This week, I am hosting a seminar on “Digitalization for Growth and Innovation” for the Norwegian Business School, at Skema Business School and the Accenture Interactive Innovation Center and Technology Lab in Sophia Antipolis. We asked Skema if someone could talk to the participants (managers from Norwegian companies) about the founding and evolution of the Science and Technology Park in itself. We got a very interesting discussion by Philippe Mariani, responsible for Strategy and Development of the Sophia Antipolis Foundation – and (drum roll) a visit by the founder of Sophia Antipolis himself, Senator Pierre Laffitte.
Sophia Antipolis (sophia = wisdom, antipolis=not a city, actually an old term for Antibes) was founded in 1969, by Pierre Lafitte, who now is 91 and still involved in the development of the area. Back then, his idea was seen as a utopia, with plans for 20000 researchers in 20 years, but it garnered lots of attention. Now it pretty much is reality, genuinely a dream come through. There are 1400 companies with 30000 employees, 60000 people if you count supporting services. The whole place is laid out as a park, no straight roads, lots of threes – and it can actually be difficult to think of it as a city if you look at it from the air:
Sophia Antipolis works as an ecosystem, and attracts more revenues than the tourism industry in the south of France. SKEMA, the business school, is an important part of the ecosystem. In the beginning, it was very difficult to convince somebody to come and start here, one strategy was to utilize the strength of the network, arrange a concert in the middle of the forest, using the newspapers to attract attention, running specialized conferences on biotech, nanotechnology, etc., inviting 15-20 high-level people, do proceedings, these people then became ambassadors for the area.
Pierre Laffitte instituted some principles for the area:
1) that there should be no skyscrapers, no building higher than the hills. As a result the area feels like a park, and also feels quite small, even though it is large.
2) There should be no fences around companies, in order to facilitate cross-fertilization (a concept which is very important to the people building the area. In the beginning this even extended to asking companies not to have closed lunch areas, but invite others in.
3) As much as possible, a company settling in SF would have to have someone on the board with a different background – a writer, teacher, artist – in order to be critical, a devil’s advocate, and to foster innovation.
Sophia Antipolis is now a brand name, people here identify with the place, call themselves sophiepolitans – there is a sense of belonging, employees want to stay in the area. It is relatively easy to put up your own company, you will find a market, so the place is growing. There are strong anchor tenants, such as Amadeus, but also many small technology companies who sometimes start as vendors to the anchor tenants and then expand. It is not really a French place, but international to a very large degree.
There have been many attempts at building technology parks, and Sophia is one of the places that work. Much of it has to do with establishing a culture – many other areas are currently trying to invest a lot of money, but it is not working because there is not a culture of sharing, communicating and starting projects and companies.
One difference from Silicon Valley is that there are fewer venture capitalists and angel investors, which is indicative of Europe in general.
Question to Pierre Laffitte and Philippe Mariani: What is the role of government in the creation of technology parks and new companies?
Governments give money to big companies, in the US they have the small business act. We need something like that in Europe – bottom up, now top down. There is much good will from governments in Europe, but they have not found a good way to help small companies. Also, Europe has more interest in fundamental research, not the research between the industrial and the fundamental. We need to put together the managers with the people with ideas and research.
Q: Other differences between the US and Europe — what can we learn?
In the US, if your company fails, you are not considered a failure. In Europe, the banks will not finance you if you have had a company failure, which is why Europe has fewer serial entrepreneurs. We also have fewer business angels, and most of them are not so rich.
Q: Challenges for the future of Sophia Antipolis?
Two challenges in particular: One is developing ethics for a numerical (digital) society. There has been a transition from family capitalism to most short-termism. Now you have to make money in the face of short-termism, should be more open to other types of people than the shareholders only. We need to have another type of capitalism more about stakeholders than shareholders.
Secondly, there is an acceleration, the lifecycles are shorter and shorter. Our form of cross fertilization has worked for 40 years, but that won’t last, we have to reinvent a way to exist as an ecosystem. We are launching initiatives on ethics and “numeration”, cybersecurity, cyberhacking. want to become a think tank for exploring the digitalization, allowing it to continue to evolve – for one thing, the the government does not understand and the only thing they do is forbid it.
Q: What was the most important getting Sophia Antipolis started?
Having lots of friends in good positions who did not think it as stupid as many people thought! Innovation is always connected with difficulty to change, you have to convince people that it is positive. We wanted to develop something that did not create pollution, to create something connected with the future and the brain and to balance, not only to raw materials.
Q: How do you get get people together, so it is not just a park with businesses?
There are many ways to get people to come together. We asked companies not to have closed cafeterias, people having lunch together from different companies. We have the veteran companies meet with the new companies when they come in. We have common breakfasts, like small conferences. We also have clubs set up for various subjects and interest groups – there is even one called the Nordic Link for wealthy individuals from the Nordic countries who settle in the region and want to get involved in technology companies.
It doesn’t happen by itself, many cites think that it is just the structure is the enabler, The Foundation is here to do what the companies cannot do because they have no time. You have to push to make this happen, not easy because the benefit of the activity is hard to quantify. One thing that has not worked as we hoped is to have have cultural activities, tried to be the Florence of the 21st century, but because art was seen as an add-on, something separate, that did not take off as we had hoped.
And with that – a group picture: