Silicon Sentier, which in many ways was a key spark in the evolution of France’s tech ecosystem, is moving into a new, bold phase. With a huge new space to housing all its activities and Squid Solutions founder Adrien Schmidt at the helm as their new president, Silicon Sentier is looking to broaden its impact on France’s rapidly growing digital economy.
I recently caught up with Schmidt, who discussed in detail his association’s origins, how it has evolved overtime and their ambitious future plans:
How has Silicon Sentier evolved over time in terms of its mission and activities?
Silicon Sentier has been focusing for some time now on turning the Sentier area into one that’s welcoming for startups and entrepreneurs. So, for example, one of the first things Silicon Sentier did was pushing for internet infrastructure in the local area, e.g. wifi, fiber so you could actually plug into the net and start a company. This example is a good illustration of our territorial approach. Which essentially is our goal of gathering companies and talent in one area where they can prosper, thrive and do business.
As Silicon Sentier has grown, what we’ve been focusing prototyping projects and ideas that can then be brought into the ecosystem and made bigger, either by us or others. So we started by working on the quartier numerique initiative in 2006, then moved on to La Cantine in 2008 a coworking, meeting, networking, and events space, The good news is that this whole co-working concept has spread to other associations and organizations so now there’s several other coworking spaces across France. For example, now you have 12 La Cantines spread out across France which although part of what we call ‘Le réseau des Cantines’, are completely independent associations (from Silicon Sentier).
The next big initiative we developed was the accelerator program Le Camping, which was a first in France. Now we’re very happy to see that other organizations are starting accelerator programs. The idea, again, is to start things out an spread it across the ecosystem. These two activities together, namely to have a place where people meet and co-work coupled with an accerlator program where you can actually boost companies and help startups, is being acknowledged across France as the model that works to help startups. We’re obviously really happy about that.
What about Silicon Sentier’s funding structure. How has this evolved?
It’s very interesting to see how our organization changed overtime. In the very early years, Silicon Sentier was almost like a public service in some ways – evangelizing a bit on what is digital, focusing on infrastructure, bringing people together and putting in place the conditions for others to do business. But now as the whole startup ecosystem has become more professional, our mission has also changed.
Our goal now focuses more on boosting companies, it’s becoming more performance related. So, for example, the way that we measure our success with Le Camping is by the success of the companies that are incubated and accelerated within it. So this with this shift in focus, our own structure is also changing from a publicly funded non-profit to a privately funded organization that at some stage will show return on investment. In tangible terms, in the early days we were 80% public / 20% private, more recently we were 50% public / 50% private, and now we’re moving into 15% public / 85% private. All of our activities now have some-level of company / private funding. We also have Silicon Experience which is almost like the consulting arm of Silicon Sentier which does business with other companies providing them with ideas on new, more efficient ways to develop new products. This is becoming a very important activity for us. We want to grow that activity not only to move towards being more privately funded, but also to be more efficient in our own operations.
Where do you plan to take things from here? What are your big next steps?
Well, firstly, we still want to work on the territory in Paris. We think Paris is a place where we can have an even higher concentration of talent. But if you want to have this concentration of talent you need people and money. So those are the two things we’re working on.
Taking the ‘people’ element first, we’re working now on making a bigger space. We’re currently renovating a 1700m2 building where we’ll host La Cantine, Le Camping and a host of other programs which we’re setting up right now. We want to encourage startups to settle in and around this new space and be a part of this startup ecosystem.
However, we know that if we want people to come, they’re not only going to want a community, but also capital. This is an element we’re going to be working on in the coming months. We’re actively exploring how to encourage the angel network, to get them together and structured and, of course, get them in front of startups. This is what we’re trying to do, for example, with Demo Days and Le Camping. As you’ve probably noticed, we have to do Demo Days in other European companies as well. If you look at the funds that the Le Camping startups have raised, more than half of the funds, something like 55 – 60%, come from foreign investment. So, we want to help build-out and structure the (French) angel network and get them investing more in early stage companies.
We also, of course, need more seed funds that are able to invest in these early stage companies, follow-up on these investments when they get to Series A, etc. So, we’re definitely looking as well at whether we can set that up or partner with a fund to set this peice up. This is really the next step of what we believe our job is which is to create a place which is fully attractive to talent.
I think one of the one of the best ways to measuring the success of what we’re working on is whether if we have people from the outside come into Paris and our local area because they think it’s a great place to do business. But that’s only going to happen if we have the right infrastructure for business; talents, namely people who share experiences, do training sessions, etc; and money to help finance these (new) companies.
What are your thoughts on the some of the ideas coming from the government to build France’s digital economy (ie city numerique)?
What’s really interesting if you talk with the government about how they want to build-out the digital economy (here in France) they really are moving away from the completely government subsidized model to a co-investment model. So, even the way the government’s working on this issue is changing. My understanding of the quartier numerique idea is that it won’t be a government-led subsidy program. On the contrary, it will be locally-led, ecosystem supported initiative that’s based on co-investment rather than subsides. When we hear things around places where people can meet and where you can animate an ecosystem or when we hear them talking about supporting accelerator programs, we think it’s great and moving in the right direction.
How are you getting the word out to the international community about what’s going on here in Paris and, more broadly, France?
It’s definitely tough. If you look at our Le Camping program we lose companies that we select to foreign accelerators, but we haven’t been able to attract foreign companies to ours. We haven’t been able, for example, to win a London company or get a Berlin startup coming over to us. That’s a metric that’s definitely on our radar and something we’d like to achieve, but we’re not there yet.
Le Camping is still our front-edge international program. We currently do Demo Days in Berlin, London, and Luxembourg. For the first time, Le Camping went to Silicon Valley in August. So that’s one way of doing it. The other way of doing it is through building a communication strategy, which is what we’re working on now, where we can start branding our activities, branding content, producing things in English and working on communicating the world (in English). This also includes connecting with other similar startup associations, non-profits, or accelerator programs or even places, like coworking spaces, abroad.
When will the new Silicon Sentier space be ready?
We are moving out of La Cantine at the end of the month and the staff is moving into the new building beginning of October. During the month of October we’ll be hosting events in other locations (until it’s fully operational) but there will be people working there from early October. The big kick-off is with our inaugural party, set for November 14th.