PARIS — On the Fourth of July, I boarded a commuter train at a subterranean station a few blocks away from Notre Dame and the Sorbonne. The car was standing-room-only, but as we headed southwest out of the city, it began to empty out. When I disembarked at the town of Orsay, just over a half an hour from downtown Paris, there were fewer than 20 passengers.
I’d come to see the place where the French are hoping to create Europe’s biggest education and innovation cluster, and possibly “the number three tech cluster in the world, after Boston and Silicon Valley,” in the words of Patrick Cheenne, director of economic development at the Paris-Saclay Development Authority.
Cheenne recently took a delegation of about 25 civic officials and development staffers to Cambridge, Mass., to study the interaction of universities, labs, large companies, and start-ups, and the community that surrounds them. In his office next to the Orsay train station, he tells me that the French government and various private sector players are ready to spend roughly $25 billion here on a new university campus, a new Metro line, research and development facilities, housing, and related infrastructure.
For France, the stakes are high: Unemployment is 11 percent, and early this year the country slipped back into recession. A report from the International Monetary Fund last month highlighted an inflexible labor market and declining productivity. And France’s age-old rival across the Channel, Britain, has managed to capture more innovation mojo lately, in East London’s Silicon Roundabout neighborhood and that other Cambridge, a hotbed of tech and biotech activity.
I hopped into a car with Cheenne and we followed a winding road through the campus of University Paris-Sud up to the Saclay plateau, where his agency is focusing its efforts. The farmland on the plateau, where organic chickens are raised and corn is cultivated, evokes a Gallic version of what Silicon Valley must have looked like in the middle of the 20th century. The history here, Cheenne explains, is that Louis XIV had ponds and canals built on Saclay to supply water to the fountains at Versailles.
In the 1950s, France’s first nuclear reactor was built on the plateau. Today, it is home to the Ecole Polytechnique, an engineering school that dates to the French Revolution. We pass the Soleil synchrotron, a massive circular building housing a particle accelerator, and an R&D facility built by Danone, the multinational food company that sells yogurt and Evian. Intel, Microsoft, Siemens, Renault, and the French aerospace company Thales Group all have operations nearby.
We stopped at a traffic circle that will eventually be the hub of the “urban campus” on the plateau, with a new Metro stop connecting it to Paris and the nearby Orly Airport. (It’s expected to arrive in 2023.) In the distance, cranes loomed over a new research facility for EDF, a utility that produces about 20 percent of Europe’s power.
Today, the Saclay plateau is not exactly a place you walk around. In my brief driving tour, I spotted two people on foot, crossing a parking lot to get lunch. But Cheenne said that would change. The French government has decreed that about two dozen universities and institutes will merge and relocate here, creating a new University Paris-Saclay.
“By 2020,” Cheenne said, “there will be about 50,000 students living and studying on the plateau, and 25,000 other inhabitants, all of them in research, R&D, and academia.”
Cheenne used to work in Cambridge, representing a French biotech trade group, and he recognizes the need to create a home on the plateau for entrepreneurs. In about four years, his agency expects to build a publicly funded incubator space that would be similar to the Cambridge Innovation Center in Kendall Square, but only a fraction of its size.
The vision and ambition of the Saclay project are unlike anything happening in the United States right now. “The idea is to make a city, a level of density that will produce all kinds of meetings, interactions, and recombinations of things,” says Pierre-Paul Zalio of ENS Cachan, a graduate school of about 2,000 students that is planning to relocate to Saclay by 2018.
If all of the pieces — and requisite funding — come together, the new university at Saclay will almost certainly help to elevate France’s profile in the world of academia. And the new university will be surrounded by a healthy collection of corporate R&D outposts. Bang those two rocks together long enough, and you may get the kind of sparks that produce fast-growing new businesses.
If the environment is conducive.
Almost anyone you talk to in France can explain ways in which the country’s culture and government pour water on the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Tax rates are high. It’s difficult to lay off workers in an economic downturn, or if a new product doesn’t fly.
There can be disincentives for university professors to dedicate their time to spin-off companies. There isn’t enough growth capital available. Occasionally, the government intervenes in unpredictable ways, as when a French minister prevented Yahoo from acquiring a majority stake in a French video-sharing site, Dailymotion, earlier this year.
Saclay is “the Old World’s attempt to create a new town,” says Antoine Picon, a Harvard architecture professor who earned his own degree on the Saclay plateau. “Cambridge is an old town in the New World, and one of the leading examples of a place that has fostered a knowledge-driven economy.”
Saclay will develop into something different, and it could, in a decade or two, end up on the map of the world’s top innovation centers.Scott Kirsner can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.