“Message from Jeremy: To all Tech IT Easy readers, who could obviously not necessarily remember the initial announcement, I have invited my friend Steve to help me try to provide you, dear readership, with everyday better technology insights. Steve’s mission statement is that there’s no mission statement: what matters most here is to raise the right issues on underlying market trends, bringing to light new software, Internet services and consumer electronic devices. Steve, the floor is yours…”
…No, I am not going to start a long article comparing strengths and weaknesses of the Anglo Saxon capitalism and the Rhenan model. What I’ll do instead : present a truly innovative system : Catoms. Basically, Catoms – which are still conceptual devices for now – are tiny robots that can turn into any shape “- from a replica human to a banana to a mobile phone“.
You’ll find a description of this concept here : [youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=PEIimQIOFEA]
What’s interesting in this story is not the real potential of Catoms: actual prototypes still seem far from performing anything near the marvels displayed in the video above. However this tells us some interesting lessons about the real reasons of US technological edge and economic performance (I mean, compared to France: please Kari, do not feel concerned with this post!).
To be a little more specific: CATOMS is being currently developed by Carnegie Mellon’s University scientists, thanks to heavy funding by Intel and the DARPA, the latter being a US military resarch public agency mostly knowned for having pioneered the Internet, and the former being a semiconductor giant that certainly provided the processor actually running in your PC.
Although I have no clue about the future success -or not- of Catoms, I’ll take this story as a pretext to consider a few reasons why France is generally perceived as performing very poorly in terms of innovation and technology (despite the stunning progresses of broadband Internet connections). I like the example of Catoms because such an initiative is definitely unlikely to occur in France, which is quite symptomatic of the country’s social and econmic flaws when it comes to innovation :
1) Private R&D lacklustre. Although public spending on R&D quite matches other OECD countries’, there is a huge gap between R&D expenses of French private companies and their American or Japanese counterparts. This is mainly not because of a lack in high-tech giants (after all, Alcatel-Lucent, Safran, Thomson Multimedia, ST Microelectronics, Dassault Systèmes, Business Objects, Sanofi Aventis are wonderful flagships for the French industry), but rather because of the weakness of innovative small and mid-sized companies. Although some of these are quite promising (think of SOITEC or Nicox, for instance), innovative SMEs are far too rare in my country.
2) An ailing universitary system. Cooperation between University and private companies is very scarce. Well, although things used to be worse a few years ago, there still remain a lot to do. Having experienced an internship in a large French high school of physics and chemistry (the ESCPI, founded by two Nobel Prizes), I can tell that this is absolutely true:
- Universities are mostly focused on fundamental research, which is definitely not a key issue for private companies;
- Anyway, there is nothing like the beginning of a VC or a high-tech company near the premises of the university. (Things are changing though, especially on the campuses of engineers’ High Schools).
3) Besides, a recent report unveiled by newspaper Le Monde highlighted the weakness of “valorization” of research by French public body, the CNRS. This means that there are too few patents filed by the public research centres, and that they too often never initiate any cash-in for the labs.
4) Finally, when the government decides to pull in a significant sum of money in R&D projects, innovation is secondary to “politics” issues. For example, nuclear power technology was highly subsidized in France, which allowed the development of an impressive industry (Areva and EDF are world leaders in this respect). But biotechnology seemed less glamorous. As a result, despite a number of local initiatives and the abundance of highly qualified scientists, the French biotech industry still seems burgeoning compared with the British one, not mentioning Korea, Japan, or the US. Latest example to date: Quaero-Exalead, a rather correct search engine that Mr Chirac wanted to see competing frontally against Google. Is it foolishness, vanity, hubris, or a combination of both ? Apparently, the European partners (actually, Germany only) have already left the table. And the public money (MY money) is going to fund yet another search engine… is it really reasonable ?
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