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France reclaims 'entrepreneur' roots with leading number of start-ups in Europe

Protests against Uber or court cases against Google notwithstanding, start-ups are thriving in France, which ranks second globally among start-ups represented at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

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    Workers set up booths in preparation for the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in the lobby of Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, January 4, 2015. The electronics trade show officially starts on January 6. An estimated 150,000 people and 3,500 exhibitors are expected to attend, according to organizers.
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Fifteen young entrepreneurs have 90 seconds to pitch their products, from belts that automatically adjust to digitally-connected insoles to recycling bins that do the separating for you.

The typical setting for such a competition would be Berlin or London, long considered at the heart of Europe's young start-up culture. But this is playing out in a drab basement in middle-class Paris – testing assumptions about the friendliest tech countries in the region.

France may be best known on the tech front for its protests against Uber or court cases against Google, but start-ups are actually thriving here, with more set up in France than anywhere else in Europe, including Germany.

In fact, the companies presenting on a recent night at the French agency Ubifrance, which promotes French companies abroad, are set to take their presentations to the internationally renowned Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, which starts Jan. 6. France will be the best-represented nation in Europe.

“We are a tech republic,” says Nicolas Vassitch, head of the IT department at Ubifrance. It’s just that no one knows it, he says. “We have excellent engineers, but most go abroad. You don’t even notice them,” Mr. Vassitch says.

'A French word'

The government is trying to change that. As Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron put it at a recent party to celebrate the French presence at the CES:  “We need to find again our spirit of conquest. The word entrepreneur, don’t ever forget, is a French word. It's been stolen from us.”

The start-ups at Ubifrance are working to steal it back. At the practice pitch event one woman stands up and shows off the Bel-T, a belt that is more than a tool to keep pants in place, she says. “It adapts to you,” says Carine Coulm, the general manager of Emiota, whether that means you’ve had a big lunch or simply like your belt looser in the afternoons.

Two men who started Connected Cycle stand up next. They talk about their foray into bicycle surveillance in a region where six bikes are stolen every minute across Europe. With this device, owners are notified instantaneously if their bike is stolen, its location popping up on their smartphones.

A young man later holds up bright pink and yellow polygons that he shakes and swishes in the air, generating a rhythm and melody that emanates from a nearby speaker. His start-up, Phonotonic, is geared toward those who have always wanted to learn an instrument, he says, but simply haven’t had the time or talent to do so.

Leader of the pack?

When these entrepreneurs present their products in Las Vegas tomorrow, they will be bolstering a growing French reputation for tech start-ups. French participation at the CES has grown by 33 percent since last year. In fact, 20 percent of registrants at the trade show will be French, far ahead of the United Kingdom or Germany. Among the startups at the CES, France ranks second globally, just behind the US.

They've been helped by President François Hollande, who has implemented measures to make it easier, and more financially viable, to start a company here, says Mr. Vassitch.

According to Ubifrance, France has the most business start-ups in Europe, based on Eurostat figures. It is also easier to start a business in France (4.5 days), according to the most recent World Bank Doing Business reports, compared to 14.5 days in Germany or six days in Britain. Paris alone is home to 4,000 tech start-ups, Ubifrance says. As one French entrepreneur in Paris puts it, “the only difference between Berlin and Paris, is the rent.”

But for entrepreneur Karim Oumnia, the president of Glagla, a high-tech shoe company, the news is not all good. It may be easier to start a business in France, but it’s not always the best place to grow, in part because of rigid labor laws.  

“It’s much easier to go from small to big in the US,” he says. The same is true in Germany, he adds, where small and mid-size firms, called the Mittelstand, form the backbone of the economy.

Cultural barriers are also at play, says Mr. Oumnia, who invented a product, Digitsole, a connected insole that carries out many functions, including heating shoes with the click of a smartphone. It’s garnered the attention of the US Army and the Harley Davidson company. 

“In France if you say you want to be a world leader, they look at you like you are presumptuous,” he says. “In the US, they are always looking big. There is no complex.”

Still, he believes France is the best place to start, thanks to a mix of top engineering programs and laboratories, and the Mediterranean culture that lends itself to creativity. “That is the secret mix,” Oumnia says.

 
 
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