Robert C. Pini
In a significant departure from previous policy, the French government has announced initiatives to stimulate the growth of entrepreneurial culture in scientific research and development.
Specific measures include the following:
· Spending FFr 1 billion to foster the creation of national networks of public- and private-sector laboratories in key technologies
· Creating a "seed money" fund of FFr 100 million to help entrepreneurs take ideas to the stage where they can seek venture capital
· Using FFr 600 million in public money to increase available venture capital
· Allowing public researchers to hold both financial ties and research links to a company.
Noting that the nature of state intervention has to be profoundly modified, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin announced the measures to a national conference on innovation. He said the old model of state planning is "no longer adapted to a global economy in which the market plays a determining role, and where the evolution of knowledge and technology has accelerated."
Critics of the centralized planning system in France have long held that new developments in technology do not find their way quickly from the research laboratory to the marketplace. That lag, they have argued, has created a gap between the capabilities of the research community and the consequent development of healthy new revenue-generating industries.
In sending a signal that encourages scientists to make money, the government hopes to introduce a greater taste for risk and entrepreneurial spirit, strengthening the links between basic research and product development.
The previous model of state planning focused on research and the development of prototypes, leaving aside the critical steps of generating sources of venture capital and streamlining the process of bringing a product to market. To remedy this, the new model creates some sources of venture capital and looks to the development of private companies large and small as the engine for bringing new ideas to market and stimulating economic growth and jobs.
New contacts sought
As a means of establishing greater entrepreneurial dynamics, the initiative seeks to promote new contacts between public and private sector researchers as well as stronger ties between large and small enterprises. However, many of the precise steps to accomplish this remain to be specified, as details of the project are still being formulated within the government.
Patrick Meyrueis, director of the photonics systems laboratory at Louis Pasteur University in Illkirch, welcomes the changes. He said the previous model was unsuccessful because of the focus on burdensome planning at the initiation of a project. Moreover, he explained, under the old model, start-up companies initiated by research from his lab often faced overwhelming challenges in securing financial backers willing to take on the risk. This already is changing in Illkirch, he said, where the local government has established a venture capital fund that he hopes to tap into.