Last week I co-moderated the French American Conference of Entrepreneurs in Paris. In two packed days of speeches and panels, the 450 attendees listened intently in a large auditorium inside the Louvre museum as hugely successful American entrepreneurs like Kevin Ryan, a co-founder of DoubleClick and now a co-founder of Alley Corp. and Martin Eberhard a co-founder of Tesla Motors, the electric sports car company, spoke about their wild rides to success. For the audience, mostly young French just getting their start, these successful American entrepreneurs are like rock stars.
It's always fascinating to hear the stories of how great ideas are born, especially when those ideas turn into billion dollar businesses. But for me one of the most interesting parts of the event came at the very end: a networking session in the beautiful garden of L'hÃ´tel Potocki, the ornate mansion that once belonged to a Polish count but which today is the headquarters of the Chambre de Commerce et d'Industrie de Paris, one of the sponsors of the event. Here, I was able to meet and talk with many of those attending the conference. It was a bit of an incongruous setting. There, sipping champagne on the terrace of this magnificent eighteenth century residence was a collection of some of modern France's most promising and scrappy hight-tech entrepreneurs.
One of them is Jean-Christophe Baillie, the founder of a Gostai, a company that makes software for consumer robotics. Baillie, who graduated from the Ecole Polytechnique, France's top technical school, and who has a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence has assembled a team of 15 software engineers who make and license operating software for consumer robotics. The software, called Urbi can be used on a wide variety of robots and also opens up programming to hobbyists who want to give robots unique behavior since it supports Linux and other open source programs. Baillie launched the company in 2006. Among Gostai's clients and licensees are Sony Computer Science Labs in Paris, the French robot maker Aldebaran, and many European and U.S. universities, including Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
In a cramped lab inside of ENSTA, a research institute on the edge of Paris, Baillie and his team are working on software for robots that play, robots that teach and robots that work. The idea is to develop easy to use programs that will allow anyone to customize a robot's behavior, from getting a drink from the fridge to reading a newspaper out loud, to recognizing a face to even doing a dance.
For now, the little lab is strewn with small human and dog shaped robots that walk, follow the movement of balls with their "eyes" and, in the case of the dogs, chase the balls and bark. On computer screens, programmers are working on software for robots that will play soccer at an upcoming robotics competition in China called robocup, with a Gostai sponsored online competition called "robotstadium".
Baillie has been able to take his vision and his little young company as far as he has thanks in large part to the French government. Gostai, like all French start-ups, benefits from an array of tax breaks and subsidies without which it would be impossible to get rolling, given France's generous and, for business, burdensome social benefits. But while it may be easier to start a business in France than in the U.S, it's far harder to grow one. The market is too small and financing is harder to come by. So, in a few days, Baillie will be hopping a plane and making the pilgrimage to Silicon Valley, as so many French tech companies have done before. Says Baillie "The point is not to save a few euros with the French tax reduction program, it's about raising money and growing very quickly into an international business." Spoken like a true entrepreneur.