How France is forging a future in advance materials innovation

Part 1 of our Innovation Hotspots series takes a look at France. With its rich history of scientific pioneers like Marie Curie and Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, France has long been an engine of materials innovation. Today the country is collaborating and investing strategically to develop the advanced materials that will drive the next generation.

David Maher Roberts

There is no denying that France has a rich history of materials innovation. From Gustave Eiffel’s puddling techniques to create the intricate iron structures for his tower in 1889, through to Marie Curie’s discoveries on radioactivity and nuclear materials (earning her the first Nobel Prize awarded to a woman in 1903), France has consistently turned materials ideas into reality.

In 1991, Nobel laureate Pierre-Gilles de Gennes was honoured for his breakthroughs in polymer physics and molecular ordering transitions in liquid crystals, while Édouard Michelin propelled innovations in rubber and composites. And more recently, Alain Aspect’s work on quantum entanglement of photons has opened exciting doors for quantum computing and cryptography.

Clearly this is a country that has been driven to commercialising advanced materials innovation, but where does it sit today, in the global race for leadership in advanced materials science and business development?

Ambitious strategy

France is implementing a multi-pronged strategy focused on three pillars:

  • Technological Sovereignty: France is boosting domestic production and R&D to become self-sufficient in critical materials like rare earth elements, semiconductors, and batteries. The government has allocated €10 billion under its €57 billion France 2030 plan to secure supply chains for key technologies.
  • Sustainability: Legislation like the Climate and Resilience Act, combined with corporate efforts at Michelin, Saint-Gobain and Arkema, aim to create a circular materials economy in France. There is a focus on recycling, upcycling, biodegradability, and dematerialisation across industries.
  • Digitalisation: France is utilising emerging tools like AI, automation, and the Internet of Things to enable smart materials, predictive maintenance, and efficient production. Digitalisation will also accelerate materials discovery.

Collaborative ecosystem

Key players powering the French materials ecosystem include academic powerhouses like CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) and CEA (French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, whose mission is to actively commit to the scientific, technological, and industrial sovereignty of France and Europe for a better controlled and safer present and future), R&D-intensive companies such as Air Liquide, and dynamic startups like Carbios, which has developed an enzymatic technology to recycle PET plastic infinitely.

Investors like Bpifrance (France’s state bank) and Elaia Partners (a leading VC focused on deep tech and materials) are providing critical early-stage funding, while regional clusters facilitate collaboration between research institutions, training centres, and industry.

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An image of the main MINATEC building in Grenoble, France.
Main Image credit: MINATEC, Grenoble – attribution Toshihiro Matsui, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Four key cities act as tech hubs propelling France’s materials innovation ecosystem:

  • Grenoble hosts the MINATEC micro-nanotechnology research centre and CEA’s materials labs, enabling rapid commercialisation of nanomaterials discoveries.
  • Paris provides a robust foundation through renowned institutions like the Institut Pasteur and École Polytechnique. The capital also nurtures dynamic start-ups alongside ready access to investors.
  • The aerospace hub of Toulouse has forged deep expertise in lightweight composites via collaborations between Airbus and research entities like the National Polytechnic Institute of Toulouse (like the long-standing collaboration between Airbus in Bristol, the University Bristol and the National Composite Centre) 
  • Lyon’s chemicals industry presence, including companies like Arkema and Solvay, stimulates progress in specialised polymers and biomaterials.

An abstract map showing Bristol, Toulouse and Grenoble connectedLike minds – How Bristol, Grenoble and Toulouse compare

The tech hubs of Grenoble and Toulouse both share similarities with Bristol (one of the UK’s top five tech hubs). Grenoble and Bristol both foster strong university-industry partnerships, prioritise sustainability, and are leaders in materials innovation. In the case of Toulouse and Bristol, both cities are centres of excellence for aerospace, robotics, and engineering, thanks to their universities and the strong ties to industry partners like Airbus. And in terms of lifestyle Grenoble, Toulouse and Bristol are youthful, energetic and, thanks to close proximity to nature, they offer a high quality of life.

Hubs are ideal incubators for start-ups

Even though the majority of investors are based in Paris, the regional hubs that include research organisations, universities and large innovation-led corporations offer ideal incubation-like conditions for many start-ups, including:

  • Nanomakers (Paris): Develops and commercialises nanofiber-based solutions for various industries, including filtration, healthcare, and energy.
  • Ynsect (Paris): Produces protein from insects sustainably.
  • McPhy (Grenoble): Designs and manufactures hydrogen production and storage solutions, using advanced materials to enable clean energy transition.
  • Nanomade (Toulouse): Turns any surface, made of any material, into an intelligent interactive zone. Using ultra-thin, flexible sensors that can be easily integrated into an object, it provides multi-touch and pressure force feedback. 
  • Carbios (Clermont-Ferrand): Pioneer in the design and development of enzymatic processes to rethink end-of-life for plastics and textiles.
  • Lactips (Lyon): Specialises in the production of a water-soluble plastic that leaves behind no traces in the environment.

Cementing its leadership for the future

Looking ahead, France is poised to remain at the forefront of materials science through an emphasis on AI-driven materials discovery, integration with emerging digital fabrication technologies such as robotics and 3D printing, and collaboration with leading research centres worldwide.

David Maher Roberts
David Maher Roberts / Project Lead, Foresight

Founder and Managing Partner at Digital DNA a consultancy practice that helps businesses innovate, adapt and thrive. Advises startups, Bristol innovations and the venture studio Gravitywell. Founder of TechSPARK and The SPARKies.