Friday, February 23, 2007

The French word for entrepreneur

The Times reports that it's hard out there for an entrepreneur, especially so in France :-)

A related point worth emphasizing is that while the US NIH budget has doubled recently, support of physical science research has been flat to decreasing in real dollars. Yet, basic advances in physical science still underly many of the advances in biology and medicine. The product under development in the article is for cancer detection, but the inventor is a physicist.

NYTimes: AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France — Jacques Souquet had gone through several start-ups in Seattle, but he still was not entirely prepared for beginning a high-tech company in his native France.

Failure is still a no-no here, creating a challenge for any start-up. Not to mention the idea that difficulty here seems a contradiction in terms for, after all, the word “entrepreneur” is French.

And Mr. Souquet, 58, a compact man with a gentle manner, has a lot of rules to learn. When he once had to meet a deadline, he asked his colleagues to come in on a Sunday, which they did; but Mr. Souquet got a scolding from his lawyer, who lectured about the legal limits on the French workweek.

Now, Mr. Souquet’s company is up and running smoothly, and that is a testimony to recent changes in France and greater Europe: start-ups are no longer rare. Moreover, Europe’s new entrepreneurs are turning West to learn the start-up culture bred in Silicon Valley before coming back here to apply their learning.

After the Internet bust, the number of European start-ups in the computer and telecommunications sectors began growing again in 2003, according to the Center for European Economic Research, in Mannheim, Germany. And venture capital is pouring into start-ups, which last year attracted about $970 million, the highest level in a decade since the Internet boom ended in 2000.

...Mr. Souquet’s experience illustrates how far the Continent has to go if it hopes to match the United States. He was able to lure eight of his 27 employees back from the United States. And after two years, he is preparing to offer his product in 2008, a device that measures the elasticity of living tissue, to assist doctors in diagnosing and treating cancer.

Still, Aix is not Seattle. French attitudes are a bit rigid, compared with the American approach of if-at-first-you-don’t-succeed. And French law, which mandates a 35-hour week, still crimps entrepreneurial flair.

“In a start-up environment, you cannot work a 35-hour week,” Mr. Souquet said, referring to the time he asked his colleagues to work on a Sunday. “My lawyer was furious,” he said, fearing the company could be penalized.

Mr. Souquet also recounted that at Stanford University, where he got his Ph.D. in applied physics, one of his teachers, William Shockley, a pioneer in transistors who shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics, taught by discussing failed experiments.

“Then he would turn to another page, showing why the experiment failed,” Mr. Souquet said, recalling images of his professor’s Bell Labs notebooks. “He called them constructive failures.”

Mr. Souquet’s company began with a colleague’s fear that France was failing to retain its scientists. Georges Charpak, the winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in physics, came to him.

“He told me, ‘It’s dramatic,’ ” Mr. Souquet said, describing how his French colleague begged him to help stanch a drain of French talent to the United States by promoting start-ups here. “He said his best laboratory talent was going to the United States, that he was about to lose 15 people who were being offered grants by U.C., San Diego.”

So two years ago, Mr. Souquet began gathering patents, including several from a Russian émigré, Armen Sarvazyan, whose own start-up, Artann Laboratories, in West Trenton, N.J., held key patents for working with shear waves crucial to Mr. Souquet’s device. A shear wave is so named because it moves through the body of an object, unlike a surface wave.

At his previous start-up, SonoSite, which is based in Seattle, Mr. Souquet helped develop hand-held ultrasound devices that were essentially conventional technology, drastically miniaturized.

Mr. Souquet’s latest device is “a new concept,” Mr. Sarvazyan said. “It opens an era, not only for elasticity, but for imitating the sense of touch, the feeling of a doctor,” which is now often crucial in diagnosing cancer.

Mr. Souquet had broad experience in ultrasound, having worked in the United States for Varian Semiconductor, before moving to ATL Ultrasound in Seattle. Together with a small group of ATL researchers, he founded SonoSite. When Mr. Charpak approached him, Mr. Souquet was the head of research in the medical division of Philips, the Dutch electrical giant.

Weary of the constant travel and the bureaucracy of a global giant like Philips, Mr. Souquet heeded Mr. Charpak’s cry for help. His idea, as outlined on the company’s Web site, is to develop a device that would use ultrasound to measure the elasticity of human tissue.

Since cancerous tissue loses much of its elasticity, such a device would be useful in helping diagnose and treat cancer in the breast, he said, but also the prostate gland, the thyroid and the liver.

SuperSonic Imagine, with headquarters in a glass-and-steel corporate park outside this southern French resort city, was floated with Mr. Souquet’s own savings, plus money from French government sources. Last March, a group of venture capital funds led by Crédit Agricole Private Equity pumped 10 million euros ($13 million), into the company.

Amounts of capital like this are still only a fraction of the money flowing into start-ups in the United States, but in Europe, their impact is widening. The European Private Equity and Venture Capital Association, set up in 2001, has seen its membership grow to almost 950 members. ...

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