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Blazing trails: Continuum of services helps French incubator grow regional economy

by Linda Knopp

December 2007

The founders of the Montpellier Business and Innovation Centre weren’t content to follow the rest of the pack; they wanted to blaze their own trail. That’s why they set out to launch a technology incubator in Montpellier, France – a region that lacked a strong business and industrial base – 20 years ago.

“There was [hardly any] corporate culture here at all, and there were no major industrial partners to help us get started,” says says Patricia Reeb, incubator director. “We had to innovate and focus on the vast potential hidden in universities and research labs, counting on a new generation of entrepreneurs at a time when start-up companies had not yet become fashionable.”

With its prime location in the Mediterranean region of France, its proximity to seven higher educational institutions, and the unwavering support of a local government organization, they did just that. Today, Montpellier BIC operates two incubation facilities: Cap-Alpha, which serves life science companies, and Cap-Omega, which assists ICT businesses. Both facilities have an occupancy rate of over 80 percent. Since 1987, the program has graduated nearly 400 businesses – more than 85 percent of which remain in business.

In recognition of these accomplishments, NBIA presented the Montpellier Business and Innovation Centre with the 2007 Randall M. Whaley Incubator of the Year award. Read on to learn more about the program that received NBIA’s highest honor during the 21st International Conference on Business Incubation in Seattle.

Starting from scratch

Because the region lacked a strong industrial base, Montpellier Agglomération – the local government organization that sponsors the BIC – decided to draw on the region’s resources to grow its economy. Over the past 20 years, the Montpellier BIC staff has partnered with area colleges and universities, research institutes and other organizations to create a pipeline of new businesses to fill its incubators and create jobs and wealth in the region.

Rather than targeting only entrepreneurs who are ready to become in-house incubator clients, the Montpellier BIC offers a range of services to community entrepreneurs at all stages of business development. “Entrepreneurs can receive one-on-one attention from a dedicated coach both before starting up their businesses and afterward,” Reeb says. For example, entrepreneurs who need pre-incubation services can receive help with developing feasibility studies, writing businesses plans and creating financial planning documents, while those whose businesses are further developed can get advice on working with investors, raising capital or developing marketing plans. In 2005, the incubator expanded its services even more when it began helping established businesses that want to move into new business markets.

The program’s in-depth training courses also are geared toward businesses at all stages of development. For nascent entrepreneurs, the incubator hosts classes ranging from two hours to 20 days to help them refine their business idea into a successful venture. For business owners who have already launched their start-ups, Montpellier BIC offers individual and group workshops on a variety of business topics and a nine-month intensive training course targeted to high-growth incubator clients.

Techsia, S.A., a company that provides software and consulting services for the oil and gas industry, is one client that has used Montpellier BIC’s training to its advantage. Techsia CEO Stéphanie Gottlib-Zeh first learned of the Montpellier BIC while she was working on her Ph.D. at the University of Montpellier. After receiving a grant from the French Ministry of Research to finance an international market study of her research in 1999, Gottlib-Zeh and Techsia CFO Carine Gourbail attended a 200-hour business course on how to launch and market a new business.

Since then, the pair have attended several other incubator training sessions, used Montpellier’s Business Plan Software – a software program developed by the incubator specifically for its clients – to refine their business plan, and housed their business in the Cap Alpha facility. Techsia – whose client list includes Shell, Chevron, BP and others – now employs 40, has revenue of $5 million, and operates subsidiaries in Houston and Oman.

Growing up

Buoyed by the success of clients like Techsia, the BIC staff and local officials in 2002 created a more aggressive growth plan for the incubator. This plan included several new activities to complement the BIC’s core mission of helping start-up and developing businesses. Among these was the 2004 launch of the Cap Omega incubator facility in Montpellier’s business district, which allowed the program to serve a new audience of entrepreneurs – those who operate information and communication technology businesses. Also as part of this expansion effort, the incubator established an international network of incubation partners that could serve as sources of new clients and landing spots for existing ones that wanted to expand their businesses outside of France.

The Montpellier BIC’s efforts to grow the program have paid off. Between 2002 and 2006, the number of BIC clients increased from 63 to 127, the incubator staff grew from nine to 18, and available incubator space grew from 38,000 square feet to 97,000 square feet (with the launch of the Cap Omega facility). These new activities were funded by Montpellier Agglomération, which provides 50 percent of the incubator’s budget; rent and service fees from clients; and financial subsidies provided by the French government and the European Union.

Since international development became a priority for the program in 2004, BIC has helped four foreign technology companies open offices in France, including Diasys from Germany, RNA from the United Kingdom, Auris from Switzerland and Ixento from China. During the last few years, BIC staff have also helped local companies – including Techsia – set up foreign subsidiaries. The program also offers training courses for entrepreneurs who want to expand operations internationally.

One of the program’s main objectives in recent years has been to develop international networks to make it easier for clients to set up operations abroad. In 2004, Montpellier BIC signed a reciprocal agreement with the Shanghai Incubator Network, through which start-ups from China could enter the French market or French companies could go to China. To date, one Chinese company has set up operations in a BIC incubator facility and two French businesses have opened offices in Shanghai.

“The organization’s international objectives match Montpellier’s global strategy,” Reeb says. “For example, establishing relationships with Chinese incubators is part of the plan to create ties with Shanghai. Our multi-year plan for 2006-2009 includes more development with incubators in the United States and reinforcing ties with European countries.”

To that end, the Montpellier BIC expanded its international network during its 20th anniversary celebration in July, when the staff signed agreements with two other NBIA-award-winning incubators: the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Incubator Program of Troy, N.Y. (NBIA’s 1995 Randall M. Whaley Incubator of the Year) and the William M. Factory Small Business Incubator of Tacoma, Wash. (NBIA’s 2005 Incubator of the Year). The Montpellier BIC also is finalizing an international agreement with a business innovation center in Italy.

“Globalization is gaining ground everywhere,” says Karine Chorro, project manager of international incubator development for Montpellier BIC. “Start-ups – and particularly innovative start-ups – need to enter international markets earlier and earlier, so incubators that want to provide the most useful services to their clients must find an efficient way to help them go abroad.”

Montpellier sought out relationships with both RPI and William Factory because the two programs operate on opposite coasts of the United States and serve different types of businesses. They also offer different geographic markets for BIC clients that want to expand to the United States. Despite their differences, though, the William Factory incubator and RPI share similarities with Montpellier BIC, Chorro says. For example, RPI and Montpellier share a mission of serving technology businesses and partnering with universities, and William Factory and Montpellier both aim to stimulate economic development and job creation in their communities.

“These programs are both ambitious, and so are we,” Chorro says. “Montpellier BIC has been a strategic part of local policy and economic outlook since 1987, seeking to make the Montpellier area an economically dynamic place where positive conditions generate jobs and value, and we plan to continue to develop programs to help us in that role.”

2007 Randall M. Whaley Incubator of the Year

Montpellier Business and Innovation Centre
Rond Point Benjamin Franklin, CS 39521
34960 Montpellier Cedex 2, France
www.montpellier-technopole.com/bic

Year established: 1987

Size: 95,000 square feet (in two facilities)

Focus: Assists life science companies in Cap Alpha facility, and information and communication technology businesses in Cap Omega facility

Incubator clients: 61 pre-incubation projects, 64 start-ups and six developing companies

Incubator graduates: More than 370

Organizational structure: The Montpellier Business and Innovation Centre is a department of the Montpellier Agglomération and operates as a tax-exempt, publicly funded organization.

Mission: To help innovative companies with significant growth potential get started, create new jobs and develop their businesses.

Goals:

  1. Provide personalized assistance for entrepreneurs at all stages of business development, from pre-incubation to incubation to post-incubation.
  2. Help businesses integrate themselves into their economic and institutional environments. This includes helping clients expand into international markets, secure funding and locate new customers.
  3. Offer a complete set of high-performance tools to help start-ups succeed at each step in the business creation process. This includes software applications, professional training and various workspace solutions.

Keywords: best practices, international incubation, international trade, seminars and training programs, soft landings

Contact NBIA

Phone: (740) 593-4331
Fax: (740) 593-1996
PO Box 959
Athens, OH 45701-1565
info@nbia.org