A look back at the first three years of Inria Startup Studio

Changed on 06/09/2023
Between 14 and 17 June, Inria Startup Studio will set up shop at Viva Technology, one of Europe’s leading events for startups and innovation. We caught up with Sophie Pellat, co-director of Inria Startup Studio alongside Hervé Lebret, to discuss the first few years of the scheme and the roadmap for the year to come.
© Inria / Photo R. de Benguy

What were the circumstances surrounding the launch of Inria Startup Studio in September 2019?

Inria Startup Studio was set up to provide funding and support in a conducive environment to scientists looking to take their first steps into entrepreneurship. It is a successor to the tools Inria had used over the previous 30 years or so aimed at boosting the impact of startup projects. It took inspiration from the entrepreneurial philosophy developed over the years within the institute, and places an emphasis on entrepreneurial drive as opposed to the technological asset that has been developed.

This is linked to the specific nature of intellectual property in digital, to the expertise and potential scientists have - even if they have few or no lines of code to transfer (e.g. AI) - and to the need to develop a product and get it to market in order to have any impact. Everything seemed to come together for this in 2019, with the French government committing a significant amount of funding to deep tech, and a generation emerging that was keen to build its own future.

What have Inria Startup Studio's priorities been since it was launched?

Over the past three years, the aim has been to develop the Startup Studio object while launching a significant number of projects. Developing Startup Studio has meant establishing a philosophy, determining a suitable programme, and deploying an organisational structure and line of business in order to ensure that deployment was consistent across all Inria centres. It has also meant boosting the visibility of the scheme within academia and innovation ecosystems, as well as among investors and networks of entrepreneurs. Not to mention supporting projects, of course.

Our aim was to take Inria's support for deep tech projects to the next level, developing the capacity to provide opportunities to as many projects as possible which meet our criteria.

How do you look back on the first three years?

The past three years have been a whirlwind! It’s been intense and challenging, with a lot of creativity, exploration and risk-taking. There have been in-depth discussions and monthly catch-ups with the entire line of business (director of partnerships and innovation projects for centres, co-designer of Startup Studio), as well as with all other Inria departments, both at head office and at individual centres. I've met so many people and untangled so many knots, all while adapting the structure. Another thing we’ve done has been to standardise and promote a culture that previously only existed in isolation. An extensive programme was developed for project leaders across all nine centres, with 30 projects annually. This was geared towards sharing, opening up and creating an active community that would help projects to emerge. Then there are all the fascinating and driven project leaders I’ve met, working with each of them for a year. The past three years have had the intensity you’d expect when creating or launching something, and it's been hugely rewarding working as part of a team of around twenty or so individuals (the Transfer, Innovation and Partnerships Department (STIP), Inria Startup Studio. I can still see the smiles on the faces of our project leaders, who all spoke extremely highly of the year they spent with us.

The target in Inria’s objectives and performance contract for 2019-2023 was for Inria Startup Studio to be supporting 100 projects a year by 2023. Where are you with that?

Looking beyond this figure, the target outlined in the objectives and performance contract was to take things to the next level and to create opportunities for interested parties. We met this target by developing the tool and launching a significant number of projects - 100 over three years as opposed to 100 a year. We weren't obsessed with that figure, but instead used it as motivation to take things to the next level and become more professional. Our aim was to build momentum and to assess the pool of potential project leaders.

The guiding principle is that no project led by an Inria scientist and which meets our criteria should go without funding.

Aside from the figures, each project has its challenges: bringing through a deep tech startup with its roots in research is a long, difficult and stressful process, requiring perseverance and creativity. But it’s also exciting and rewarding, and it brings people together. It’s important not to forget that crucial side to it.

What are the most promising projects ISS has supported since it was first launched?

As anyone who has ever worked on or invested in a startup project will tell you, it's very difficult to know what’s promising and what’s not, and it's even more difficult to get several people to agree. Success can be as many as 10 years away, and so many things can happen. Perhaps there is no product possible with the technology, perhaps there’s no market or it’s too early, or the team might break up. 

For us, all projects are promising - it’s up to us to give them the opportunity to take that first step, and hopefully they’ll be able to continue from there.

At Startup Studio, we also take project leaders very early on, when they still only have a faint outline of their project. It’s our job to make sure that outline doesn't disappear or isn’t absorbed by an already existing project.

Is ISS a standard Startup Studio? Have ISS's positioning or “recruitment” criteria changed over the past three years?

There are several types of startup studio. That said, ISS has a very specific identity in that it exists within a research institute, it's exclusively for scientists, and it's geared towards helping a flow of projects to emerge as opposed to focusing on the profitability of individual operations. It puts project leaders at the heart of project development and decision-making, the thinking being that there is no point having a technological development without a project leader as the technology won't sell itself. The main things that set us apart are the funding we provide to project leaders (limited to two individuals for a duration of one year) and the fact that we are just as comfortable working with scientists as we are with stakeholders from the business world.

In order for a team to be accepted by ISS, they must have entrepreneurial drive, they must have expertise with regard to the technology that will be central to the concept product, and they must be committed to exploring the project full-time for a year.

What are ISS’s main projects for 2023?

This year we are reaping the benefits of all of the development work that has gone on, and we are looking to start establishing recurrence. This means implementing quality in our business procedures, and tailoring the programme for project leaders to best suit what we believe their needs to be - that’s the first objective. The second objective will be to boost the visibility of the programme offer among potential project leaders, both within Inria and at universities, in addition to making it easier to understand. In terms of events, we have a SpringCamp and an AutumnCamp for project leaders, as well as an end-of-year event for everyone.

@Inria / Photo M.Magnin

What is the long-term future for ISS?

All of the world’s major academic institutions have an internal body (or one that is very close) for promoting startups linked to their activities, like Inria over the past 30 years.

ISS is three years old, but is only just getting started.

Our job will now be to establish ISS long-term, streamlining it while boosting its visibility and demonstrating the value it can provide for project leaders. We will also be looking to connect companies with their roots in Startup Studio projects to new projects in order to foster a community of entrepreneurs from the world of digital science.

François Cuny, Inria’s deputy CEO for Innovation, looks back at the first three years of ISS

"Most innovation support mechanisms are centred around technology maturation and funding software development, and it can be hard to grasp that there is more to technology transfer in the digital sector. Our priority over the first few years of Inria Startup Studio has been to develop a comprehensive programme within Inria with the capacity to handle entrepreneurial maturation for project leaders who are spending all of their time on their projects. This meant recruiting a team for the ramp-up, determining a programme and sharing it within the institute to ensure colleagues were able to understand it, implementing actions to ensure effective roll-out of the programme, and developing a proof of concept.

As a result of this dynamic we were able to develop our proof of concept and validate our capacity for ramp-up.  We haven't reached the figure of 100 projects a year, but it is still too early to know the actual potential of the deep tech startup projects which could come from the world of research. Although we have operated primarily within the Inria environment, the health emergency naturally slowed down the internal dynamic and hampered discussions on agreements with our academic partners. This had an impact on engagement with Startup Studio on the part of project leaders within the academic research ecosystem.

The aim moving forward will be to strengthen the position of Inria Startup Studio within the deep tech entrepreneurship ecosystem. The French government recently launched a call for proposals to support the creation of University Innovation Hubs (Pôles Universitaires d’Innovation - PUI), following a preliminary phase involving five pilot hubs. All Inria centres participated as founders alongside the universities leading these projects in their local areas. All of these proposals were selected and will now be required to determine a programme for promoting innovation in their local areas. Inria’s contribution to these programmes will be centred around Inria Startup Studio, the goal being to assist academic stakeholders with the development of digital deep tech startups. In the future we might well see Deep Tech Startup Studios “powered by Inria” at each site."