What is a technology leader? What does it mean to do work in tech? And, more fundamentally, what is technology?
"Who are you working for?”
“A tech company.”
“It developed a mobile app.”
We have all had this conversation, or something close to it, at some point in our careers, and it raises a question about the use of the word technology and its abbreviation, tech. Is it overused, misused? Or do we all differ in our perception of its meaning?
Recently, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a €5 billion investment to develop French tech startups over the next three years. Funds will come from the main institutional investors in France: asset managers, banks, and insurers, including Axa, Natixis, Aviva, and Allianz. The aims are to “bolster the rise and development of global tech champions” and to create 25 unicorns — privately owned startups valued at more than US$1 billion, or businesses having raised more than €100 million in a single round — by 2025.
Ambitions are high, but the reasons are legitimate. Although funds raised by French startups doubled between 2015 (€1.8 billion) and 2018 (€3.6 billion), France remains the second-largest ecosystem in Europe, after the United Kingdom. And with seven unicorns, France lags its closest European rivals. Over the past two decades, Great Britain has created 72 unicorns, including 13 in the past year alone. Germany has 29. The United States and China are atop the podium with 703 and 206 unicorns, respectively, according to the latest data released by the U.K.’s Digital Economy Council.
Along with Macron’s announcement of the €5 billion investment commitment, La French Tech unveiled Next40, a selection of France’s most promising technology startups.
My appetite for innovative technologies was immediately reenergized. Next40 resounded like EE Times’ annual Silicon 60. For sure, I would find inspiration, identify promising startups to interview, and have material for my next articles. I eagerly clicked on the link. But, to borrow a simile from Forrest Gump, these lists are like a box of chocolates; “you never know what you’re gonna get.”
I picked one, unwrapped the golden foil, and found out it was a food delivery platform. I selected another and realized it was a gardening and DIY marketplace. A third entry turned out to be a customized travel marketplace. The 40 “tech” startups skewed heavily toward e-commerce, food, marketing, and human- resources online services.
If we follow the same reasoning, Pizza Hut became a tech company as soon as customers could use Alexander Graham Bell’s invention to order a pepperoni pie by landline phone. And Thomas Cook received the same status when its travel clients could use Martin Cooper’s handheld cellular mobiles to confirm a trip to Papeete.
Scrolling down the list, I finally identified the so-called deep-tech section, which listed four names: Sigfox, an IoT network solution provider; Blade, a cloud-based gaming service provider; Bioserenity, specializing in wearable health-monitoring devices; and Ÿnsect, an insect-farming startup. Deep tech? In my understanding, deep tech stands for deep technological innovations and applies to cutting-edge technologies emerging from research laboratories.
The 40 startups were selected on the basis of economic performance criteria. To qualify, a company had to have generated more than €5 million in revenue in 2018 with an average annual growth rate of at least 30 percent in the last three years. Unicorns were automatically added to the list. Note that it’s all about valuation, fundraising — not about profitability. But that’s another debate.
“France is offering a growth-friendly environment for innovative companies,” stated Cédric O, French minister for the digital sector. “Our challenge is now to increase the momentum, to help bring through several dozen global technology leaders.”
But what is a technology leader? Is a digital-native company inevitably a tech company? What does it mean to do work in tech? And, more fundamentally, what is technology? These questions underscore the importance of meaning in a society saturated with buzzwords and fuzzwords.
Lexicology is the study of words, their origins, and their usage. Semantics is a branch of lexicology which studies the meaning of words in relation to other words. Technology comes from two Greek words: techne, meaning art, skill, or craft, and logos, meaning the study of. It is a broad concept that can be defined as the application of scientific knowledge to solve a problem or perform a specific function. Technology finds its roots in Ancient Greece, which can be credited with many inventions and discoveries in the areas of astronomy, geography, and mathematics. Among them, we can mention the water mill, the odometer, and the alarm clock — as well as Hippocrates’ experiments to show that disease is a natural process, and the geometrical axioms and rules put forth by Pythagoras, Euclid, and Archimedes. Our kids are still taught these principles in school.
So, if an online marketplace is a tech company and an insect farm a deep-tech company, how would we categorize a company like Prophesee, which designs advanced neuromorphic vision? Perhaps it’s a super-deep–tech or even an abyssal-tech company? My point is that we should respect the semantics, move back the cursor and call a spade a spade.
As part of the French Tech 120 program, 80 more high-potential companies will be unveiled in January. Tech, deep tech, or, most likely, low tech?