​Why France's biggest startup accelerator is going global with Cisco

With its aim of fostering rapid growth in startups, Paris-based accelerator NUMA is now applying its expertise in a number of new locations around the world.

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French accelerator NUMA is expanding beyond capital city Paris into Central America, West Africa, South-East Asia, Central Europe, and the Middle East.

Image: iStock

Major French startup accelerator, NUMA, is going international. It believes it has to take advantage of the current momentum in the French startup ecosystem, which it says is at its highest level in the institution's four-year history.

Back in 2008, France's first co-working space, Le Cantine, was launched to nurture collaboration among the self-employed. That helped pave the way for France's first startup accelerator, Le Camping, to emerge in 2011, which was later rebranded as NUMA.

Then in 2015, NUMA changed from being classified in France as an association, a non-profit organisation, to an 'SAS', a private company, and through a crowdfunding campaign and corporate fundraising secured more than €4m ($4.53m) to develop its international strategy.

The new goal is ambitious. First, the NUMA team are taking their expertise and acceleration program into cities with emerging startup ecosystems in all corners of the world, in Central America, West Africa, South-East Asia, Central Europe, and the Middle East.

Secondly, NUMA intends to be the first point of contact for international startups looking to work in Europe. The third of NUMA's goals is to help French startups access these international markets, which have previously been difficult to reach.

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NUMA's Romain Amblard: "Emerging ecosystems need structure: innovators, mentors, corporate partners, investors, and startups."

Image: NUMA

"Our international strategy is based on the momentum that happened four years ago in France, and to go into emerging markets that are equal to the French ecosystem back then," NUMA acceleration director Romain Amblard explains.

"These emerging ecosystems need structure: innovators, mentors, corporate partners, investors, and startups. Acceleration is a very precious and dynamic step towards structuring the ecosystem."

Choosing which cities to target has been the result of macro-economic scoring. After analysing the favourable market conditions for startup growth in Paris four years ago, NUMA has rated cities according to a range of comparable factors.

These factors include macroeconomics, such as infrastructure, political stability, the business environment, education, and entrepreneurship. It also uses the number of startups, innovation levels, and investment climate to rate the cities.

NUMA is moving fast and has already opened offices in Bangalore, Casablanca, and Moscow.

"We started with a call for action in each city and we started a six-month acceleration program in Moscow in November," Amblard says.

NUMA's acceleration program in Paris is just about to enter its eighth season and has so far helped 104 startups. It lasts four months and offers free office space for the duration, advice, and support from NUMA's corporate partners, such as Google for Entrepreneurs, BNP Paribas, and Cisco. There's also a five percent equity and a €25,000 low-rate loan over 18 months.

The rate of equity was three percent last time, but Amblard says this figure "depends on the maturity of the program". Because 65 percent of NUMA's startups are raising an average of €500,000 within eight months of the program finishing, they decided the amount should be increased for the new program.

For NUMA's international venture, the company adapts the acceleration program and its approach according to the targeted city. Its strategy is flexible depending on the conditions and the resources in each city.

"We're recruiting local startups and partnering with local people who know the local ecosystem, so it's not an expatriation of the French model," Amblard explains. "We want the local ecosystem to grow, and, as a generalist accelerator, one very important thing is to stay open to diversity."

Senior director at Cisco's chief technology and architecture office, Guillaume de St Marc, thinks it is NUMA's flexibility and open approach to diversity that have helped to strengthen the relationship between NUMA and Cisco, now partners on the Paris-based acceleration program.

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Cisco's Guillaume de St Marc: "Diversity is a very important word for innovation, any kind of innovation always comes from diversity."

Image: Cisco

"Diversity is a very important word for innovation, any kind of innovation always comes from diversity," de St Marc says.

Having decided to be more active in France and in the French startup ecosystem, Cisco originally planned to set up its own accelerator.

"We realised it wasn't a good idea because the time you need to acquire the maturity of a team capable of organising and advising at that level is not something you can improvise," says de St Marc. They met with some potential partners and quickly realised that NUMA was the right match.

"NUMA has been very successful and they were interested to work with Cisco and transform their agenda," he says.

"They took us very seriously and didn't have a playbook for working with a big corporate sponsor, which is one of the reasons we were interested. We're constantly adapting our processes and NUMA wanted to consider more ambitious and industrial opportunities, so we felt they were a great team to work with."

As a global technology company, Cisco hit media headlines in February 2015 for making a "country digitization" agreement with the French government, committing to help accelerate the digital transformation of France through investments in education, startups, national infrastructure, smart cities, and cyber security.

An investment of $100m followed, along with Cisco's partnership on NUMA Sprint and Data City, an open innovation project for future cities co-ordinated by NUMA, as well as the opening of a new Innovation and Research Center at Cisco's Paris HQs in Paris. A further $100m followed in October.

"One of the reasons France was so high on Cisco's investment agenda is because we realised that we all know about Silicon Valley, the vibrant Tel Aviv Israeli scene and London, but recognised that something was happening in Paris," de St Marc explains.

He thinks it is due to France having strong "creativity, design and engineering skills", and a capital city full of different profiles and diversity.

"At a hackathon we organized at NUMA, we had 120 developers and entrepreneurs and we'd ensured there were materials in French," de St Marc says. "But one-third were from other countries and didn't even speak French. I was really surprised."

This diversity is evident in the submissions NUMA receives for its acceleration and what led NUMA to develop its international ambitions, way before its partnership with Cisco.

NUMA's Amblard says his organization started to see France not only as a market, but as a kind of hub for all these emerging countries and startups to reach Europe in general.

With the NUMA acceleration program in Paris, Cisco is helping in a variety of ways, such as helping to select the startups, making introductions to sales channels, mentoring, and providing equipment. The company's involvement has already led to a natural collaboration at NUMA's new office in Bangalore as Cisco has one of the biggest offices in the world there.

Whether Cisco and NUMA become global partners remains to be seen. De St Marc says it is a "bit too soon to say", but admits that it is "exactly where we could go".

"Anything that produces good results, we will amplify," he says.

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