Sophia Antipolis: high-tech culture out of a high-tech desert

22 Jul 2008 | News
Part 2 of our series on clusters: France’s leading high-tech cluster is now looking to internal momentum for growth.

Sophia Antipolis: start-ups among the pine forests of the South of France.

The area between Nice and Cannes in southern France seems an unlikely spot for a high-tech cluster. With its forest of pines trees, and the adjoining French Rivera’s beaches and luxurious yachts and seaports, Sophia Antipolis looks more like an exhausted executive’s dream retirement home than a fertile place for would-be entrepreneurs.

Yet despite the absence of big science universities and in an area without an industrial tradition, the 2,300-hectare technology park overlooking the Mediterranean is home to 1,414 companies. Of these, 40 per cent carry out R&D, mostly in information technology. And even though the bursting of the Internet and telecom bubble slowed the development of Sophia Antipolis in the early years of this decade, its companies now employ 30,000 people – as against 23,000 in 2000.

The main credit for these achievements has to go to the local politicians who cajoled the French government into founding the park in 1969 – even though at the time nearby Nice University was but four years old and there were no big companies in the area.

In other words Sophia Antipolis is like the high speed train, TGV or the nuclear industry: a pure product of French public policy will, also called Colbertism after Louis XIV’s long-serving chief minister.

And even if it has never been able to reach the size of its role model, Silicon Valley in the US, Sophia Anipolis, Europe’s oldest European high-tech park, has created a sustainable dynamic that no longer needs to be propped up by the public purse.

Early industrial support was key to the development of Sophia Antipolis. It  came in the shape of two US-based IT corporations, IBM and Texas Instruments. When Pierre Laffitte, then a Senator and later Director of the prestigious École des Mines in Paris, and the French state territory planning agency, Datar, started to develop Sophia Antipolis, they recruited the two corporations to their vision – both companies had already established R&D bases in the area.

Iconic magnets

They were iconic names. IBM and Texas Instruments were involved in the founding of the Cote d’Azure’s Telecom Valley in the early 1990s, helping to pull in 70 other IT companies. The association was able to attract research institutions such as Eurecom, a spin off of the engineering school Telecom Paris, and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, the body that produced the GSM standard for mobile phones.

In turn, IBM made the presence of a university in the vicinity a condition of its expansion, so the prominent Ecole des Mines in 1976 and INRIA in 1983 set up affiliated labs in Sophia Antipolis for their PhD students. In 1978, CERAM, a business school with a strong focus on entrepreneurship was founded. Altogether, Sophia Antipolis is now home to5 ,000 students and 4,000 publicly funded researchers.

Initially dependent on inward investment, Sophia Antipolis has seen companies come and go. In the 1980s the US minicomputer company DEC (later Digital Equipment) was a prominent resident. When the minicomputer was overtaken by the personal computer and Digital became part of Compaq, Sophia Antipolis lost a significant tenant.

But in the mid-1990s the soil of the park started to become fertile enough to grow its own companies. Sophia Antipolis is now not only driven by the expansion of established companies, rather than by newcomers, but it is starting to see its first successful start-ups. An example is the e-commerce search engine Certimate. Another is content streaming specialist Castify. Both managed to weather the storm after the Internet bubble burst.

A further key factor since 2000 has been the development of Nice Airport as a low-cost hub. Annual traffic now exceeds Geneva or Lyon, a significant advantage for high-tech start-ups that can reach 60 destinations within Europe relatively cheaply.

And even though Sophia Antipolis is located in a highly desirable tourist region, real estate prices have been contained within the park to levels below cities such Marseille and Lyon. The park is expecting a 10 per cent increase in its office space by 2012.

Indeed, at one million square metres it is already one of the biggest technology parks in Europe, rubbing shoulders with Kista near Stockholm. More than 150 large international companies, including Toyota, Nortel, Wipro and Amadeus, have subsidiaries there, alongside numerous start-ups. With the average number of employees standing at 21, SMEs are dominant in Sophia.

Despite this impressive growth, two-thirds of the park is maintained as green areas, creating a beautiful site where office rental prices are relatively low. Sophia Antipolis was recently christened as a Pole de Competivité under the French government’s initiative to drive the development of clusters. And it still has room to expand still further.

Sophia Antipolis has certainly developed a high-tech culture that can rival with other European centres. But it still needs to grow an entrepreneurial culture. Venture capitalists travel to Sophia Antipolis – but unlike Silicon Valley almost none have decided to move there.

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