Orange Fab: 5 Things you need to know about Orange’s new “accelerator”

Apr 5, 2013
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Orange Fab

During my trip home to California, I took the opportunity to meet up with some French companies & organizations doing cool things in the Silicon Valley – one of them, was Orange Fab. Run by mobile carrier Orange‘s silicon valley subsidiary Orange Silicon Valley (OSV), Orange Fab self-identifies as ” a three-month accelerator program that supports U.S.-based start-ups with an existing product which changes the way people connect…” The program just opened their applications last month and the program will start in May.

I had the pleasure of being invited to Orange’s amazing offices located at 60 Spear Street in San Francisco, just one block from the bay on the edge of the Financial District. Meeting with program directors Pascale and Guillaume, as well as OSV CEO Georges Nahon, I learned a few important things about Orange Fab.

Orange Fab has perhaps the best offices in San Francisco

The 10th Floor at 60 Spear Street is OSV. 50-75 IT engineers doing R&D and learning about Silicon Valley technologies that it can bring back to Orange customers. The 11th floor, however, is reserved for Orange Fab. The middle of the floor is a ~100 conference room where they plan to invite guests to speak to Orange Fab companies. They have a data center which runs the exact server configuration used & developed by Facebook – it’s not available to the 1st season of startups, but they will be making it available to those who need it in the future. They have a conference room called the “Bay Bridge Room” – it has a panormiac, unblocked view of the Bay Bridge running from the piers all the way to Treasure Island. Need I say more?

Orange Fab offers direct access for startups to a Carrier as a First Client

During my meeting with Georges, I gave him a bit of guff over the fact that I saw the value for Orange is bringing startups under its wing – it’s looking for innovation and potential technologies; however, what’s the win for startups? Well, how about direct access to Orange as 1st client? Normally, Georges said, if you go knocking on a VC’s door and say “we plan to sell to carriers” they will send you packing; however, with Orange Fab, you may already have one as a client. Orange Fab offers startups direct access to its executives across the group, who will be able to make go or no-go decisions about implementing your solution to their problem. While I’m worried that it will be difficult for Orange Fab companies to get other carriers like SFR & Bouygues on board once they have such deep relations with Orange, this is a 1st world problem for many companies.

Orange Fab doesn’t want your idea, it wants to help you create value

I’ve written in the past about how Orange rides a fine line between Innovator and Killer; however, I’d like to note that it becomes quite clear the second you step off the elevator into Orange Fab that you’re not at a French Telecom company – you’re hanging out at a Silicon Valley office. Self-described as “those crazy guys out west,” Georges Nahon dispelled the idea that Orange would be looking to use startup ideas and develop them internally – in fact, he sees the accelerator as a way to externalize R&D. In-house R&D takes too long, doesn’t run on any timer, and ultimately rarely sees the light of day, says Nahon; meanwhile, a startup is built to last, to sell to multiple clients, and to provide value in the long term. While some critics may say that French companies look at innovation and go “oh yeah? I could build that, too,” Nahon hopes that Orange Fab will set an example to corporate on how the accelerator model can bring solutions to the mountains of small problems that arise ina behemoth like Orange.

Here’s what Orange is looking for (hint: smart people).

Like any big company, Orange could run better, and they don’t have the solution to all of their problems. This is why Orange Fab has representatives from almost every subsidiary, including Orange Kenya, Orange Belgium, Orange France & more, in order to let each executive see the startups that pass and determine whether a startup could provide value to the company. With Orange’s VP of Technical Development among the mentors, Nahon noted that there are endless possibilities for startups who are seeking access to real network data in order to make a network run more efficiently, citing SDNs like Nicira and other recent innovations in the network space.

Orange is not France, despite being 27% owned by the French Government

Amidst my complaining that, while this program is great, it would be even more great if awesome tech startups in France who can’t come to the Silicon Valley could have access to this level of mentorship from Orange, Nahon pointed out that Orange is a company, and companies look to make money, not take care of their country. I should mention that Nahon pointed out various programs in France that help startups work with Orange (I don’t know many startups who have had great experiences in France with Orange as a client); nonetheless, this programs is quite unique in the Orange ecosystem, and its ability to exist may be just what Orange corporate executives need to open up to startups and SMBs in France – you know how french companies love to copy things that are working in the Silicon Valley.

I had an amazing time learning about Orange Fab. I will always be critical of companies that are doing great things that they won’t live up to the expectations people have of them, and I will always be skeptical of something that looks too good to be true – that is just my nature. However, having met the OSV and Orange Fab team, I think that whichever startups get to test pilot this program are going to have an unprecedented level of access, not to a French companies, but to a global company, which may be looking more & more like one each day.