Grenoble Is the Powerful Tech Hub You Never Heard Of. On arrival in France at Lyon’s Saint Exupéry Airport, you wouldn’t picture the Alps city of Grenoble as a major French tech hub or a challenger to Paris.
The taxi driver tells me the city is more than 60 miles away. The journey will take more than an hour. Compare that to the 30 minute-drive from San Francisco airport to Silicon Valley. Grenoble already broke a cardinal tech cluster rule: easy transportation links to the rest of the world.
But there’s something about the wry grin and sparkling eyes of the driver that disarms me. It’s as if he’s saying, “Don’t worry about it. You have something to look forward to.”
As we pull away from the airport, I ask my driver for une carte. He hands me a map of the region. It tells me Grenoble sits at the bottom of the French Alps, as part of the Rhône-Alpes region, and that three mountain chains enclose the city: Vercors, Chartreuse and Belledonne.
Home to less than 160,000 inhabitants, Grenoble’s greater municipal area consists of more than half a million people. It is apparently a beautiful city, best visited with snow on the ground and the surrounding mountains. Apparently, a great place in winter, but not so interesting in October, the month of my trip.
As we continue along the smooth A48 road, something happens about 30 miles outside Grenoble. Suddenly, the boring motorway transforms into a conduit toward one of the most beautiful dusks I have ever seen.The colors, the colors, the rolling waters of the parallel river Drac and the stupendous views of what seem like a verdant Grand Canyon are staggering. I look in the taxi driver’s mirror. He is smiling. Smug bastard, he knew all along.
Even if the city’s aesthetics make its transportation infrastructure less of a problem, what about Grenoble itself? Apart from natural beauty and local skiing, the community is all about connecting education, research and industry. The Grenoble Institute of Technology has a global reputation, and the (reasonably) nearby University of Geneva means student talent flows between both institutions.In European terms, Grenoble is a pioneering cluster. Long before cities like London, Berlin, Moscow and even Paris aped the Silicon Valley model and defined themselves as centers for urban hipsters and entrepreneurs, the French government funded schemes to bring research, academia and industry together.
The city is also known for its expertise in micro- and nano-technology. Established companies and market leaders such as STMicroelectronics and NXP Semiconductors are based in the city.
The reason for the prevalence of these technologies is partly due to Inria, a government-funded public science and technology institution established in France in 1967. It has eight research centers located across France, a €264 million budget and the Grenoble and Lyon research Centre, established in 1992. The Inria Grenoble–Rhône-Alpes centre has 34 research teams and 250 PhD students, 45% of whom come from overseas.
Since 1998 it has created more than 20 startups in industries such as road traffic management, 3D cinema and communication infrastructure management. In recent times, brands like smart window company Hilabs and advice systems company SysFera have emerged from its Grenoble center.
Research organization Minatec has also supported micro- and nano-technology growth since 2006. Co-founded by the Grenoble Institute of Technology and CEA-LETI, it’s a collaboration between CEA, the French Atomic Energy Commission, and LETI, a research institute. This is bolstered by the Rhone Alpes region Micro and Nanotechnology Federation (FMNT), which unifies laboratories in Grenoble and Lyon.
Other corporations such as France Telecom, CapGemini, Freescale and Xerox all employ significant numbers of Grenoble residents. The latter is a particularly long-time supporter of the city.
“Twenty years ago, we began by establishing a network with the scientific community throughout Europe and in the Rhone-Alps region centred on Grenoble, a prime location because of its strengths in academia and research,” says Monica Beltrametti, VP and director of Xerox Research Centre Europe. “Two decades on we still feel the excitement here that reigned at the time we set up the center.”
According to hybrid cluster company Minalogic, based in the city, Grenoble has a scientifically-inclined community of 38,500 people. But what does this mean for the city’s startup community? Is this emphasis on education, research and industry enough to tempt startups to set up in Grenoble, instead of the bright lights of Paris?
The jury is out. There have been few success stories, proportional to Grenoble’s talent and government-backed initiatives.
Though, earlier this year Grenoble-based Bonitasoft raised $13 million from a number of investors to continue its expansion. Founded in 2009, the company is an open-source business process management solution for enterprises that works with more than 600 companies. This latest round means it has raised a total of $28 million.
The lure of Paris is obviously a factor, but Grenoble is not a place where the next Twitter orInstagram is likely to emerge. It’s more probable the city will be home to a new IBM or Microsoft.
Further north in Paris, a startup culture that resembles that of London, Moscow and Berlin is emerging. As these metropoli compete with, as well as co-operate with, each other, Grenoble’s energy is different. Here at the foot of the mountains is a more contemplative way of life. It’s a place for those who want to either work for big companies or build companies that exist for decades.
Perhaps it’s all about incubating bright ideas, not bright lights. Perhaps it’s a more sustainable model than those capital cities and major tech hubs. Grenoble may be a cluster of the past, but it’s keeping an eye on a bright future. Just ask my modest taxi-driver.