A Dutch firm, the article said, had installed floor panels that, when tread on, powered rhythmic lights in the ceiling. Marciel, a hard-charging 39-year-old Toulouse city councilman, wondered whether the concept could be extended to sidewalks and street lamps for this graceful city of 500,000 in southwestern France, saving taxpayers up to $7.2 million a year in lighting costs.
His friend Laurent Villerouge, an aspiring Toulouse start-up mogul, answered yes.
Working with the scientists who abound in a region where Airbus makes planes, French companies make satellites and downstream high-tech workers buzz with dreams, Villerouge came up with a panel that, when pedestrians walked on it, generated enough electricity to power the street lamps above. Excited by the prospect of getting rich by conserving energy, Villerouge founded Viha Concept last year and set out to produce the device for sale to cities around the world.
That’s when the excitement sank.
Bank after bank, ministry after ministry, investor after investor, France was unwilling to take a chance on Villerouge’s venture. For nearly two years he tried to find financing. Finally, frustrated and feeling betrayed by his homeland, he asked for help from an acquaintance in the United States. The response was swift: Later this month, Villerouge, 44, plans to sign a contract and move to New York to set up production with a partner on Long Island.
“The French bankers all said nyet,” Villerouge recalled. “They said great, it’s a brilliant idea, but we don’t do that. Come back and see me when you have your company up and running. In America, it’s yes or no. In France, it’s well . . . I don’t know. . . . It can’t be done. France is just too complicated. People do everything to be secure.”
The Villerouge experience is not unique. Jean-Louis Lopez, for instance, has been trying for months to get financing to produce devices that signal to drivers where they can find open parking spaces in crowded city streets. Lopez said he has bites from Tel Aviv, Rio de Janeiro and Washington but cannot find a banker willing to take a risk.
“In France, people start off by saying it’s not possible. If there is a notion of Old Europe, this is where you see it,” said Lopez, a 55-year-old graduate of the prestigious Polytechnique school in Paris. “France does not produce Bill Gates.”
Meanwhile, he has sold local McDonald’s franchises a version of his device that allows managers to track vehicles at drive-through windows, showing where responsibility lies if it takes too long for customers to place their orders, pay their bills or pick up their burgers. Lopez said he would like to make a pitch to McDonald’s U.S. headquarters to sell his system worldwide but cannot find an investor to underwrite a production offer.