Philippe Combette: "Innovation cannot exist without trust".
Philippe Combette, Director of of the Montpellier Institute of Electronics and Systems (IES) was appointed Vice-President in charge of partnerships and innovation at the University of Montpellier, at the Board of Directors meeting held on September 26. He succeeds François Pierrot, who has been appointed to a national post at the CNRS. Interview with the new champion of innovation.
Philippe Combette, you've just been appointed Vice-President in charge of partnerships and innovation. How do you see this role?
Before I take the plunge, I'm going to have to observe the landscape before me. I need to understand the forces at work and those who want to be involved to ensure that innovation remains a success at the University of Montpellier. We are regularly ranked at the top of the list of innovation-oriented universities in high-potential sectors. However, on a national level, university laboratories that work with industrial partners rely on a maximum of 15% to 20% of their staff. In this respect, we still have room for improvement. Moreover, our ability to innovate has been recognized at the highest level of government, with the award of the " Pôle Universitaire d'Innovation " label.
How do you define innovation?
Indeed, we need to be precise: for some, innovation is associated with a market, and for others, it's associated with research and development. For me, the DGFIP's definition is clear.
Is the vice-presidency something you'd already thought about?
No, not at all, but I'm a person of integrity and above all very committed to the public good. I'm keen to promote and innovate, and I have a good knowledge of the players at regional and national level. I guess that makes me a good candidate.
In an interviewFrançois Pierrot, your predecessor, presented innovation as a public service mission for universities.Are you in line with this?
Yes, of course. The nation needs to be able to deploy a strategy of valorization and innovation, and without the universities, it would be complicated. We need to combine innovation, here and now. Personally, I find it very interesting for a researcher or a team to see an idea come to fruition and be developed. It's not the mercantile aspect that prevails, but a form of contribution to society.
How do you see the relationship between academia and innovation?
I know that some labs are reluctant to share their assets with the socio-economic world. They consider that, above all, their mission is to help increase knowledge. Admittedly, there is sometimes an a priori attitude from the academic world towards industry, but the reciprocal is just as valid.
As far as I'm concerned, we shouldn't pit these two worlds against each other; they're two sides of the same coin: knowledge. And personally, I find it hard to believe that the future of French research will be purely academic. We need to strike the right balance between basic and applied research.
Where do these preconceptions come from?
Because these two worlds don't have the same rules or the same objectives, and as long as we don't share these rules or objectives, we can't succeed. There have to be moments of friction between labs and companies, whatever the size of the company, whether it's a start-up, a very small business, an SME or a major corporation.
How can we overcome them?
My starting point is that innovation can't be decreed, it has to be given the means to emerge naturally, and for that I believe more in the little things that happen on a daily basis, rather than in grand messes. We see this when start-ups are welcomed into our laboratories. This proximity generates trust. The company must have confidence in the laboratory, in its ability to respond on time, and the laboratory must understand that the company is not there to steal its ideas. Innovation cannot exist without trust.
Do you work in the same way with a major corporation as you do with a start-up?
No. In the end, major corporations are often on time scales that are almost synchronous with our own, and are part of large-scale plans. The dynamic is different with SMEs or startups, which are fragile, sometimes in the making, and for whom time is an important factor. This is what François Pierrot has initiated with the possibility of hosting this type of company within the laboratories, as they represent the core of the French industrial network. This is where the university has a role to play as a mentor, and it's often this type of company that comes to us and needs us.
What image do these companies have of the University?
They have the impression of entering a big ivory tower, so it's up to us to make them understand that the academic world has changed.
The University of Montpellier has become an EPE, the PUI is on the horizon... What will be the major challenges of your term of office?
The world is in the making. Startups are in the making, units that don't do valo but could do so are in the making. And above all, young people are in the making. More and more students are becoming entrepreneurs. We must continue to develop this kind of initiative, and do so with the local authorities, the Metropole, the Region, the Département... There are a whole range of players who will be participating in this famous PUI.
Is this what you wanted to achieve by creating Ob.i Lab at the Montpellier IUT?
Yes, it's a place where laboratories, companies and students come together. We need to mix these worlds and rely on our young people to ensure that minds evolve. We need to offer students a new tomorrow, in other words, the means to project themselves into the world of business. That's what innovation is all about.
You mentioned the Region, and also the Satt, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary. How do you see the relationship with your innovation partners?
We need everyone, and everyone must have a clearly defined place. Who does what? At what level? On the basis of what links? In fact, we need to know and recognize each other.
Until now, you were Director of the Institute of Electronics and Systems. What do you take away from this experience?
Yes, in 2021 we set up a technologytransferunit separated into two entities: IES Engineering and IES&Companies. The first is more focused on research and development, with the aim of addressing purely industrial issues.
What about IES Companies?
This involves hosting start-ups on the laboratory's premises, under contracts and hosting agreements. At present, a dozen companies are housed there, paying rent to the laboratory while benefiting from a top-level scientific environment. As I was saying earlier, we know each other well and together we can respond to regional, national and international calls for projects.
And has it paid off?
In 18 months, sales have risen from a few tens of thousands of euros to almost 2 million euros. So yes, it works.
You come fromIES, François Pierrot from LirmmIs there a greater culture of innovation in the so-called technological sciences than in the others?
There's IES, Lirmm and there's chemistry too. In fact, our proximity to industry means that it's in our DNA, but just because we work with industry doesn't mean we don't need basic research. It's a bit like the metaphor of the bent bow: the strength lies in fundamental research, know-how, expertise... The arrow that hits the target is the innovation that comes from the sciences, including the social sciences, which we don't talk about enough, but which have their rightful place in this sector.
What does this appointment mean for you? Are you going to continue teaching?
I'm going to teach less, but I want to keep a minimum of contact with the students, because that's really where you meet real life. I love Asian culture, I've been practicing martial arts for 35 years, and there's this wisdom about seeing the present as a gift. Well, the students make me feel, sometimes positively or negatively, but they make me feel what the present is. I'd like to use that in my new role as VP, feeding off the present to better project us into the future.