by Georges Nissen
The last twenty years have seen a deep evolution of the context of Information Technologies (IT). The emergence of open systems, the enabling character of IT, in all industrial sectors (including services), the crucial role of the `time to market' notion,the evergrowing weight of end-users have dramatically increased the role of research spin-off companies. Founded by former researchers, these companies have the necessary reactivity to meet the challenges posed by the new context. This trend has originated in the US where launching of small start-up companies spinning off from universities was more common than in Europe for various reasons (cultural,financial,societal ...). Large companies may often not be the best vector to succeed in the transfer process: structural rigidity,competition with internal groups, lack of adequacy with the company strategy, lack of specialized marketing teams are all factors usually impeding the inclusion of innovative technology.
INRIA's first spin-off has been launched in 1984 in the field of numerical simulation and computing. Since then,23 such companies have been founded.Of these,only one failed.Some have merged,some have been bought by bigger companies,making the actual number of active spin-offs in 1995 equal to 20.The fields covered are in accordance with the broad spectrum of INRIA's activities.Software engineering, teledetection,robotics,operating systems,networking,information highways technology,are the main domains adressed. The global turnover is of the same order of magnitude as INRIA"s budget,namely 500 MFF (approx.100M$) and the number of jobs generated equivalent to the total number of Inria's tenured employees (800). Some of these companies are very active on the international scene with subsidiaries in many european countries,as well as in the US and the Pacific rim (Singapore and Japan).Such companies as O2 Technology in object-oriented databases,ILOG in constraint programming and user interface generators, CHORUS in microkernel technology for operating systems,SIMULOG in new meshing methods in numerical computing,ensure a European presence in the worldwide competition for defacto standards for new technologies.
Needless to say that the majority of the research contracts are dealt with large companies (approx.70%),but on the other hand 70% of the royalty fees collected comme from spin-offs and a few other SME's. INRIA as such tries to maintain a `network' spirit among it's spin-off companies by bringing them together twice a year in a workshop where mutual information is exchanged,common interest questions are raised,and potential new development actions,bringing together research teams,spin-off companies and end-user companies are examined. With the existence of this constellation of spin-off companies,INRIA has achieved a means to improve interaction of the IT research community with the end-user partners,the latter not beeing used to be in contact with research in IT,but rather with research in their own field of competence (chemistry,oil extraction,automotive,space etc...).
The presence of spin-offs from research is a very strong asset to ensure perennity and industrial support for the new technologies stemming from IT research,regarding the user community (which actually sets the rules of the game), thus giving a chance of success in the fierce international competition for the de facto standards.