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Carnot institutes : 10 years of innovation

AB - 1/10/2015

Interview with Alain Duprey, General Manager of AiCarnot

Alain Duprey, directeur général de l'AiCarnot

The Carnot institutes network, which was created in 2006 to bring the world of research closer to that of companies, has proven the strength of its commitment to partnership research and its effectiveness for the economy: it has more than doubled its turnover with companies, going from 186 million Euros of partnership research contracts in the first year to 458 million Euros in 2014. With only 15% of the French public research workforce, it carries out over 55% of research outsourced by companies to public research.

Here we look back at these 10 years of innovative policy serving companies with Alain Duprey, the General Manager of the Association des Institutes Carnot (Association of Carnot Institutes):

What are the main stages in the creation and development of the Carnot network? 

Reflection by certain government representatives and business owners from the end of 1990s onwards on the development of the public/private relationship in order to add value to research findings throughout industry led the state to implement a plan inspired by Germany's Fraunhofer model: the Carnot system.

In 2005, the Ministry for Research launched a first call for applications and 20 Carnot institutes were approved. The following year, the ministry announced an increase in the budget from 40 to 60 million Euros, and confirmed a second call for applications in order to reinforce the fabric of the Carnot institutes. At the end of 2006, in order to provide it with more solid roots and achieve overall cohesion through a simple structure, we set up a body to organise and unite the network: the Association des instituts Carnot (AiCarnot), whose members are the Carnot institutes - a large majority of which have invested greatly for the benefit of all. 

In 2008, we established a major annual business convention, the Rendez-vous Carnot, devoted to meetings between laboratories and industrialists. As a result we have largely fulfilled the role  the government wanted us to play - that of acting as a driving force for a large number of public laboratories - as, today, the Rendez-vous Carnot is the main public-private business convention with over 9,000 meetings and 800 exhibitors. 

At the end of 2010, the system was renewed for a new five-year period. The five-yearly report recognised the simplicity and effectiveness of Carnot's results and, in particular, the ability of the Carnot business leaders to work together within such a diverse network, capable of speaking with one voice - even on an international level.

And, since 2013 - with the support of the state - the Carnot institutes have organised themselves into business sectors  in order to better respond to the economic issues of innovation and competitiveness, in particular for SMEs and intermediate-sized enterprises (ETI).  Today the network is therefore seeking to structure itself even further in order to better meet calls for themed projects and establish the Carnot label, which is henceforth the custodian of an expectation and quality of services recognised by companies.

In practical terms, what is the operational role of the Carnot institutes in French innovation policy?

Open innovation is one of the main missions of the Carnot institutes, and it consists in developing contractual research for companies and as a result developing innovation and competitiveness of the companies for wealth and job creation.

In order to do this, the network is being constructed with the best structures, selected according to their capacity for transfer and their scientific excellence. A company will come and work with a Carnot-approved institute if it is convinced by its scientific and technical skills to provide a viable and concrete solution to its problems. There are therefore three main points regarding selection and development within the Carnot network, which are partnership commitment, scientific quality, and the implementation of effective internal organisation required to take into account the interests and constraints of companies and partner satisfaction.

The development of bridges between research and industry requires several tools, including the training of young researchers...

The Carnot institutes invest greatly in PhD training: we have 8,000 PhD students, or 2,800 PhD graduates, each year, of whom 1,400 are CIFRE (French industrial agreements for training through research) "approved", and whose vocation is therefore to be employed by the company in which they do their thesis. The researchers trained by both a Carnot laboratory and a company (SME or EE) are subsequently wonderful points of dialogue between the private and public sectors.  Following their theses, these researchers are often the source of new contracts and new types of partnership. There are also numerous degree or master's training courses taking place in the Carnots and which change the portrayal of the world of research and develop the partnership mentality.

We also want to further emphasise this training approach by developing the mobility of experienced researchers between laboratories and companies. This will create new bridges between the worlds of research and industry.

Development on an international scale is also a major line in Carnot's strategy...

Innovation is intrinsically diverse and international. Even the latest sectors to have opened themselves up to innovation need different cultures. It is a global phenomenon: all companies have understood that it was more beneficial to "shop around" on a worldwide scale as far as R&I is concerned. We are already collaborating on an international level by bringing numerous SMEs to Europe as part of the Horizon 2020 project; the Carnot institutes are often better suited to setting up European projects than the SMEs.

The other component of Carnot's international strategy is to help companies from a business perspective to go and win new markets. For this we rely on the Carnot institutes with branches throughout the world, in order to benefit from their knowledge of local markets. And so we are going to open up this integration to SMEs, as they are not always sure how to proceed.

Next stage: the Carnot 3 call for projects, planned for 15 November. What will be the main guidelines of Carnot 3?

In the beginning, few institutes showcased their Carnot affiliation. In January 2015, Geneviève Fioraso reaffirmed her support for the Carnot system and network. As the system has already proven to be successful, it is now a question of making it last. The long-term durability of our network is contained in Carnot 3: the institutes will, from now on, be able to invest more in the Carnot label over the long term.

The network was asking the Carnot institutes to define a partnership research strategy for their entire sector - which was doubtless easier for institutes that were already structured, such as Inria.  However, the majority of institutes are multi-faceted: several laboratories brought together within a Carnot institute and which implement a joint governance and strategy. With Carnot 3 there is a strong desire from the government to clarify the partnership landscape, and to facilitate company access to expertise. The sectorial structure of the Carnot institutes, with the implementation of coordinated business forces, illustrates this trend.

Finally, what can we learn from these 10 years of innovation policy?

In 2006 we started with a turnover of 186 million Euros for companies with 33 institutes, and today we have reached a turnover of 458 million Euros and 34 institutes. The Carnot effect has therefore resulted in a strong increase (x2.5) over the 2006-2014 period. Professionalising the partnership relationship in order to better respond to companies' requirements is working: the companies gain in competitiveness and initiate new contracts. The following stage will be to succeed in continuing our growth in activity for companies through intra- and inter-Carnot organisation, for even better quality and performance. We must be able to reach out to numerous "traditional" companies, in particular new SMEs and ETIs which have not yet taken the plunge towards innovation based on public research.

Finally, one of the Carnot network's main contributions is also the cultural evolution of all of the Carnot institutes’ researchers with regard to companies. Ten years ago, certain laboratories were still reticent about partnership research. Today this mistrust has disappeared within the network and the Carnot system has greatly legitimised the collaboration process between industry and quality research. Partnership research is now seen as an opportunity for the funding and development of laboratories, in addition to the basic public research grants; finally, with practical and concrete requirements from companies, it enables the initiation and carrying out of research work at the highest international level. The Carnot network will therefore continue with its mission and its role as a major research player with a high impact on our economy!

Keywords: Institut Carnot Institut Carnot Inria Transfert Innovation Recherche partenariale