In one of the first conferences I attended in France, Failcon France, I got the opportunity to see an interview with Gilles Babinet. At the time, I didn’t know Xavier Niel from Professor Xavier, let alone who Gilles Babinet was, but whenever an entrepreneur-turned investor gives you an account of his experiences & thoughts, you listen good & hard. These days, French tech news has become synonymous with Babinet & Fleur Pellerin, minister of the Digital Economy.
Whether it’s one of Babinet’s current startups – Captain Dash or Eyeka – of which he is an active member of both, or whether it’s the recent news about the CNN, a tech council group for the government of which Babinet is the head (and now the only remaining member). Recently, however, Babinet took on a new role – that of “Champion of the Digital Economy of France,” a role which has landed him in Brussels alongside representatives from other EU countries looking at how the EU can support innovation in Europe. I sat down and chatted with Gilles Babinet about his past, present &, most interestingly, his future:
Gilles Babinet: How did you first get started as an Entrepreneur? What was the ecosystem like then?
Given that I dropped out school at 15, I had little degree of any kind and started working in the building construction. My boss then didn’t stop complaining that he had too much work and could not even make the proposals he was requested to. With another employee and friend, we left the company and, at the age of 22, I launched the exact same type of business, Escalade Industry, which worked fine.
Back then , entrepreneurs were perceived as weird people; the real glory was to be from ENA. If you had one of these grand ecoles graduates in the room next to an entrepreneur, the grand ecoles graduate would get all the attention, and the entrepreneur none. Nowadays, it’s quite the opposite.
How did you get elected to the Conseil National du Numerique(CNN)? Was this something you had planned, or an opportunity that came up unexpectedly?
I spent a year working at Institut Montaigne, an independent think tank founded in 2000 by Claude Bébéar, on competitiveness issues, which I really enjoyed. Just afterwards came the opportunity for the CNN. I was happy enough to be part of the council, not thinking about being the chair of it. When I saw that there was no real candidate to represent my views (mostly about competitiveness), I proposed myself as Chair.
Now that you’ve taken on the role as Champion of the Numerique for France in the EU Commission, what would you like to come of this role?
There are some amazing civic initiatives that have taken place in various European countries. The UK, for example, launched an initiative last year to help get more of its citizens online, by calling on Internet users to help non-Internet users get familiar with the Internet. I think this is an excellent initiative to replicate on an EU-level. Additionally, I think there are some amazing things that the EU can do to help kids learn about the Internet at a younger age, as well as some initiatives targeted at health-care. We have only just begun to convene with our first meeting just last month, though I hope to have a proposal ready by the next meeting of Digital Champions, which will take place in late September.
Having touched both the Entrepreneurial world and the Political realm, what’s your impression of politics? Is this the beginning of a political career?
In short: everything is too slow. Having spent the last year working in politics, I think I’ll last another year – I started as an entrepreneur, and I intend to carry on as an entrepreneur.
Fleur Pellerin has been in the news a lot, with bloggers criticizing her every move – how do you feel about her?
Fleur Pellerin gets it. For every Fleur Pellerin in France, there are 100 people pushing in the other direction. When topics come up, such as the open web and thus open data, what some politicians don’t realize is that transparency is not an option, it’s a direct byproduct of the Internet.
We used to be a very innovative country, and now it seems that innovation’s been stopped. If there’s one thing I could control in the next few years it would be to get more of our country’s GDP going into innovation, 1-2% more. At the pace we’re at right now, by 2016 the UK will being investing 9% more of its GDP in innovation than France. That’s just not an option.