Technologies of tomorrow: France has not said its last word

Stéphane Siebert does not hide his satisfaction. Over the past six months, the director of technological research at the CEA (Commissariat for Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies) has seen several major projects come to fruition. And lead to the construction of factories. Real ones, which create hundreds of jobs. In Béziers (Hérault), Gendia, a joint venture of the CEA and Schlumberger, has started the installation of its high-temperature electrolyser which aims to produce clean hydrogen.

In Bernin (Isère), Soitec will build a new factory to manufacture silicon carbide substrates. The resulting electronic chips will increase the range and charging time of electric vehicles. Finally, in Champagnier (Isère), Aledia will put its 3D microLEDs into production for smartphone screens and automotive lighting. “The screens, we thought they had definitely gone to Asia”, recalls Stéphane Siebert.

These industrial projects stemming from CEA research give the lie to those who deplore, sometimes quite rightly, that the work of our labs too rarely leads to business or does not have a concrete impact on society. But times are changing. The experts we interviewed all confirm it: a new wind is blowing through French deeptech, the technologies that will shape the economy of tomorrow.

Researchers are more “business friendly”: 43% of our doctoral students say they are tempted to start a business. Recently reappointed as head of the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research), Stéphane Petit is no longer stared at when he sets himself the goal of accelerating technology transfer, exchanges with industrialists or the creation of a “start-up studio” within this temple of academic research.

Above all, credits abound. The France 2030 plan has planned to allocate 34 billion euros to the sectors of the future – hydrogen, nuclear, biomedicines or low-carbon aircraft, in particular. Similarly, 1.8 billion euros have been programmed for the Calculation plan, which aims to place the country among the pioneers of quantum computing.

Another strong signal, 250 start-ups benefited in 2021 from the deeptech fund created by the public investment bank Bpifrance, whether in health (40% of projects), greentech or new materials. “We are repeating what we have done in French Tech, explains Paul-François Fournier, in charge of this fund. The labs need significant capital and time. We are adapting the ecosystem to facilitate this transfer of technology.” The public bank already estimates the number of direct jobs in high-tech start-ups at 24,000.

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The risks are higher, the time to deliver longer, but the potential for creating value is sometimes enormous. And the commitment of public money has a multiplier effect: when Bpifrance puts 400 million on the table, private funds add three to four times more. “In deeptech, we immediately speak of tens, even hundreds of millions of euros to be mobilized, confirms Stéphane Siebert. French investors must integrate these amounts and the level of risk.” The CEA, associated with Amundi (Crédit Agricole), plays this role with the capital-innovation fund Supernova Invest.

This affair is in fact eminently political: it is a question of reconquering our scientific and economic sovereignty, on a French and European scale. Europe, from this point of view, is in the process of abandoning its naivety, in the face of the Chinese systemic rival and the not always unconditional American ally. A major event at the start of the year, European Commissioner Thierry Breton, responsible for the internal market, presented his Chips Act, a plan which aims to relaunch the design and production of semiconductors in Europe.

Recent shortages, particularly in the automotive industry, have shown the central role of these electronic brains that drive a whole section of our economies. Europe hopes to double its production by 2030 to reach 20% of the world market share. “We cannot allow ourselves to be dependent on third countries in strategic areas,” insisted the French leader.

First concrete illustration, the American giant Intel has announced a massive investment plan, with public aid from Brussels, to produce semiconductors in Europe. The big chunk goes to Germany with the installation of a mega-factory in Magdeburg for… 17 billion euros of investment. France, on the Saclay plateau in the Paris region, is set to become Intel’s European R&D hub with, it is promised, 450 jobs from 2024. Other investments are planned in Ireland, Italy, Poland and Spain.

About chips, we mention in our dossier the promising future of SiPearl, a young company created in Maisons-Laffitte (Yvelines) which has developed a top-level semiconductor intended for supercomputers. Around 60 computer experts across the continent are working on this product. The founder Philippe Notton plans to increase his workforce to 1,000 in 2025! Lots of rockets are ready to take off.

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