On February 12th, Total and Sunpower were among the companies selected to present their innovations in front of French President Francois Hollande and five of his Ministers. This great honor awards the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of this global industry giant. After the demonstrations, President Francois Hollande has inaugurated the French Tech Hub, a start-up accelerator dedicated to French start-ups willing to set a foot in the US.

Denis Giorno Total Sunpower French Tech Hub

A few days before this great event, we had the opportunity to seat down with Denis Giorno, President and CEO of Total New energies USA. 

Can you present us Total activities in North America? What are the disruptive trends in the new-energy sector you are involved?

Total employs 6000 persons in the U.S. in all sectors of activities. The group has a presence offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, it extracts shale gas from the Barnett and Utica Shales, it is trading gas and electricity, it is refining oil in Texas, it produces petrochemicals with the largest polypropylene plant in the world in La Porte, Texas and in Carville, Louisiana operates the largest styrenics complex in the world.

Total sells specific products in the U.S. such as adhesives, elastomers and resins. Finally, Total is very active in the new energy sector with its participation in Sunpower and Amyris.

Total invested in Sunpower in 2011. Sunpower has an unmatched efficiency rate of 24% compared to the 15-17% reached out by the rest of the industry. What I find the most disruptive in Sunpower is that we have reached an inflexion point in mainstream market penetration thanks to an extraordinary and continuous decrease of costs over the years (more that 20% per year these past two years).

This allows SunPower to sell electricity produced by solar in the open competitive market. With the Salvador project in Chile, we will have a 70 MW plant that will sell energy at electricity market spot prices, competing with other sources of power.

Denis Giorno Total Sunpower 2

Do you think that open innovation is crucial for large corporations to remain at the cutting-edge of innovation? How does Total implement this approach?

Open Innovation is essential for Total. We have solid internal R&D teams and strong R&D investments: we have allocated $ 8.8 Billion to R&D between 2013and 2017. But we estimate that we cannot do without open innovation, especially for new areas of expertise.

There are 3 ways in which we engage with innovative startups:

1)   Direct investment in startups through Total Energy Ventures

2)   Participation in Venture Capital Funds (we have specialized funds: Demeter and Ecomobilité Ventures for the EU, Chrysalix for the U.S. and Canada)

3)   Funding for R&D and startups/SMEs in conjunction with other partners or academic institutions : for example in Emeryville (CA) we partner with the JBEI (Joint BioEnergy Institute) led by Jay Keasling and on the East Coast with the MIT.

We have also engaged in a new approach to launch joint R&D programs on a 50/50 basis with startups we have invested in. For instance, at Amyris we combine:

  • 18% participation in the company
  • a common R&D program to develop biofuels

What do you bring to startups with whom you engage?

Startups are delighted!!! We bring them financial resources and talented scientists. We measure our success as new startups are knocking at the door because they want us to become their strategic partner!

You have a presence in both the innovation ecosystems of France and Silicon Valley. What are their respective strengths?

We have a presence in France which gives us a good visibility there as well as in the U.S. where we are starting to be recognized as a key partner for innovation and investment.

France is moving rapidly in innovation. The pace at which French startups are emerging is amazing. They benefit from highly qualified entrepreneurs, able to work at the interface between many disciplines thanks to their education.

Here, what we find in the Bay area or Boston area is not only innovation, but a real market place for innovation. It is a virtuous circle:  people from all around the world come for the exchange of innovative ideas. This provides cross-fertilization and everyone is benefitting from it.

What is your last word?

I find the Open Innovation Club in San Francisco a real important basis for collaboration between French SMEs hosted by the French Tech Hub and large corporations established in the Bay Area. I am confident that it will accelerate the innovation adoption and integration process and will help promoting innovation in France as well as in the U.S.