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This week, I'm trying something new: A roundup of the big stories last week in the French Tech ecosystem. The Thursday newsletter will focus on a profile of an interesting startup or entrepreneur.
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Not long after I arrived in France to settle into my new home in Toulouse back in August 2014, I made the obligatory trek to the nation's capital for reasons that are lost somewhere in the dustbin of my mind. Among my stops on that September day was a visit to the much-buzzed-about offices of The Family, a space since consigned to the dustbin of history.
My appointments at The Family that day included an eager entrepreneur named Romain Lacombe who had been an influential advocate in France for the adoption of open data by governments. Lacombe had caught the entrepreneurial bug and launched Plume Labs to use Open Data and AI to leverage pollution data from monitoring stations around the world to give consumers real-time information on local pollution levels.
Lacombe was passionate about wanting to raise the visibility of the connection between pollution and health:
“Pollution is a health issue as much as an environmental issue,” Lacombe told me in 2015. “Living in Paris shortens your life by six months. Which is just crazy when you think about it.”
Yeah, ha ha! Crazy. Especially because I recently moved from Toulouse to the smog-choked Paris region and thus just shaved a half-year off of my already dwindling life expectancy. (Note to self: Seal all doors and windows and buy an air purifier).
I've kept in touch with Lacombe over the years and wrote about Plume's progress from time to time as it introduced its own pollution sensor, raised $4.5 million in venture capital, and launched the API Plume.io to let third parties tap into its pollution forecasting system.
It's easy to overlook a company like Plume in an era where France is barfing out a new unicorn every week. But it's perhaps a more realistic representation of the entrepreneurs who continue to build and evolve outside the limelight. In the case of Plume, that unheralded journey has led to its own big moment: The company announced today it is being acquired by AccuWeather, a weather forecasting service, for an undisclosed sum.
I spoke to Lacombe over the weekend (yes, the French work on weekends just like the rest of humanity!) about the deal and he sounded genuinely thrilled. The two companies had been partners for several years, and now Plume's platform will be even more tightly integrated into AccuWeather to enable more detailed pollution forecasting to a global audience of 1.5 billion that the company reaches via its partnerships with Android handset makers.
"It’s fantastic," he said. "Building a company is always a journey. And when you set out at the beginning, you have a vision of where things can go. But you take one step, and then another, and then thinking back you realize it was not a straight line and there were so many ups and downs."
Lacombe is staying with AccuWeather as part of a new "center for climate and environmental data" which will use Plume's AI to adapt its forecasting to an era of severe climate change. Think of it as AI for predicting the apocalypse. "As climate change accelerates, it's hard to make forecasts as weather events become more extreme," Lacombe said.
By coincidence, the Plume deal follows a couple of other notable exits last week.
The lack of such exits is still one of the knocks against the French ecosystem, so we'll see if this is a shift or just a coincidence. But certainly, many of those unicorns are banking big bucks to go on shopping sprees for other startups. Such M&A will be critical for realizing those sky-high valuations. So if I were a betting man, aka a venture capitalist, I'd put good money on seeing more exits this year.
Speaking of unicorns...I noted last week that Exotec had become France's 25th official unicorn, according to the government.
The very next day, Spendesk joined the herd.
The French government leaned hard into the announcement doing everything short of donning unicorn costumes. But more concretely, Digital Minister Cedric O leveraged the moment by visiting Exotec's HQ to announce the next phase of the government's industrial and deep tech strategy that will include an additional €2.3 billion in spending to support the sector.
That's a lot of robots. But it remains central to French policy to create home-grown champions, particularly in the areas of production and manufacturing, to ensure control over its own economic destiny.
Brush With Celebrity Greatness
French startups got some celebrity love last week. Padmé Amidala, aka actress Nathalie Portman, was one of several business angels and VCs who invested in fakin'-bacon startup La Vie which raised €25 million ($28.3 million).
"We're the only ones in the world today to have succeeded in developing a vegetable fat that cooks, fries, infuses and browns" like animal fat, enthused the company's chief executive and cofounder, Nicolas Schweitzer, told AFP.
Meanwhile, fantasy football platform Sorare received the benediction of tennis megastar Serena Williams who joined its advisory board. Sorare, which has raised a bajillion dollars in venture capital, is riding the NFT wave. Having Williams on board should help the company attract more sports teams and players. The company is ramping up its U.S. operations as part of its ongoing world conquest plans.
In Other News...
It's presidential campaign season in France, which means endless polls and the typical campaigning nonsense across the political spectrum. Fortunately, a gaggle of students with too much time on their hands created Elyze, a Tinder-like app to help you figure out which candidate to support.
The name seems to be a reference to the Élysée, the presidential palace, though the founders claim it's a reference to a woman named Elise who wasn't sure she would vote because she didn't know which candidate she liked. Rather than doing things like, I dunno, reading a newspaper or watching the news or researching their platforms, Elise can now just swipe right. Insert your own metaphor about the decline of Western Civilization.
In any case, the app got in a bit of trouble because France's privacy watchdog didn't like its data policies. So the founders agreed not to collect data. And so all's well that ends well unless the French vote for a far-right stooge and then all bets are off.
Meanwhile, French Minister of Transportation Jean-Baptiste Djebbari has been getting jiggy with TikTok. The minister has become an unlikely superstar on TikTok where his lip-syncing mixed with announcements has earned him a following of 742,000. President "Big Mac Daddy" Macron has 2.8 million followers, though he is far less inclined to bust a move than Djebbari.
Finally, we have news that a French doctor is on the legal hot seat for trying to sell an NFT of an x-ray of one of the victims of the Bataclan shooting:
Emmanuel Masmejean, an orthopaedic surgeon who practises at the Georges Pompidou public hospital in south-west Paris, was first reported by the Mediapart website on Saturday to be selling an image of the X-ray as a digital artwork, without the patient’s consent.
The picture shows a forearm containing a Kalashnikov bullet and was on sale for about $2,776 (£2,051) on the OpenSea website, which specialises in so-called NFT digital images.
The head of Paris’s public hospitals, Martin Hirsch, wrote on Twitter on Saturday confirming that a criminal and professional complaint would be lodged against the surgeon for his “disgraceful” and “scandalous” decision.
Proof that despite what you may think, humanity has not yet hit bottom.
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