A helping hand for fledgling firms
Launched nine years ago by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Reims and Epernay (FR), Innovact is many things: a market place, a forum for debate and the exchange of ideas, and a place to see and be seen. Entrepreneurs also go there to obtain an innovation grant or win an award. The forum helps young researchers, innovators and SMEs launch new ideas and technologies.
Michaël Carré, 24, is presenting Etios, a software program to aid ophthalmologists in making their diagnoses and prescribing treatment. “Of course, there already is medical software targeted at this discipline, but this one is mostly designed for older ophthalmologists who do not follow continuous medical training but who need a tool. It was developed with a doctor who has been practising for over 30 years and has been tested for a year by two specialists. It is a very simple and user-friendly programme based, in particular, on all the data currently available on glaucoma, a complaint for which early diagnosis can be crucial.“
|Tony Bosman receives the Europe Trophy. A young doctor of chemistry from Eindhoven University (NL), he is the inventor of plastics designed for their durability.|
Michaël and his colleague, Erwann Gravot, also 24, received a special mention in the 2004 Innovation Trophies for pre- and postdoctoral students. Their stand is next to that of Kibertron, a Bulgarian project set up by an electronics engineer (Ahmed Mercheva), a physicist (Lyubomir Slavilov) and an engineer (Antoni Stavrev) who have been working for the past two years on developing what they describe as a particularly intelligent robot. They, too, won a trophy.
“Kibertron, as it is called, will be able to walk, identify objects and understand voices. Its applications should be universal. It can be used as a robot in the home or work under extreme conditions. When designing its hands, for example, our aim was to incorporate all the properties of a human hand: strength, independent movement, flexibility, etc.” To find out more about the talent and dedication of this trio – all of them aged under 25 – visit their quadrilingual website at: www.kibertron.com.
Innovation across the board
These two projects are in the computing and electronics field. Others are devoted to environmental technologies, biology and agri-foodstuffs. Universities, biopoles and biovalleys, consultants, the European Commission and development agencies are also involved.
|The Kibertron robot, a Bulgarian creation awarded at Innovact, the product of the talents of an electronics engineer (Ahmed Mercheva), a physicist (Lyubomir Slavilov) and an engineer (Antoni Stavrev).|
The latter include Advantage West Midlands, an economic development agency for the Birmingham area in the UK, famed as the birthplace of rugby. AWM has just opened an office in Paris and is vaunting the region’s attractions. “Did you know that half of all British patents are registered in the West Midlands? It is not surprising, when you consider that it is home to nine universities with 7 000 researchers.” Birmingham is the UK’s second financial centre, after London, and 50% of the UK’s motor industry is concentrated in the area, with such famous names as Jaguar, Land Rover, and Mini. This has not escaped the attention of parts suppliers such as PSA, Valeo and Plastic Omnium, which are all present in the area – making the region an excellent example of what Europe can mean in practice. The West Midlands benefits from a regional fund of almost €100 million for the financing of start-ups in a country known for its advantageous tax regime.
Watched over by angels
Fiscal matters and financing are, of course, included in the Innovact programme. A day long Capital Forum enabled around 30 selected business projects to meet with potential business angels. The packed programme also provided opportunities to attend conferences on specialised fields of R&D and debates on economic or legal questions, to meet lawyers and auditors, and to consult the catalogue of exhibitors to propose a business meeting.
A particular attraction on the morning RTD info visited was the conference on innovation law chaired by Alain Bensoussan, a lawyer specialising in this field. He believes that the future could bring the “privatisation of ideas” and that scientific creation will, one day, need to be protected in the same way as artistic creation. On the human resources front, it was a human resources manager who was packing in the students in the neighbouring room. “The important thing is to stick to your ideas and be true to yourself” – a maxim that drew loud applause.
Launched this year, Speed Networking permits more intimate meetings to discuss opportunities and affinities. It is organised by InterFrench, a professional organisation of high-tech French companies from all over the world that originated in Silicon Valley. InterFrench promotes thematic contacts, bringing together about a dozen participants who, in principle, have common interests. Each participant has the chance to introduce him- or herself briefly and his o her work: five minutes of visibility to sum up what they are about and perhaps create a desire for others to find out more, without the formality of appointments.
The energy of young ideas
Over the years, Innovact-Reims has sought to broaden its horizons far beyond the Champagne region of France. In 2004, 20% of exhibitors came from abroad (compared with 7% last year), with participants from Quebec, China, the Netherlands, Estonia, etc., alongside a particularly strong Belgian representation. They included a range of start-ups, as well as innovative established businesses.
|Special mention for Anne Alamets and Pille Gtanowski, two Estonians who developed a new kind of computer mouse.|
One such case is Tricolast which is based in Deinze, Flanders (BE). Founded back in 1948, in 2004, it won an Innovact Trophy for its Scarban product – a system of silicon bandages for serious wounds, especially severe burns. They have been used in Belgium and Germany since 2004 and Tricolast is now seeking a distributor for the French market.
In 2003, another Belgian company, from Wallonia this time, won a similar trophy. As national leader in ‘geomatics’, Sodiplan came up with a new information system for the digitisation and adding of information to geographical maps. “We did not expect to win two years in a row,” admits Etienne Sermon. “But last year’s trophy brought us a twofold benefit. Internally, it strengthened the company in its belief that it was good, and that our supply met a demand. Beyond that, it widened our renown, with a positive impact at a commercial level.”
On the French front, an Agro-Resources and Innovation competition, targeted at industrial projects to develop raw materials, awarded a business start-up prize to Bois-Valor of Albi, a producer of wood-based fertilisers. There were also some very practical innovations, such as a system of computerised delivery with remote GPS tracking that permits the distribution of small parcels via networked dropping off points in town centres when addressees are absent. The round-the-clock access to these sites permits delivery at any time – and that can be vital in some professions. The creator of this system – the Consignity company of Troyes (FR) – won the Champagne Ardenne Innovation prize.
The prizes, grants and trophies certainly add some spice to Innovact and add to the excitement, even if the amounts may seem modest (between €2000 and €10 000 per prizewinner). But for many, it is the image boost that counts more than the prize money.
Nanotechnologies in close-up
These three days were also an occasion to reflect and cast the spotlight on a number of specific subjects, particularly agro-biology and nanotechnologies. It seems that the future will be measured in billionths of a metre – and that is 80 000 times finer than a hair! The debates attracted many students who learned, for example, that a man measures 1.7 billion nanometres, that the cost of a million transistors has fallen in the space of a few years from the price of a house to that of a Post-it, and that the nanotechnologies market is set to grow by 63% per year. All of which will bring a multitude of developments, in the field of materials, health, ICTs, electronics and the environment.
|A notable presence, China.|
As a testimony to the importance of innovation, Laure Reinhart, a member of the scientific and technical management team at the French group Thales (aeronautics, defence, security) considered it well worth her while to make the trip to Reims. She believes that even the biggest companies need the co-operation, the talent and the ideas of the small nano firms. It is time they came forward.