France is blooming as a location for Irish companies to sell tech. John Kennedy talks to Sinead Lonergan and Elaine Howley from the Enterprise Ireland Paris office.
Very few people realise that the first use of the word ‘entrepreneur’ in history was in a book published by an Irishman living in France, a Kerryman called Richard Cantillon, whose surname adorns a much-read business column in The Irish Times newspaper. Cantillon used the term in his book Essai sur la Nature du Commerce au General (Essay on the Nature of Commerce), published in 1755, to describe an individual that took risks to achieve uncertain business outcomes. The term has stuck.
Zoom forward to the 21st century and the term entrepreneur has a new respectability – particularly in France, where it has been given renewed purpose thanks to the efforts of French entrepreneurs, organisations such as La French Tech, and start-up hubs up and down France, including Station F in Paris.
‘We have very ambitious targets for France and the last few years have been characterised by steady, incremental export growth’
– SINEAD LONERGAN
With Brexit looming and France boasting an economy just as large and diverse as the UK, it’s time for Irish tech to take a new route to France. That’s the view of Sinead Lonergan, Paris manager of Enterprise Ireland, and Elaine Howley, market adviser for ICT and international services at Enterprise Ireland, both of whom are focused on pressing the Irish global advantage in France.
Both Lonergan and Howley believe that France will be crucial in Ireland’s objective of increasing exports to the eurozone by 50pc by 2020.
“We have very ambitious targets for France and the last few years have been characterised by steady, incremental export growth,” Lonergan explained. For example, a 10pc increase in export growth was noted in 2017.
Lonergan pointed to increased vigour towards digitalisation and entrepreneurship in the French economy as part of the policy of the Macron regime.
“It has become a lot easier to pitch tech in France. When I came here in 2012, the number of Irish companies in the tech space exporting to France was quite low and they had been encouraged to target markets that were English-speaking first.
“But now, we feel very confident promoting the opportunity here because there are companies winning the business.”
Howley pointed to Irish companies that are have considerable business interests in France and are indeed winning business, including Castlebrook, Accuris Networks, Lottie Dolls, Corlytics, Kirby Engineering, Fenergo and Dornan Engineering, to name a few.
The fintech opportunity
According to Howley, fintech in particular is opening up as an opportunity for Irish tech in France. “In the last year or so, France has accelerated its adoption of fintech. The banks are investing in innovation managers to really be the middleman between fintechs and the banks.
“Some of the world’s top banks are French and they have enormous, traditional, bureaucratic structures that are being digitised.
“The Bourse de Paris, the Paris stock exchange, is being rejuvenated and there is more of an openness among French companies to work with overseas companies. Also, Brexit helps too because the focus on international financial services is coming back towards France.”
Lonergan agrees: “Fintech is an area where we don’t just have a local capability, we have a global capability in Ireland. French people who have worked in New York or Hong Kong have worked with Irish people and Irish-based organisations, and they understand the story behind the Irish financial services industry. We are a credible player in that space for innovation.
“That helps because selling into a French company can be quite tough. But once you make it through the door here, then you can travel with the French companies around the world.”
Irish fintech companies that have done very well in France to date include Monex, Fexco, Taxback and Nuapay.
Other doors are opening up too, including new funding and investment routes, and Lonergan pointed to Euronext’s acquisition of the Irish Stock Exchange in Dublin last year. Euronext was originally established through the merger of the Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam stock exchanges, followed by the Lisbon Bourse.
“There’s this whole renaissance of Irish companies and bringing them to the next level of scale, and Euronext is another partner of ours here for growth.”
Both Howley and Lonergan say that the start-up scene in France has grown exponentially in the last few years, with a surge in entrepreneurship as people spurn safe jobs in favour of risk and the chance to create a wealth vehicle.
“Government agencies here are really trying to focus on the scaling companies and providing as much support to help them globalise – and if you travel around France, you will be struck by how many hubs and incubators there are in cities around the country,” said Lonergan.
“Station F has really put Paris on the map and, as well as tech, there are other sectors where regional and state bodies put on really good events and meetings that make it easier to meet potential buyers.”
When it comes to targeting France, Howley said that Irish firms should start with their Enterprise Ireland development adviser, who will evaluate them to ensure they have the capacity, resources and market validation needed to go to France.
After that, it is a case of working with the Paris team to identify a market fit, targeting the right companies and attending the right pitch events.
As well as the obvious fintech opportunity, Ireland’s cachet in terms of food and agritech services is a great calling card. Telecoms services are also strong and a lot of Irish companies work with companies such as Orange through the GSMA network.
“It really is about playing to our global Irish advantage,” Lonergan concluded.
Updated, 12.58pm, 1 March 2019: This article was update to remove a mistaken reference to Fineos and to clarify that Enterprise Ireland noted a 10pc increase in export growth in the year 2017.