in France, with a speech by Google CEO Eric Schmidt entitled “Innovation culture in Europe and in the US” at Sciences Po Paris. Innovation culture in France has a long history and now has more than ever before going for it.
Firstly, there’s France’s highly qualified workforce: 32% of French employees in 2008 were working in science and technology occupations . What’s more, France has 211,000 researchers at its disposal, or 8 researchers for every 1,000 inhabitants, a higher density of scientific credentials than any of its European neighbors.
France offers investors another significant advantage with its highly developed private and public R&D networks. In 2008, no fewer than 530 foreign companies were already taking part in the country’s 71 innovation clusters, which act as powerful springboards for innovation projects. Monica Beltrametti, Vice-president at the Xerox European research center in Grenoble says, “The innovation culture has grown exponentially with the advent of the clusters”. The clusters initiative is backed by the French government, which provided funding of over €1.5 billion between 2006 and 2008.
Christophe Martinoli, CEO France of Indian company Wipro Technologies, which set up its research center in Rennes (Brittany), says “the key to advancing innovation is a mixture of public and private investments.” On the public side, the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) with its 11,600 researchers is rated as the best in Europe (Webometrics 2008 rankings) and is one of the flagship bodies of French research along with the CEA (French Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission), the Pasteur Institute, Inserm (French National Institute for Health and Medical Research) and the INRA (French National Institute for Agricultural Research). Universities such as Paris VI, (rated 7th in the Shanghai 2010 rankings) and grandes écoles like Polytechnique or Les Mines provide further support for this R&D-friendly environment.
The icing on the cake, according to Christophe Martinoli, is that “this large network of universities and engineering schools is able to nurture close ties with multinational companies”. And the resulting synergies are already bearing fruit. As the CEO of Icera Stan Boland explains, “Just 100 meters from our building there are students being trained in 3G and 4G technologies”.
Moreover, France has streamlined its administrative and tax structures for innovation, which in 2008 gave rise to the reformed Research Tax Credit. It is considered to be the best incentive measure in Europe, covering 50% of R&D expenses in the first year, 40% in the second and 30% in subsequent years up to €100 million (and 5% above this ceiling). Many companies have been quick to seize its potential, claiming €3.6 billion in tax breaks in 2009 (compared with €1.4 billion in 2006).
France, it would seem, could not offer more to companies for whom innovation is their top priority.