Editorial: France chases $12bn fund vision

The French government hopes its innovation fund will have $239m available to invest in technologies such as artificial intelligence and transportation per year.

Emmanuel Macron has not been wasting any time in making his vision of France a reality since becoming the nation’s president this past May – from passing labour reforms and calling for closer cooperation across the EU to launching a fund that will back technology startups.

But with his labour reforms decried by unions and signed in spite of thousands of protesters on the Parisian streets, and a closer cooperation with Germany less likely following the entrance of far-right and openly anti-democratic AfD into the Bundestag yesterday, it would appear that the honeymoon period for Macron may already be over.

So it has become all the more important that the third of his headline-grabbing initiatives above will be a success, though the opposition has voiced concerns that the fund is a mere ploy to privatise state-controlled enterprises.

The fund, which is yet to launch officially, will focus on sectors such as healthcare, transport, energy storage and renewable energy technologies.

However, Bloomberg has already described the €10bn ($12bn) innovation fund, first announced by Macron at the startup conference VivaTechnology in June, as offering less than meets the eye. Indeed, Macron did not at that time provide any details about the fund other than the figure and a vague commitment to the innovation ecosystem.

Since then, it has emerged that the government hopes to sell stakes in several companies to raise the money – a process that would take years to reach the €10bn target.

It is more than double the dividends the government raises from its shares anually – a total of €3.9bn in cash and shares as of 2015, the latest confirmed figures.

In total, the French state owns some €100bn worth of shares in 81 companies, such as telecoms firm Orange, car manufacturer Renault and utility company Engie, of which it sold €1.53bn worth of shares earlier this month.

And those numbers make it a complex task to raise €10bn without dumping shares in socio-economically important businesses, which led to Bruno Le Maire, minister of finance, admitting last Thursday that the fund is set to generate only €200m a year to invest in startups.

Of course, €200m is still a decent amount of cash but the question becomes just how much France needs such a relatively small fund when its public investment bank, BPIfrance, is one of the most prolific investors in Europe.

The government may consider France in dire need of catching up to the rest of the world, but in truth the country leads the way in many regards.

By the end of 2016, its regional tech transfer offices, known as Satts, had invested in more than 1,000 maturation projects, signed more than 400 licensing deals, launched 130 spinouts and secured almost 1,400 inventions. It is hardly a small achievement for a program that began only five years ago.

Paris-Saclay University, an academic project that is combining 18 institutions into one huge cluster, remains unparallelled in ambition and scale internationally. Equipped with a €50m seed fund for its spinouts, that project is also on its way to turning France into a spinout generator that may very well become the envy of its European neighbours.

Neither of these initiatives was launched under Macron’s government, however, so is Macron’s innovation fund just a ploy to gain political capital? Perhaps. As a poster child for everything the EU would like to be, however, he arguably deserves the benefit of the doubt. His one mistake so far was specifying the €10bn sum, a statement that was always going to expose him to criticism because it is ostensibly difficult to secure.

And if the fund ends up having €200m available per year? It might not give Macron’s government the positive headlines it may crave, but to the startups that will raise capital  they would not otherwise have had, it will make a world of difference – and that is a laudable effort, €10bn target or not.

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