"Innovation is not a profit center, it's a public service mission".

On April 20, the University of Montpellier hosted the Deep Tech Tour. This event, organized by the public investment bank, aims to raise awareness of entrepreneurship among researchers and students. An opportunity to take stock of the UM's innovation policy with vice-president François Pierrot.

What exactly is innovation for a university that is constantly producing new knowledge?
The aim of university research is always to acquire new knowledge. Innovation consists in transforming some of this knowledge into new products and services, and even into public action, because innovation is not just about 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 country's economic development, so innovation is not an option for us. Most of our funding comes from the public purse. Where does this money come from? From the economic activity generated by everyone's work. If, when the knowledge we have acquired lends itself to it, we don't bring our innovations to market, or more broadly to society at large, it's a loss of opportunity for everyone, and we're failing in one of our missions.

Does economic development necessarily depend on academic research?
Most economic progress today is linked to scientific and technological innovation, and the world's leading companies are those that have succeeded in linking research, innovation and industrial production. 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 onto the market?
There is no single path, but certain elements are very often present: maturing technologies, incubating start-ups, establishing solid contractual relationships with private partners. Today, we benefit from our privileged relationship with SATT AxLR, which is a private-sector operator (created by the French government in 2012), but with a public shareholding.

Who are the shareholders?
The largest shareholders are the French State, CNRS and the University of Montpellier, but we have recently been joined by the Montpellier Region and Metropolitan Council, which are key partners in innovation. The SAatt's financial resources enable us to contribute directly to the maturation process when we detect a breakthrough in our laboratories that could give rise to Intellectual Property (patents, software, etc.), as well as to the incubation of start-up companies based on our technologies.

And what measures has the UM put in place to ensure this detection?
This is the role both of the departments in charge of partnerships with companies, which are in regular contact with laboratories (at UM: DIPA), and of specific systems, such as our "innovation booster": BIM (read BIM: a springboard for your ideas). If projects are still very "upstream", you'll need to persevere with pure research activity; if proof-of-concept is still lacking, you'll need to go for prematuration; if projects are well advanced, you'll need to turn to the SATT or BIC.

What is incubation for?
If experienced managers are not available from the outset, the team of founders must be trained: this is the role of incubation. In many cases, it's the researchers themselves who want to set up a company. They are often unfamiliar with the concepts of business plans, regulations, HR management, export strategies and so on.

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

Not all researchers want to set up a company. How do you encourage relationships between researchers and companies that might be interested in their innovation?
We need to establish these relationships over the long term, and that's what we've been doing for the past three years with the Companies on Campus program. We help laboratories that wish to welcome companies on their premises to carry out research partnerships. From this meeting, future marketable products or services can emerge.

Does innovation make money at the University?
Some may think we do it for profit, but innovation is not a profit center, it's a public service mission. Profit" is to be found in the society around us, thanks to the jobs created and the progress made. If we look at the University's accounts, we will of course see that money is coming in, but the University has not turned into a "trader" or a "financier"; we are a public service player.

Last November, we were selected to become one of France's five university innovation clusters, a PUI. Why did they choose us?
The French government chose Montpellier because, together with our partners, we have demonstrated that we have moved beyond the stage of competition between establishments to one of cooperation. All our partnership and development departments work together and have harmonized their practices. We have created a large family of innovation experts in Montpellier.

The cluster has been allocated €2.5 million. What will this funding achieve?
We're well aware of our scientific strengths, but we're less aware of our assets in terms of technologies. And if we want to contribute to solving problems in the socio-economic sphere and in society at large, we need to map these technological strengths and skills. To do this, we need to listen, and the PUI will enable us to do just that.

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

What about the short term?
We have remarkable technological resources and know-how in our labs, which could enable us to offer engineering services to companies for specific needs. This is neither the job of researchers nor of research engineers; on the other hand, we can imagine installing engineers as close as possible to certain platforms, capable of responding to these specific needs. Some of our partners are very active in this area, the CNRS in particular.

In June, the University will host the Curie congress. Is this an important event for innovation players?
The Curie congress is an opportunity for several hundred innovation experts to get together to exchange, share and develop their practices. It's a time for mutual training and cooperation, and a very warm moment for the community. What's more, we're lucky enough to be hosting this event in the year when we're celebrating the perpetuation of the I-SITE label... and the "E" in I-SITE stands for "economy". So the timing is perfect.

Finally, since 2019, the University of Montpellier has been awarding an Innovation Prize. What is the purpose of this initiative?
There are ways of recognizing performance in research and, more recently, in teaching, but the State has not yet introduced an award to recognize great innovators. It's a way for us to thank the teams who contribute most to this mission, and to show that it's possible to do excellent research and transfer it. More simply, this award is there to say that at the University of Montpellier, we love innovators.