Business Management

Grenoble vs. Paris: The home of French high tech

“Grenoble is proposing a smart environment for startups,” says Christophe Perron, President and founder of Grenoble-based Stimergy, which provides the first “digital boiler” by using computing servers to produce hot water. This has been put to initial use in a flagship social housing building in the town.

“However,” adds Perron “I still need to spend half of my time in Paris and Lyon, visiting customers, doing business and participating to startup related events. This is the reason why moving to cities like Lyon or Paris has ever come to my mind.”

A similar story emerges for Xotelia. This raised €1.3M to manage home rentals on 50 platforms earlier this year. Yet when we drop over a note to find out what the startup scene in the town is like the response we receive is: “Thank you for your email. We have left Grenoble for Lyon.”

Grenoble is definitely an odd town. Situated at the foot of the Alps it offers an unusual blend of small city – upscale designer shops blend seamlessly with concrete blocks and English language graffiti – and an in-your-face green, outdoor appeal.  

This healthy lifestyle and fresh local produce are a clear draw for many. “The city empties out at weekends,” one individual who relocated from the UK to join the Xerox European headquarters tells us. “Everyone is hiking, skiing, or cycling up on the mountains. You don’t see many fat people.”

When Onno Zoeter came to take up his research position at Xerox, the only other place in Europe which offered his area of specialism was Microsoft at Cambridge in the UK. “But it didn’t have mountains,” now Facebook, Amazon and a whole host of other companies are looking to focus on machine learning in Europe… but none of those facilities offer mountains either.  

The region certainly provides a niche. And as Monty Munford headlined his rather excellent colour piece back in 2013 “Grenoble is the powerful tech hub you never heard of”.

Idiosyncrasies aside though, it is like a lot of second tier tech centres – like Utah, North Carolina or Texas in the US. This means it has several very decent universities and it is cheap – according to expatistan – and the cost of living is 26% cheaper than Paris.

It also has received some government intervention. Inria [French], based on the French initials for the “French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation” for example is a government-funded initiative which began in 1967. This includes a substantial base at Grenoble.

“Grenoble has a very rich ecosystem for technological innovation,” quantifies Perron. This includes efficient business incubators, several financing structures, public and private research labs – including Xerox and HP which both have out of town facilities. Along with several big semi-conductor companies – such as STMicroelectronics and NXP Semiconductors.

Because of the universities there are some extremely qualified people in high tech domains. Minalogic a local digital cluster boasts on its website that it “brings together the Rhône-Alpes region’s leading innovators in the field of smart miniaturised systems”. It adds this includes 40,000 jobs and 6,800 students, and the area features “one of the largest pools of talented engineers anywhere”.

The French government is placing a concerted emphasis on tech startups across the country and even has a brand, La French Tech [French], which aims to promote native companies internationally. This is also attempting to drive initiatives beyond Paris into the provinces. And is a symptom that, like everywhere else in the world, tech startups are beginning to become extremely trendy. 

In reality of course, while startups can begin anywhere and Grenoble has a long established base, it is very different from Paris. And its niche for attracting talent seems likely to remain for those who really love the outdoors. But then who can argue with mountains?


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