Chile and its tech ecosystem has been gaining quite some exposure, and if the most famous reason is its Startup Chile program (a visa + $40 000 starting-up package), a lot of other ways to foster a culture of entrepreneurship happen. In a more traditional fashion, but with results, the country has signed a series of deals with prominent research and technology partners all over the world. Here is the story of how INRIA, a top French public research institution, got to create INRIA Chile.
From INRIA to INRIA Chile and the first collaborations in space and big data
Inria (Institut national de recherche en informatique et automatisme) is the French center of Research and Development in Computer Sciences. Created in 1967, the public technology institute employs about 3.500 researchers, betting on the idea that technological development is tied to scientific research. Through the last decades, Inria has impulsed various impressive technology projects: robotics, creation of new programming languages, digital technologies applied to other scientific fields such as medicines, development of new open source software, etc.
It is behind 250 active patents and 110 start-ups and lately, it has designed the robot that hugged François Hollande.
Poppy, a humanoid robot who had the luck to meet French president François Hollande
In 2011, Inria answered Chile’s economic development agency (CORFO) call for international R&D centers and created a private foundation in Santiago: Inria Chile, dedicated to transferring technology and promoting innovation, notably through partnership with Chileans universities, connection to big companies, networking with start-ups and other organization involved in the promotion of innovation. The foundation is known for its participation to ALMA (the largest astronomical project in the world), the creation of the first e-voting startup in Chile, and a gigantic interactive multi-screen called ANDES screen.
Data Visualization on the ANDES screen
Technology transfer and ecosystem building between INRIA Chile and the Chile universities and companies
We met Claude Puech, Executive Director of Inria Chile to tell us more about his encounter with innovation in Chile.
Claude Puech, Executive Director of Inria Chile
How has Inria come to chose Chile to open a center abroad?
Scientific collaboration between France and Chile, especially in mathematics and computer science started a long time ago. A lot of Chileans mathematicians went to France in order to do a PhD, especially after Pinochet’s 1973 coup. They tied strong links with their french fellows. Among these chilean mathematicians was José Miguel Piquer, known for being the first person to send a mail through the internet from Chile to a foreign country, in that case to Inria in France, in 1984 (later on José Piquer joined the Inria Chile adventure).
Therefore, Inria already had strong scientific connections with Chile. When the Chilean government sent a call for international research institutes used to transfer technologies to the economy, many Chileans called Inria saying it had the perfect profile. Inria applied to the call, and was chosen.
Are there some other centers like this one in the world?
There are many collaborations with universities around the world, like in the USA (Stanford, Berkeley, Boston and Harvard), Africa and China (Beijing, Shanghai).
In what is Inria Chile different from these centers?
Not only Inria Chile collaborates with universities, it also creates links with the industry by transferring technologies and developing softwares to companies. It is the only branch of Inria with such a mission.
How do you perceive the innovation environment in Chile, and the way it is promoted by the government?
The Chilean government has understood that there is a need of changing the growth model, which until now has mainly been based on natural resources: copper, agriculture, wood production, fishery…. Nowadays’ Chilean politics know they need to change that if they want to keep on enjoying a substantial GDP growth rate (GDP annual growth rate in Chile averaged 5.38% from 1987 to 2014). Firstly, they have to lessens Chile’s dependance to variations of price on natural resource international markets. Secondly, Chile wants to be a reference in Latin America, and export knowledge, not only natural ressources.
A strong signal of this political will is the increasing number of public subsidy programs. There is a real political support to innovation, regardless of what government is running the country. Although the means to foment innovation have been different between the socialist Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010, re-elected in 2014) and the liberal Sebastian Piñera (2010-2014), the priority remains the same.
However, in the business world, it is still possible to grow a business by increasing the volume of production instead of looking for new potential incomes. Although business men understand Chile’s need to find new sources of economic growth, innovation is not their priority. There is a gap between what we see in big corporations and the political world.
But if you take a look at the way the Chilean society as a whole, you will see both a real support to innovation and entrepreneurship and a true budding among young people. It is very common to see a single person intending to start and run various business at the same time!
I understand Chilean universities have a key role in the process of promoting innovation.
The Chilean university model is similar to the American one: there are a lot of university programs to support the creation of start-ups, and both professors and students develop strong connections with the business world through consulting, startup creation, internships.
But there is a contradiction within Chilean universities. On the one hand, professors and students are strongly involved in start-ups creation and innovative initiatives, as individuals. But on the other hand, the university as an institution is still disconnected to the economic world. It values too much publications in prestigious academic reviews, which are generously rewarded, regardless on the impact on the economic world. The result is they do have good researchers, but there is an important gap between the understanding of the technological transfer and the actual transfer to the economy.
And how is Inria Chile having an impact on the Chilean innovation ecosystem?
I have to say it is hard to make links with Chilean companies, even though we have the government support. Building trust is a complex, long and difficult process, especially if you lack local references. We have made a lot of progress, but it took a long time.
On the other hand, I see a strong dedication of the young engineers we have here. They are really eager to lead their project until the end, until the transfer is well done. They are absolutely ready to start a business once we’ve got a contract with a private company.
Today, I see Inria Chile as a platform hosting various different projects that could lead to the creation of a start-up, rather than a software developer.
One difficulty we have is that Chilean companies will listen to us although they don’t really need innovation to increase their revenue. They’ve heard the politics talking about innovation, and they want a turnkey solution. They are not ready to pay without knowing what they will exactly have. There is a lack of precedents and references they could rely on. The business culture is not adapted to the integration of innovative processes yet.
That will change. Our current strategy is to propose a POC or a prototype that could help our contacts to convince decision-makers within the companies by showing them something concrete.
What are your ambitions for the future? I heard you are willing to create a tech hub, based on the French Tech (Silicon Valley) model…
As a platform of multiple projects, we will be a the center of many things. We aim at attracting companies, and help them by creating all the conditions to enter the chilean market.
And they could go further: Chile is a really good base camp to start an activity within the Pacific Alliance markets (a trade bloc gathering Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico), which is almost a free market zone. Instead of speaking about 17 millions people (the population of Chile), companies can count on a market of more than 200 millions potential customers! Considering both the difficulty of many companies of the “old world” to grow on the one hand, and the important need here in Latin America, this is a true opportunity
We are talking with various local actors to make that project possible: co-working spaces, investors, incubators and accelerators, mentors networks, and also a law office dedicated to intellectual property in Chile. All these people and organizations will help incoming companies to start activities in Chile.