How can ICT research be converted into marketable products?
There are three pathways from research to companies. The first is through research partnerships between our research teams and the R&D departments of big companies. The second is through technology transfer. This can be achieved through the creation of new enterprises, through licensing or even through the diffusion of software with open source licensing. The third way is through the transfer of skills and people, such as the mobility of researchers to industry.
Are INRIA's industrial partnerships primarily focused on large firms or SMEs?
We work both with big and small companies. These are two rather different types of partnership. When we work with large companies, we usually focus on joint research projects. For some research subjects, it is crucial for us to have access to the right research questions as provided by our industrial partners: this defines our strategic partners with a long-term partnership.
It's a slightly different process with SMEs - the partnership is usually much more focused. The key priority of INRIA is to amplify our actions towards SMEs, whatever the pathway is. For the last few months, we have tried to establish stronger links with small companies by initiating new actions.
What difficulties do you encounter in building relationships with SMEs?
It can be very difficult for three reasons. First, we must identify SMEs to work with. It is easy to identify big companies – there are, let's say, about 10 potential strategic partners for INRIA in our sector. It's much more difficult with SMEs.
In France, we can estimate that there are thousands of innovative companies. We have tried to organise a network through French competitiveness clusters, of which there are 71. These clusters are located in a given area and focused on a particular research domain, such as security and communication or aerospace. They organise networks of SMEs, and it is a great opportunity for us to meet SMEs and identify innovative companies. We can then connect them with the right research teams located elsewhere in France.
What are the major areas where INRIA can work with smaller firms?
Well, that's the second difficulty. There are five markets that can be considered to be networks of SMEs that could become INRIA partners. These are aerospace, telecoms and multimedia, health, sustainable development, energy and terrestrial transportation, and embedded software. These five markets each have a national technology transfer associate at INRIA to identify SMEs and organise a network of possible research groups.
It's one thing to identify SMEs, it's another thing to find the right research team to work with them and to help evolve their research actions or their technologies. Inside INRIA, we try to promote partnerships with SMEs in order to help project teams to work with smaller companies: this is the aim of an internal SME programme. One way is to promote small joint laboratories between a project team and an SME, with a joint roadmap for two to three years. These joint labs are referred to as I-Labs, and will be partially funded by INRIA.
Are there differences between working with SMEs and working with large companies?
Indeed, this brings me to the third hurdle we face when working with small companies. Even if we have identified the SME and the project team, we are supposed to deal with SMEs quickly, as smaller companies are always eager to have a fast timescale – much more so than with larger companies. There are also differences over how we deal with intellectual property issues. With SMEs, we should be able to have a much less stringent policy.
We have recently established a joint agreement with a group of French innovative SME in order to promote technology transfer to SME (the so-called 'SME Pact'). The objective is to brainstorm these issues, so that we can work more efficiently with SMEs. We want to have a very proactive policy in this regard.
Do you work with new SMEs as well as INRIA spin-off companies?
We founded, at the beginning of 2009, a club of SMEs that are INRIA partners. The first circle will come from spin-off companies – INRIA has created about 95 spin-off companies in 25 years, and about 70 of those were founded in the past decade – but we want to extend this circle to other SMEs. Notice that we also want to foster the spin-off companies stemming from INRIA: our subsidiary, INRIA-Transfer, is focused on the creation of innovative companies, and will be able to fund new companies with seed money in the coming months.
Given some of the challenges you have outlined, what are the benefits to INRIA of partnering with new, small companies?
It's not a question of benefit as such. Our target is to ensure that we have maximal impact with what we do. We think SMEs could be a very quick path to the market and working with lots of SMEs will increase our economic impact. But it's not a question of benefit, it's more a matter of duty.
When you build partnerships with private businesses, where does the funding come from?
When we work with big companies, projects are either funded by the company or through joint funding from agencies in Europe or France. For SMEs, there are many new frameworks to boost partnership between SMEs and public research institutions. There is also a new tax incentive for small companies in France, which may encourage them to invest in R&D. It's all part of the evolution of the French research landscape.
What are the characteristics of an ideal partner company?
It's difficult to define what companies to work with. We want partnerships with innovative companies in ICT. Sometimes they are larger, sometimes small. This is a key issue. We do need to be selective though, because our research teams are overloaded and there are many opportunities.
You mentioned the importance of researcher mobility. Can INRIA researchers spend time in industry?
It is possible for our researchers to spend time in a company for a period. The problem is how this is viewed in terms of their overall career. We want to ensure that their career will be well evaluated if they spend time working in industry. Obviously they will publish fewer research articles if they work with a company, but this still has a value. Notice that spin-off companies stemming from INRIA are also often associated with researcher mobility.
Is there a danger that you could lose talented scientists to the private sector?
I don't see it as a risk. If researchers move to private companies it can be beneficial for all. It's good for the company and can be good for INRIA to have links with innovative companies. From my viewpoint, it can also be seen as a success story.
With all this focus on the private sector, will basic research be neglected in favour of developing marketable technologies?
At INRIA, the first focus will always be on excellence of research. If you don't have excellent research, you have nothing to transfer. There is no tension between these two objectives.