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Ambitions for northern France’s ‘cathedral of tech’ face reality

LILLE, France — Nicolas Brien’s ambitions for France’s grand old innovation factory EuraTechnologies burn brighter than ever. For some in the French tech scene, though, he’s flying too close to the sun. 

The 33-year-old Brien, a Sciences Po graduate, has already had stints as a Cabinet minister’s adviser, a candidate for MP and head of the digital lobby France Digitale. Being chairman of EuraTech’s executive board, a post he’s held since July of last year, carries particular weight — his first visit six years ago left him with the “mesmerizing feeling of entering a cathedral of tech.”

Founded in 2009 and the brainchild of entrepreneur Pierre de Saintignon, EuraTech Lille is one of Europe’s oldest technology campuses. The incubator is housed in a vast disused factory in what was the heart of the textiles industry.

Brien in a July 25 interview declined to be compared to the “visionary” de Saintignon, saying with a smile,  “I’m clearly not a genius, I’m clearly not this guy. You have to stay humble.”

Humility’s not always easy after raising €24 million.

“It’s massive,” said Brien of this latest round of funding in June, “Even by American standards it’s big. It’s the largest Series A ever realized by a startup incubator in the world.”

EuraTech remains mostly publicly held, with €17 million of the recent haul coming from previous shareholders, including the regional government and banks, and €7 million coming from the Mulliez family, one of France’s richest, and their partners.

Plans for the future

Brien sees EuraTech as a “gateway to Western Europe,” with 10 eventual satellite incubators across Eastern Europe, the Balkans and North Africa. Among the other goals for the hub: becoming Europe’s first net-zero incubator by 2030; expanding into so-called deep tech innovation, with €10 million in state-of-the-art equipment; and creating 3,000 more permanent jobs by 2027. 

The employment goal looks the most feasible, given that EuraTech, by its own count, has created 6,500 jobs in 10 years. The other aims, though, raise questions.

Even by European standards, let alone U.S. ones, €24 million is no big deal for a startup fund. Oxford Science Enterprises, which grows businesses based on University of Oxford research, raised £250 million in July, totaling £850 million since 2015, for example. If Brien wants to compare deep-tech endeavors, PhotonDelta in the Netherlands received €1.1 billion in April to build 200 next-generation photonic chip startups, almost half of which was public money.

Brien’s caveat that his fundraiser was a “Series A” round is, according to Paris-based investor Michael Jackson, “alphabet soup.”

Nicolas Brien sees EuraTech as a “gateway to Westren Europe,” with 10 eventual satellite incubators across Eastern Europe, the Balkans and North Africa | Photo by Guillaume Souvant/AFP via Getty Images

“EuraTechnologies has been around since 2009,” Jackson said. “They have clearly had funding since then, so the whole thing of saying it’s a Series A seems to be just semantics.” EuraTech responded by saying that when banks joined as minority shareholders in 2017, this was for less than €1 million, so the latest fundraiser “corresponds” to a Series A round.

Achieving net-zero status raises eyebrows even within the incubator. One entrepreneur housed there — speaking on condition of anonymity — is a decarbonization specialist and said he helped develop a carbon-cutting plan for EuraTech. He said he was palmed off.

“I’ve been put into contact with Nicolas many times via email, and each time it’s, ‘Yes let’s talk, talk to this person,’ and in fact we never talk,” he said, adding, “I don’t know if it’s technically feasible, but it’s enormously ambitious to be net-zero [by 2030] for such a huge operation.”

He said Brien made a speech at an internal climate-awareness event where he “mixed up climate and pollution … It shows he thinks he knows, but he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

EuraTech responded that “delegations were put in place when Nicolas arrived in order to effectively respond to the founders of 200 startups,” and that “it’s not necessary to be a climate expert to realize the importance of it and make it a priority.”

Working climate

Earlier this year, articles in newspapers Les Echos and La Voix du Nord featured testimonies from people at EuraTech, some describing a “policy of terror” and a “climate of fear” hanging over the incubator since Brien took over as chairman.

Brien revealed that shortly after the Les Echos article was published, he sued them for defamation, saying, “We [were] very surprised by the very negative and aggressive tone of the article and the unverified, twisted stories that were behind it.” The investigation is ongoing and Les Echos did not respond to a request for comment.

In an internal email dated February 1, Brien addressed EuraTech’s entrepreneurs, promising to establish a “permanent dialogue between the EuraTech team and the entrepreneurs who would like to participate.”

“You’re asking yourselves, legitimately, if I’m the right person to write EuraTechnologies’ new chapter,” he wrote. “I know you won’t let me make mistakes, and I have to work much harder to develop a climate of transparency and dialogue between us.”

Six months later, opinions on progress are mixed. 

Jean-Luc Vanengelandt, who was an investor in one of EuraTech’s startups, was cited in the Les Echos article as having criticized Brien publicly in December last year.

Now, Vanengelandt, who still runs a Lille-based startup but is no longer involved with EuraTech, sounded a note of optimism, given the arrival of the Mulliez family, who own the chain stores Decathlon and Auchan, and another investor, Groupe IRD.

Jean-Luc Vanengelandt sounded a note of optimism given the arrival of the Mulliez family, who own the chain stores Decathlon and Auchan | Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images

“They are very pragmatic and humane people. If there are things that aren’t in their values, very quickly there will be very drastic decisions made,” Vanengelandt said. “Every startup and entrepreneur in the north of France knows the reputation of these two large groups, so their arrival has automatically calmed whatever anxiety there had been when Nicolas arrived.”

The way forward

EuraTech said Nicolas’ “new strategy” had “created positive expectations, convincing both private investors and historical shareholders.”

Others, though, aren’t convinced. Maxime Schacht, CEO of computer vision company VizioSense, which is headquartered in Lille, said, “Everyone is scared of that guy. And whenever he’s been publicly criticized, people get in trouble.

“Everyone from the historical management has left or is leaving and even people he hired less than a year ago, most of them at key positions have left or are leaving.”

EuraTech denied the first claim, saying it “encourages a culture of feedback,” and said the second was inaccurate. “Under the new strategy … numerous recruitments have been made or are underway.”

A refreshed executive team was announced on February 16, comprising six new hires and three promotions. Of the new hires, HR chief Lamiaa Decaux, worked there only until March 23, while Program Manager Charles Kessous was gone after four months.

“What I’m hearing about what the new boss Nicolas Brien is trying to do in EuraTechnologies, and that is different from his predecessor,” Schacht continued, “is that they’re now much less into helping founders build a company,” and are instead prioritizing scaleups, convincing “nice Parisian startups making a lot of money” to start a subsidiary.

EuraTech disputed that claim, saying in a statement it was “a founders-friendly incubator and accelerator, which focuses on early-stage projects.” 

Brien has criticized “Parisian centralism” and French President Emmanuel Macron’s focus on building French “unicorns,” startups valued at more than $1 billion. Brien called Macron’s goal of 100 unicorns by 2030 “petty counting stuff” and “Paris-based, obsessed with financial valuation.”

Maxime Grandjean, CEO of sales company Amalia, that resides in both EuraTech and the Paris-based incubator Station F — created by billionaire Xavier Niel, called for a dose of perspective.

“Let’s look at the big picture, right? The big picture is the fact that EuraTechnologies is a really good ecosystem, creating value for now and for the future.”

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