VivaTech – start-ups steal the show

Billed as ‘the 3-day rendez-vous for game changers’,  the second edition of tech and innovation fair VivaTech drew a huge and enthusiastic crowd on its opening day. And upwards of 60,000 visitors through the gates from start to finish.

By 10am the exhibition halls at Paris Porte de Versailles were packed and the atmosphere high octane.

Industrial giants were out in force, yet failed to dwarf the 5,000 start-ups in the house.

Jean-Marc Janaillac, managing director, Air France-KLM & Alain Thébault, co-founder, SeaBubbles

Jeff Keni Pulver gave a thought-provoking presentation on how chatbots are starting to revolutionise the way people and machines ‘talk’ to each other.

Not convinced ‘chatbot’ captures the dynamics of this evolving community, he has adopted ‘botnik’ as an alternative.

“Chatbots first appeared in computer gaming as pieces of code that acted based on your actions,” he said. “And today they mimic the interest of the early internet in the 90s by just sharing information, text, but not doing business. I believe they can do much more than just text.”

On the potential benefits of ‘conversational agents’ and the ‘conversational web’, he whetted the audience’s appetite by talking money. “The evolution of the conversational web is going to create billions and billions of dollars of wealth.”

On artificial intelligent (AI): “People fear the dark side, but given the right opportunities I think it can have a positive influence on your life.” But there will be issues along the way, he warned, such as ethical/perplexing questions when AI meets the autonomous/smart car.

What is Watson?

IBM was a huge presence at VivaTech. And the big buzz was around Watson, its platform for businesses to tap into state-of-the-art machine learning and AI.

VivaTech_Watson IBM
Watson is named after Thomas Watson Sr, the chief executive and driving force behind IBM’s global grab, not Sherlock Holmes’ right-hand man

French Railways (SNCF) is using IBM’s Cloud-based Watson IoT (Internet of Things) platform to reduce maintenance costs.

The core components of its system – trains, tracks, and stations – are currently being equipped with thousands of sensors to enable them to ‘talk to each other’. The insights (real-time information, data) gained from these ‘conversations’ will then enable the company to manage its assets more efficiently,  thus improving the quality, security, and availability of services.

  • The rail network in France comprises 30,000 kilometres of track and 3,000 stations.

In Japan, rail operator JR East is interested in Watson’s ability to improve customer service. Together with IBM Japan, it has built an AI system to support operators at its call centres by improving the response rate and quality of answers.


The mood on the Engie stand was upbeat. The French multinational is putting a spin on energy by remarketing it as a new 3D concept.

“Tomorrow’s energy world will be a very different, 3D world characterised by the watchwords decarbonised, decentralised – up to 50%, whereby energy is produced, stored, and used on the spot – and digitalised – connected at all levels, IoT, big data, and software,” said CEO Isabelle Kocher.

Left to right: Eric Orsenna, Bertrand Piccard & Isabelle Kocher

In the field of alternatives, the group is preparing a next generation of solar energy  that is molecular instead of silicon based. Admitting the technology costs are still high, since they are dropping, Ms Kocher said it should eventually prove cost effective.

Engie is already installing 2,000 solar panels every day in France.

“We are not talking 10 or 20 years for renewable energies, but the here and now.”

Thirty two of the 47 start-ups currently working with Engie exhibited their innovative ideas for tomorrow’s energy at VivaTech, as part of the Lab ENGIE. “We see ourselves as serving as a kind of link between universities, research centres, start-ups, clients, and other actors,” said Ms Kocher.

“I find the partnership between this big group [Engie] and start-ups fascinating,” added Erik Orsenna, writer, academic, and spokesman for Engie’s Conseil de Urban Strategy Council, who then went on to introduce Bertrand Piccard, the charismatic face/voice of Solar Impulse and fervent supporter of renewable energies.

Here comes the Sun

“I’ve been fascinated by this exceptional person for some time now, said Mr Orsenna. “He is a psychiatrist, like my brother; an adventurer, unlike my brother. He combines dreams and the possible. He is a great psychiatrist of the planet.”

Always certain to draw a crowd, Mr Piccard also has his critics. But few can argue he is doing a good job raising awareness of alternative energy technologies in the here and now.

He took the mike to announce with Ms Kocher that Engie and the Solar Impulse Foundation have joined forces to ‘promote concrete energy solutions that are both economically and ecologically viable.’

He also touched upon other energy  matters such as the carbon tax – “which will oblige industries to use what already exists” – and legal frameworks – “they can’t evolve if no energy technology alternatives exist”.

Another move by Engie, made in December 2015, is the TerraWatt Initiative (TWI). Together with the International Solar Alliance (ISA) and its member states, this global non-profit association seeks to establish proper regulatory conditions for a massive deployment of competitive solar generation.

“This is just one example of how, at all levels, there is plenty to motivate governments and international organisations,” said Mr Piccard.

Tech start-ups – all the rage?

“Someone is always going to have an idea. And some of these people are going to make these ideas happen, others less so. We can’t stop the human imagination, that’s fantastic, and the reason why VivaTech will never saturate,” said Maurice Lévy, president of the supervisory board at ad company Publicis, which co-organised the event with media Groupe Les Echos (Source: Le Parisien, 20 June, 2017).

For anyone who missed out on this year’s edition, VivaTech will be back in 2018.

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