By Trevor Wiliams
Atlanta is becoming a bona fide proving ground for French innovations accessing the U.S. market, bolstered by an array of longstanding city partnerships.
That was the message of the French-American Chamber of Commerce’s 15th annual Crystal Peach Awards celebrating investment links between the Southeast U.S. and France.
Awardees represented future-facing investments— like the $3 million cybersecurity center opened in metro Atlanta by French telecommunications firm Orange Business Services — as well as established projects like the Georgia Tech Lorraine campus in Metz, France, which launched in 1990.
Groupe PSA, the auto maker that owns the iconic Peugeot brand, took home an innovation award for its measured, tech-focused and data-driven approach to the U.S. market.
The company set up its headquarters for North America in Atlanta in 2018, drawn by the city’s growing tech sector and position at the geographic center of a Southeast U.S. auto cluster. The company plans to reintroduce the Peugeot brand in the U.S. by 2023, bolstered by data collected through a mobility service it now operates — Free2Move.
The luncheon event at the Four Seasons hotel in Midtown took place during the 10th annual France Atlanta event series, a collaboration between the Consulate General of France and Georgia Tech to explore links in education, science, culture and humanitarian engagement.
And it comes at against a backdrop of uncertainty over U.S. foreign policy, but that didn’t stop speakers from pointing to how indispensable the Franco-American relationship has become.
City of Atlanta international affairs Director Vanessa Ibarra pointed to the sister-city relationship with Toulouse and a sister airport agreement signed this week between Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport.
“Now innovation more than ever is really at the forefront, it is important that we continue to work with our partners to build,” Ms. Ibarra said, noting a startup exchange with Toulouse as an example of the desire to help local companies use France as a gateway to Europe. “France is definitely a country that is on our radar.”
Peachtree Corners also exemplifies the vibrancy of the relationship. The Gwinnett city of 45,000 people has two major French employers. Sidel has 200-plus people, while the city rents out the top floor of its own office to another French company employing more than 100 people.
City Manager Brian Johnson invited companies to get involved in Curiosity Lab, a 1.5-mile autonomous- and connected-vehicle test track on a public road within the 500-acre Atlanta Technology Park, an early incubator of hardware innovations and tech companies like Scientific Atlanta.
The development boasts 5G connectivity, connected cameras, a dedicated fiber optic cable and an operations center, providing a real-world testing ground for smart-city and Internet of Things innovations in need of a bridge from theory to reality. It’s the first place in Georgia where autonomous shuttles run regularly on public roads.
“We created what we like to call the ‘walk’ phase off crawl, walk, run,” Mr. Johnson said.
Commercializing new research is dear to the heart of Georgia Tech’s campus in Lorraine region of France, and especially the adjoining LaFayette Institute. The private entity run by Tech is focused on bringing new innovations in sensors and optoelectronics to market, including products based around the miracle material known as graphene.
In accepting the award, Vice Provost for International Yves Berthelot pointed to the benefits for Georgia students of having such an innovation hub in the “heart of Europe.”
“It’s not just education, but it’s education, research, innovation and creating the pipeline for the next-generation workforce. This is incredibly important,” he said.
Like Curiosity Lab, the campus is a way to bridge innovation with product development, a key issue in harnessing the practical power of unprecedented innovation.
“It’s that space in between for technology transfer that is so essential if you want to have real impact,” he said.
Incidentally, Georgia Tech landed this collaboration thanks to the ambition of Mayor Jean-Marie Rausch of Metz, France, who came to the U.S. seeking partners at the upper echelon of U.S. tech institutes.
The Tech campus, in turn, has helped spur deeper collaborations like France Atlanta, inspired through a conversation between Mr. Berthelot and former French Consul General Pascal Le Deunff, who upon leaving Atlanta was tasked with overseeing scientific exchanges for the French foreign ministry.
All this has created fertile ground for companies like Orange, which is known as a telecom provider in Europe but has expanded its business in highly regulated markets elsewhere, thinking of itself as a “tech company with network roots,” said Francois Bresson, who accepted its award.
Orange has become a full-fledged mobile bank in the Middle East and Africa, where most of the 40 million users of its Orange Cash mobile money service live. It’s also a manager of hundreds of thousands of kilometers of undersea cables that underpin the networked world.
In Atlanta, Orange’s headquarters for the hemisphere, it employs 250 people and counting. Many are part of its newly launched Security Operations Center, one of four around the world through which the company works to detect and prevent cybersecurity threats on the networks of its corporate customers.
It’s a natural progression for a company collecting and moving data to protect it, especially as customers seek more visibility into the location and security of vital data in industries like banking, manufacturing and health care, Mr. Bresson said.
“All this has to be done safely and securely, and this is where … cybersecurity kicks in,” he said.
That translates into opportunity for Atlanta, where Orange is “always hiring data scientists and security analysts.” Revenue in the company’s security segment is expected to double by 2020.
Learn more about the French-American Chamber of Commerce Southeast, which will enter its 35th year in operation next year, and see more upcoming events at www.facc-atlanta.com.
See the full France Atlanta schedule at www.france-atlanta.org.