A scientist at work at the Laboratory for Irradiated Solids at the École Polytechnique near Paris.

École Polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

France should do more to help scientists become entrepreneurs, report says

France isn't the hotbed of innovation it would like to be, and one reason is that scientific research has traditionally been done by public servants, who rarely start a company to turn their discoveries into new products or services. A 1999 law that aimed to change that by stimulating entrepreneurship has not had the intended effects, according to a report released on Tuesday.

The report recommends relaxing the rules for academics who want to embark on a commercial adventure, rewarding those who file patents, and giving entrepreneurial scientists more recognition.

Judged solely by the number of patent filings, France may seem quite an entrepreneurial country; it ranks sixth globally, according to the latest figures from the World Intellectual Property Organization. But public researchers are often loath to become entrepreneurs. The French government asked Jean-Luc Beylat, president of Nokia Bell Labs France in Paris, and Pierre Tambourin, general director of the biocluster Genopole in Evry, to review the so-called Allègre Law of 1999, which sought to make it easier for scientists to engage in entrepreneurship, as well as similar initiatives.

Until then, researchers at French universities and public research institutions had to be fully committed to academia and were not allowed to benefit economically from their discoveries. The law, named after then–Science Minister Claude Allègre, was inspired by U.S. successes in harnessing research to boost innovation and economic growth. It allows researchers to pause their academic duties for up to 6 years to launch a startup and invest money in it, as long as they obtain the blessing of their institution and the Public Service Ethics Commission. After that, they can stay involved in the company for up to 10 years as a consultant if they have a capital share of below 49%, and become an executive board member if their share is below 20%. But they must sell their stake in the company once they stop working for it altogether.

On average, only 98 academics per year have applied for the Public Service Ethics Commission’s blessing to use these options, with only 89 receiving it—a "very low" and "disappointing" outcome, the report says. Moreover, more than 80% of the authorizations were given for consulting activities, versus 3.5% for sitting on an executive board and 16.2% for actually creating a startup. That's far less than the law intended, says the report, and a missed opportunity for publicly funded research.

The authors suggest further loosening the rules. Researchers should be allowed to spend up to 10 years on developing their spin-off and to work 50% of their time on consulting activities, instead of the current 20%, for instance. They should also be given 3 years to resell their share and be allowed to keep up to 20% of it. The Public Service Ethics Commission should play a smaller role, the authors say, and entrepreneurial activities should be a factor in the career advancement of publicly funded researchers.

“These are good measures,” says Xavier Duportet, co-founder and chief executive officer at Eligo Bioscience in Paris, who was hailed as one of France's top young entrepreneurs in MIT Technology Review and Forbes. But other things may be more important, he adds, such as mentorship of starting entrepreneurs by experienced colleagues and a more interdisciplinary approach in French higher education.

Above all, France's academic culture needs to change, he adds. “When you enroll as a civil servant, it is not really in the current culture that one day you could become an entrepreneur,” says Duportet, who also founded a nonprofit to help scientists across the world launch their own startups.