French city reaches out to B.C. technology startups

Grenoble initiative bucks COVID-related travel challenges with digital boot camp

Six Metro Vancouver startups have taken part in a digital boot camp organized by the Grenoble-based French Alps International Soft-landing Exchange  | Pel_1971/Getty

The COVID-19 pandemic may have shut down large portions of business travel around the world, but it hasn’t spoiled foreign markets’ appetite for long-term collaborations with B.C. startups.

The latest of such efforts comes from the French city of Grenoble, an urban centre of just short of 700,000 people in the Alps.

In a program funded by the French government and administered by B.C.-based incubator Empowered Startups, six Metro Vancouver and provincial startups took part in a virtual boot camp in October, meeting fellow startups from the French city in a bid to create links that can then be deepened once international travel opens up again.

The French Alps International Soft-landing Exchange (FAISE), said Empowered managing director Laura Bock Blumes, was originally set up for Grenoble to link with startups in Taipei – another city considered a robust startup market that lacks the reputation of a Silicon Valley. When organizers were considering adding cities to expand the program and boost cross-pollination of different global startups, Vancouver jumped to the top of the list.

“Vancouver is not Silicon Valley, but we have a vibrant startup scene,” said Blumes, who is based in Whistler and has incubator spaces in Canada, France and Portugal. “Grenoble is not Paris, but it also has a vibrant startup scene. So why not do the same thing being done with Taipei with Vancouver, having Vancouver startups in Grenoble and Grenoble startups in Vancouver?”

The original plan was to hold a contest over the summer to choose two Vancouver startups, which would then be invited to go to Grenoble November 29–December 4 for an in-person “boot camp,” meeting with local players who may present potential partnerships. The Vancouver winners would be in Grenoble at the same time as the Taipei contest winners, creating an atmosphere favourable for fostering long-term business relationships, Blumes said.

Then, of course, the pandemic hit.

“We built our own digital platform to support efforts like FAISE, and originally we were going to have a small virtual component for winning startups before they go to France,” Blumes said. “As it became more and more clear that the physical boot camp wasn’t happening, the online portion became the workhorse.”

There are positives that grew out of having a digital format, however. Officials were so happy with the quality of the Vancouver companies showing interest that all six of the semi-finalists (including the two winners) were included in the program and took part in the virtual boot camp.

“My experience is that, before COVID, online components were used to co-ordinate,” Blumes said. “Now, it’s used to collaborate. That extends into partnerships, on how people relate to each other, on how partners are moving to focusing on shared goals rather than transaction encounters.

“Under the original format, we may have focused so much on the boot camp that, when it’s over, we would just go back home and return to the way it was before the exchange. Now, with online contact, the experience is more intense, and it can happen more regularly.”

Philippe Sutter, France’s consul general in Vancouver, said the country remains ready to invite the winners to visit Grenoble in person once travel reopens.

“I wish the winners and laureates had the chance to head over to France as was originally planned to take part in the boot camp and discover Grenoble and its region. But I am very glad they still get all the information and will begin a successful co-operation.”

Sutter added that he is pleased to see such a high level of interest in Grenoble from B.C. startups, a point that Blumes said highlights one of the key determining criteria of the program’s success in the eyes of French officials.

“B.C., in the state that we are in, produced six companies that took part,” she said. “So it has already exceeded expectations. Let’s see if the relationship persists. These companies may not establish offices in France, but the plan is to create lasting relationships; we are eager to see how many make it past the one-year mark.”

The two Vancouver winners will also had the opportunity to present their companies virtually in a competition for recognition at a high-level French innovation forum on December 1, competing with firms from California, Texas and North Carolina.

The six B.C. startups to win out during the FAISE contest in Vancouver (judged by Sutter and Vancouver tech sector stalwart Bill Tam) are Origen Air, Trich Analytics, Flik, GrantMe, Origen Clean and Sherwa.