On 20 April, the University of Montpellier hosted the Deep Tech Tour. An event organised by the public investment bank with the aim of raising awareness of entrepreneurship among researchers and students. It was an opportunity to review the UM's innovation policy with Vice-President François Pierrot

What exactly is innovation for a university that constantly produces new knowledge?
University research is always about creating new knowledge. Innovation consists of transforming some of this knowledge into new products and services, or even into public actions, because innovation does not only concern the commercial world, even if the link is more obvious when we talk about patents or software.

Are French universities obliged to have an innovation policy?
The official missions of universities include training, research and contributing to the economic development of the country, so innovation is not an option for us. We are financed mainly by public money. Where does this money come from? From the economic activity produced by everyone's work. If, when the knowledge acquired is suitable, we do not bring our innovations to the market, or more broadly to society, this is a loss of opportunity for everyone, and we are failing in one of our missions.

Is economic development necessarily linked to academic research?
Most economic progress today is linked to scientific and technological innovations and the most prominent companies in the world are those that have succeeded in making the link between research, innovation and industrial production. We can see this around the major American universities: the Boston area around MIT and Harvard, Silicon Valley around UC Berkeley, Stanford, etc. In France, the promotion of ' Deep Tech companies' illustrates this desire to place technological innovation from the academic world at the heart of the creation of companies that will be tomorrow's champions.

How do we get these innovations out of the university and into the market?
There is no single path, but certain elements are very often present: maturation of technologies, incubation of young companies, establishment of solid contractual relationships with private partners. Today we benefit from our privileged relationship with the SATT AxLR, which is a private law operator (created by the State in 2012), but whose shareholding is public.

Who are the shareholders?
The most important are the State, the CNRS and the University of Montpellier, but the Region and the Metropolis of Montpellier, which are key partners in innovation, have recently joined us. The SAATs have financial resources that allow us to contribute directly to the maturation process when we detect an advance in our laboratories that can give rise to Intellectual Property (patent, software, etc.), but also to the incubation of young companies that rely on our technologies.

And what measures has the UM put in place to ensure this detection?
This is the role of the departments in charge of partnerships with companies, which are in regular contact with the laboratories (at the UM: DIPA), but also of specific systems, such as our 'innovation booster': the BIM (see BIM: a springboard for your ideas). If the projects are still very 'upstream', it will be necessary to persevere in a pure research activity, if proofs of concept are still missing, to go towards prematurity, if the projects are well advanced, to go towards the SATT or the BIC.

What is the purpose of incubation?
If experienced managers are not present at the start of the venture, the team of founders must be trained: this is the role of incubation. In many cases, it is the researchers themselves who want to create a company. The concepts of business plans, regulations, HR management, export strategies, etc. are often foreign to them.

And who carries out this incubation in Montpellier?
We are fortunate in Montpellier to have several players who not only incubate but also cooperate to co-incubate. The Satt of course, but also the BIC of Montpellier, which is one of the best incubators in the world and which we will soon have the chance to host on the Triolet campus, and finally the University Incubator, which is currently operated by MoMa and which we hope to be able to strengthen in the near future.

Not all researchers want to set up a company, how do you encourage the relationship between researchers and companies that might be interested in their innovation?
These relationships must be established over the long term and this is what we have been doing for the past three years with the
Companies on Campus programme. We help laboratories that wish to welcome companies on their premises to carry out partnership research. Future marketable products or services can emerge from this meeting.

Does innovation make money for the University?
Some people may think that we do it in a spirit of profitability, but the innovation activity is not a profit centre, it is a public service mission. The 'profit' is found in the society around us thanks to the jobs created and the progress that spreads. If we look at the University's accounts, we will of course see money coming in, but the University has not become a "trader" or a "financier", we are a public service player.

Last November we were selected to become one of the five French university innovation centres, a PUI. Why us?
If the State chose Montpellier, it is because we have demonstrated with our partners that we have gone beyond the stage of competition between institutions to reach a stage of cooperation. All our partnership and development services work together and have harmonised their practices. We have created a large family of innovation experts in Montpellier.

This centre has been allocated 2.5 million euros. What will this allocation allow?
We are well aware of our scientific strengths, but we are less aware of our assets in terms of technologies; and if we want to contribute to solving the problems that arise in the socio-economic sphere and in society in general, we must map these technological strengths and these skills. To do this, we need to listen and the PUI will allow us to do this.

In what way?
By deploying new methods. The first is long-term, called ideation. For a given theme, we bring together the stakeholders around the researchers and get them to work together for several weeks or even several months to bring out a societal issue and then turn it into a research project.

And in the short term?
We have remarkable technological resources and know-how in our laboratories that could enable us to offer engineering services to companies for specific needs. This is neither the work of the researchers nor the work of the research engineers; on the other hand, we can imagine installing engineers as close as possible to certain platforms, capable of responding to these occasional expectations. Some of our partners are very dynamic on this point, the CNRS in particular.

In June, the University will host the Curie Congress. Is this an important meeting for innovation players?
The Curie congress allows several hundred innovation experts to meet to exchange, share and develop their practices. It's a time for mutual training and cooperation and it's a very warm moment for the community. Moreover, we are lucky enough to host this event in the year when we welcome the perpetuation of the I-SITE label... and the "E" in I-SITE stands for "economy". So it's a nice synchronisation.

Finally, since 2019, the University of Montpellier has been awarding an Innovation Prize. What is the aim of this initiative?
There are ways of saluting performance in the field of research and more recently in the field of teaching, but the State has not yet introduced a prize to salute the great innovators. This is a way for us to thank the teams that contribute most to this mission and to show that it is possible to do very good research and to transfer it. More simply, this prize is there to say that at the University of Montpellier, we like innovators.